“If I had to choose my last meal, what would I want? Kindness. Who cares what you eat? As for whom I’d have with me, well I hope a lover. Friends and family, they’re boring, I know them so well; but a new lover – that would be great. The food at Insalata’s reminds me of the places I have lived: the clams of Chile and the fattoush salad of mint, coriander and cheese of Lebanon, where I lived as a child.
I like to go to restaurants because I hate washing dishes. There are lots of high-end places around here that I could have chosen for my last meal – especially in San Francisco – but this is where I feel at home. Insalata’s is a 15-minute drive from my house and I often eat here. I know everyone and I even have my own special wine glasses. Sometimes I arrive exhausted after a long day and I’m just taken care of.
I worked as a journalist until the coup in Chile on 11 September, 1973. President Salvador Allende – my father’s first cousin – died on that day and a regime of repression and terror began immediately. Thousands of Chileans were killed or disappeared; others fled the country. I was the last member of the Allende family to leave the country because I didn’t think the dictatorship would last. But eventually I also fled, with my then-husband and two children. I went into exile in Venezuela.
In 1981 I got a phone call saying that my grandfather was dying in Chile but I couldn’t return due to the dictatorship, so I started writing a sort of spiritual letter. He died and never got to read it but I kept writing and I knew from the first couple of pages that it wasn’t a normal letter.
Although it was based on his life, my family and my country, it was fictionalised. By the end of the year I had 500 pages, all of them filthy because I was working in the kitchen. I didn’t know if it was a memoir or a novel but an agent in Spain was interested: The House of the Spirits was published there in 1982. A month later at the Frankfurt book fair every European country bought it. My life changed completely.
I love experimenting with food. I can’t follow a recipe, just as I can’t follow a preordained script when I am writing; I have to improvise. It was in that same Venezuelan kitchen that I used to cook for my then-teenage children. I cooked mostly Chilean dishes like charquicán, a peasant stew of potatoes, pumpkin, meat and vegetables.
I like the ceremony of food. My 95-year-old mother is a fantastic cook and wrote recipe books. After my daughter died I had writer’s block for three years and to pull myself out of the mourning and the heaviness I wrote Aphrodite, which is about food and love. I’ve just finished a new novel called The Japanese Lover; it’s the story of an old woman in a retirement home who remembers her past.
I never thought I’d be successful; it happens to a few lucky ones. I love telling stories so when one book is finished I need to write another because I want to delve into a new story. It doesn’t tire me – it’s not work. It’s a lifestyle.”