Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge



(*if you've ever eaten out with me you may already know the answer)

A few years ago, my friend Neil and I spent three months backpacking across South America. We hiked to the famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, played football on the beach at Copacabana and even danced the tango in Buenos Aires. (Okay, that last bit is a lie. In Buenos Aires we took a guided tour of Boca Juniors’ football stadium, during which the only two words I understood were “Diego” and “Maradona”.)

The point is that, on our travels, we ate out quite a bit. In fact, if you consider that we had breakfast, lunch and dinner at a cafe or restaurant each day, we probably clocked up about 270 meals in three months. Allow an average of 15 minutes waiting for each meal to arrive, factor in the paucity of English language newspapers in the region, and that adds up to a 67½ hour period during which I had nothing else to do but ruminate upon the rituals of eating out.

What really began to irritate me during this time (and this phenomenon isn’t by any means unique to South America) were those annoying plastic sachets that condiments are served in. My dislike of these plastic sauce pouches started out as a mild sort of pet peeve, the type of thing one might casually toss into Paul Merton’s Room 101. But after three months, my feelings toward them became steadily darker and more pathological.

Sachets are infuriatingly messy, first of all. When the ketchup or mayonnaise comes squirting out, some portion thereof is practically guaranteed to end up somewhere that it shouldn’t: on your shirt sleeve, in your coffee cup or all over that copy of Los Tiempos you’ve been struggling to decipher. (‘Morales to EEUU: My Hovercraft is Full of Eels’!?)

More odious again are the tinfoil butter sachets you get at breakfast. It’s very being would appear to rule out the existence of a benevolent God.

I mean, what are you supposed to do with this disgusting item once you’ve finished using it? Leave it on your dinner plate? Deposit it on the enamel table top, for your elbows to become smeared in its greasy entrails?

Then there’s is the underlying message. What the proprietor who serves these to you is essentially saying is, I don’t trust you not to steal from me. I don’t trust you not to swipe my butter tub (or ketchup jar, mustard jar or carton of crappy UHT milk).

It’s true that there are no guarantees in this life. But by the end of the trip I was ready to fall on my knees and beg the restaurant and cafe proprietors of South America: Please, in the name of God… take a chance on me.

At the end of our holiday, Neil and I visited the Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border. The Lonely Planet suggested splashing out on a meal at the local Sheraton Hotel. It would cost us a hefty US$70, the book said. But with the Argentinean economy in such dire straits, this was the cheapest place in the world to eat food of that calibre.

I was initially reluctant. Seventy dollars on a single dinner? In backpacking terms, this was the equivalent of hiring a private jet and flying to Vegas.

But it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So we dug out the best shirts and trousers from the bottom of our rucksacks and headed along. As we sat enjoying the spectacular view of the falls, Neil drew my attention to the white porcelain jar at the centre of the table. I did a shocked double take. It fucking couldn’t be…

It was.

My facial expression at that precise moment, he later told me, reminded him of nothing so much as the climactic scene in the Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston stumbles upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty sunken in the sands.

August 18th, 2009.


  1. Brian Says:

    Did I not read this story somewhere before?

  2. Eoin Says:

    You’re right Brian – well spotted. A slightly different version of it appeared in the Irish Times last year.


  3. nonamerequired Says:

    Thought it was mushrooms?

  4. El Kid Says:

    @ nonamerequired – Yeah His hatred of mushrooms a lot more psycho than sachets

    Hatred of sachets logical or makes some sense at least. His hatred of mushroom is…I dunno…..

  5. Brian Says:

    @ El Kid

    I do. Gotta get yer shrooms frying in mix of hot oil and butter so they they get caramelised brown on the outside. Some garlic then and finish with finely chopped parsley. Serve over toast. Oh yeah baby.

  6. Eoin Says:

    @ Brian – urgh, don’t make me sick.

    I generally don’t talk about mushrooms because they make my stomach churn. But my feelings on the subject are entirely rational:

    (a) They’re fungus.
    (b) When I was a child, I dreamt that there was fungus growing out of my head, like a potato when you leave it in the press too long, and
    (c) A girl I once went out with two-timed me with a guy who worked in a mushroom house.

    Ergo, mushrooms are the devil’s toadstools – I think that’s a fairly sound deduction.

  7. MisterAdam Says:

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mushrooms are fungus, cheese is made with bacteria and prawns are the tiny aborted fetuses of Cthulhu. Most things that are really tasty are also a little bit disgusting. That’s what makes them good. They are the gastronomic equivalent of a rollercoaster – terrifying and exhilarating and you may end up covered in vomit.
    You’re right about the satchets though. How hard could it be to design a single-serving disposable sauce packet whose existence didn’t demean humanity?

  8. Eoin Says:

    @ MisterAdam – I’ve no beef with bacteria. Fungus though is a mutuation, closer to animal than plant, but actually neither… I can’t even talk about it without shuddering. Give me fingernails on a blackboard any day.

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