"Women are the guardians of continuity. If the hearth moves, they move with it. Remember, it is the gypsy women who keep their men on the road."

~"Boomerang Love," Jimmy Buffett

Rebuilding the Food Pyramid: A Primer to Argentine Food Groups

Part II: Food Groups in Perceived Order of Importance

  1. Meat: Everything you have heard about the meat here is true. The grilled steaks that I have eaten here are some of the finest specimens of cow that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. That said, keep in mind that the filet is just one part of the cow. Given the price and quality of the cut, it is usually reserved for special occasions. On a day-to-day basis, the meat you would find in a typical sandwich, sausage, or milanesa (breaded meat, similar to chicken fried steak) will be a much lower quality of meat. Additionally, a traditional parilla (a restaurant that specializes in grilled meat) features food that some may feel less inclined to try. In Argentina, any part of the animal is literally, fair game. The offerings range from more benign offal such as kidneys, liver, and stomach to less common parts such as brain or even cow udders. To my knowledge, my most ambitious sampling has been blood sausage. That said, we’ve sort of adopted a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the mystery meat found in some regional dishes, so it is quite likely that I have unknowingly tried more exotic.
  2. Bread: Argentina is a carb-tastic culture. Very recently, we watched in horror as two elderly ladies single-handedly destroyed a basket of at least half a dozen croissants. Lunch and dinner almost always comes with a basket of rolls or crusty bread. Between these larger meals, coffee and merienda comes with toast points, croissants, tortillas, cookies, and pastries. On top of that, there are additional sources of grains such as pizza, pasta, and rice, but good old white bread seems the most prevalent. Indeed, the lack of variety leaves something to be desired. It is not uncommon that a panaderia, literally a self-described “bread store” does not offer any type of grain or wheat bread, since there is such a low demand for them. Even at a supermarket, there is a high likelihood that the best offering would be the rough equivalent of artificially colored white bread.
  3. Fruit: Although it is by no means a staple of the Argentine diet, the fruit offerings have always been fairly solid. Naturally the availability and quality depends on the season and region, but usually there are a fair number of offerings. Most of the juices are freshly squeezed, and licuado smoothies provide a lighter option at merienda.  Fruit salads are almost always items on the dessert menus, and they are more substantial than your elementary school lunch jello cup. Usually involve a combination of canned and freshly chopped fruit served in a glass of orange juice. Finally, a few of the desserts which featured cooked fruit (poached apples with cream, for example) have been delicious. The only thing to look out for is that the “juice” offered in some kiosks are really just sodas with the “sabor de” fruit.
  4. Dairy: It seems that most Argentineans get their calcium intake from cheese, ice cream, and possibly the little splash of milk they use in café de leche. Yogurt is also fairly widespread – it is common to eat it with cereal. It’s probably some combination of lack of pasteurization and a disinterest with breakfast, but milk does not seem to be on anybody’s radar. Indeed, ordering a glass of milk with dessert would probably elicit the same reaction as ordering tap water. That said, if it weren’t for the lack of actual milk, dairy products would probably have edged out fruit for #3. They really, REALLY like cheese and ice cream.
  5. Vegetables: On the whole, Argentine cuisine does not feature much in the way of veggie sides. Easily the “vegetable” of choice is potato. Restaurants take Bubba Blue-shrimp style pride in the “variety” of sides offered, including French fries, mashed potatoes, potatoes gratin, or roasted potatoes. One meal, I kid you not, featured an entrada of French fries followed by another serving of Spanish potatoes. That’s a lot of starch.

    On the off chance that there is an actual vegetable option, the most common method of preparation is boiled to the point of nursing home blandness. Similarly, a typical salad would be some iceberg lettuce and a sliced tomato. If you are lucky, they may throw in a shredded carrot or boiled egg. Although some upscale restaurants offer salad mixtos that are a little more interesting, they are few and far between. On the whole, somebody needs to teach these guys to do a proper sauté. Seriously, a little olive oil, garlic, and salt can do wonders. Which brings me to my final point.

I can´t rightly categorize it as a food group, but I feel that the seasoning and heat level (or in this case the lack thereof) is worth mentioning. Many people are surprised to discover that Argentinean food tends to be horribly underseasoned for American tastes. It lacks the bold, spicy flavors that we attribute to other Latin cuisines, such as Mexican, Caribbean, or even Brazilian (but shhh... don´t tell anybody I said that). I have been told that Argentineans take such pride in the quality of their meat, that they believe it should be enjoyed in its pure unadulterated form. Admittedly, the meat is quite tasty on its own. It´s disappointing and somewhat frustrating, however, that this mentality has extended to all other food groups. For example, the typical accoutrements to a salad are salt, oil, and vinegar. No dressing, no vinaigrettes, no lemon juice. Moreover, no pepper. I guess I took it for granted, since it´s a given that salt and pepper is a natural pair, like black/white, ebony/ivory, chocolate/vanilla and Brangelina.  But that has not been our experience. In fact, the use of pepper is relegated to the special occasions in which a “picante” option is offered, and usually the actual level of spice is laughable by American standards.

I generally like a little bit of kick to my food, but I´ve never been able to handle red-alarm levels of spice in cuisines such as Thai, Indian, or even Tex-Mex. I am very much a yellow curry, salsa verde, pico de gallo type of girl. That said, I have found myself sneaking dried chilis in every dish I cook, just because it is the only spice with any semblance of heat available. In visiting fellow Fulbrighter’s pantries, the prevalence of hot sauce and dried aji powder leads me to believe that I am not alone. For this reason, when Selene recently had the opportunity to return to the United States, I gave her an extensive grocery list of spices to bring back to Tucumán. On the whole, I adore Argentinean cuisine, but I would recommend that any visiting Americans come well equipped with a couple packets of black pepper. You´ll have no idea how much you´ll miss it.

I Have Measured Out My Life with Locro Spoons: A Primer to Argentine Mealtimes

Between living in Tucuman, one of Argentina’s largest, most historically significant cities and having a space as awesome as the Office, we get a lot of visitors. It was a very telling moment when we were circling the plaza, and a visitor inquired about an important looking building on the Paseo de Independencia. Selene replied, “We’re awful tour guides, but we can show you the best empanada places.”

Since our arrival in Argentina, our daily lives have been scheduled, categorized, and defined by the food. When we eat our oatmeal in the morning, we talk about where we’re going for lunch. When we’re at lunch, we discuss what we need to buy for dinner. When we are traveling, we are more interested in restaurants than museums, churches, or national parks. What started as a cheeky experiment to try some empanadas has evolved into an integral part of our cultural experience, so much so that I have unofficially assumed the ad hoc position of resident Fulbright Food Critic. Those who know me from home, especially the poor souls who had to share a house with me and endure marathons of “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef,” and “Next Food Network Star,” know that it is a role I take with great honor and pleasure (and relish…haha). As such, I have taken it upon myself to offer this comprehensive, three-part introduction to the wonderful world of Argentine cuisine.

Part I: Mealtimes

  • Desayuno (Breakfast) – Argentineans are not big on breakfast. In fact, one of our biggest struggles has been finding a proper substitute for cereal, since the boxes they sell are so small and expensive, we were going through one every three days. Their version of breakfast is not particularly healthy or satisfying – a coffee with tortillas (not the ones we are accustomed to, they are more like wafers or crackers loaded with butter) or sticky croissants. If you are at a fancy establishment, you may be lucky enough to find a shotglass of orange juice. Many of our students are confused and a little disgusted by the idea of eating protein or anything more substantial than pastries in the morning. It really makes you wonder whether this notion of breakfast being the most important meal of the day (an assumption that I have taken for granted since childhood) is really just a big campaign by the FDA to sell more milk.
  • Almuerzo (Lunch) – As with most Latin cultures, lunch is the meal of the day. The need for a five hour siesta in the afternoons is directly tied to the sheer, mind-boggling quantity of food consumed at this time. Many restaurants offer a menú del dia, a sort of combo-value meal which offers a set menu of courses for one flat rate. A typical menú includes bread, a side dish (usually potatoes, rice, or simple salad), a huge entrée, and possibly a dessert or coffee. Occasionally, a drink- usually Coke or some other carbonated beverage laced in corn syrup- may also be included in the price. On a sidenote, per capita, Argentineans must consume a ridiculous volume of soda -- it is not unusual for one person to clear an entire liter of Coke on his own. Ordering water is far more uncommon, and tap water is downright scandalous. Indeed, we have earned more than a few funny looks: “Agua... seguro?” ("Water...are you sure?") I have yet to determine whether the waiter is looking at us with confusion, surprise, pity, or some mix of the three.
  • Merienda(Tea time?):– There isn’t an easy direct translation for merienda, since it’s not something common in American culture. In England it might be considered afternoon tea, but here it refers more to a coffee break and afternoon snack. Tea is an option, but it usually consists of the generic teabags that we can buy at most corner stores. The point is, after siesta your tummy may start rumbling again. Most restaurants do not open for dinner until at least 9 or 9:30 PM, so it is common to take a formal snack break between lunch and dinner. To my understanding, merienda is quite similar to breakfast (sometimes menus list their promotions as “desayuno/merienda” that functions for both meals), except there are a few more options. In addition to croissants and crackers, there are also a mind-numbing assortment of facturas, sticky sugary pastries that are filled with cream or dulce de leche. Another common snack is a tostado, a simple ham and cheese sandwich on white bread, pressed between what appears to be a waffle iron.
  • Cena (Dinner)– If I am being completely honest, my knowledge of Argentine dinner is woefully limited because I rarely last long enough to enjoy it. As mentioned above, most restaurants don’t serve dinner until much later than we are used to, and it is not uncommon for people to dine well after midnight. When you tell an Argentinean what time most Americans eat dinner, it is also not uncommon for them to laugh uproariously in disbelief. The only times we usually go out for dinner is when we have company or are invited by our students, and the little exposure I do have did not strike me as particularly noteworthy. Dinner menus tend to rely on pretty common standbys: pasta, sandwiches, and pizza, and they rarely include side dishes. The only exception would be asado, which I will more fully describe in the next post.

I should mention that most Argentineans can handle the late dinners, because they usually stay out much later as well. On a weekend it’s no problem to munch leisurely into the wee hours of the morning, but during the work week when I am waking up around 8 AM to go to the gym, I would rather not have 3 pounds of red meat sitting like a lead weight in my stomach. As such, Selene and I have come up with what we feel is a fair cross-cultural compromise in regards to our eating schedule. On a typical day, we will scour the city for a new, undiscovered local restaurant and split the menú del dia. It is the best time to try more new, regional dishes, since the offerings change from day-to-day. It is also the more economical option, since there are an assortment of accompaniments included in the price. In the evening, I will prepare a dinner for two (usually front loaded with vitamin-rich vegetables) that we will eat at what I consider a respectable dinner hour. After gorging ourselves with over 500 empanadas over the course of the last few months, I like to think we deserve to maintain this little habit from home.

*Author´s Note*

A big hola from chilly Patagonia!

I had a free moment on a computer with reasonably reliable internet access, so I wanted to take a moment to preface some of the upcoming posts. I am currently traveling without my laptop, and therefore without access to some of the reference materials, pictures, and videos that I wanted to include in certain posts. For this reason, I have made the executive decision to break Rule #3 of Blogger 101. Rather than posting a chronological account of my activities, I am just going to focus on submitting whatever I have ready to go. I thought long and hard about this flagrant foul, but ultimately, I decided that it did not betray my intentions for this site. After all, this blog is not meant to be Sophia's personal travel diary (I have my own anyway), but rather an homage to all the memorable people, places, and experiences that for whatever reason, I thought would be of some interest to you guys. Iguazu Falls will still be amazing, majestic, and intense whether I post it in July or October. They are meant to be read as discrete tales, like a poor man´s Hopscotch.

Without a computer, the posting may come erratically, but rest assured that the material is there. Regular 12 hour bus rides have provided a great opportunity for uninterrupted writing. The likeliest scenario is that I will come back to Tucumán with a legal pad full of drafts that need to be typed up, and then you can expect a flurry of virtual activity come August or September. Until then, please feel free to write with any comments, questions, complaints, requests, or as my students like to say, "doubts."

Hasta pronto!

Dance, Dance: How I Got My Groove Back

I have always thought that Sebastian was a good-looking guy. He always dressed and carried himself in a way that implied that he knew how to take care of himself. He was a student in my fifth year class, which had invited me and my roommate (a fellow gringa) to an Argentine asado, or barbeque. After stuffing ourselves with inordinate amounts of grilled meat, most of us were listening to music as we recuperated from a food coma. I remember leaning back in my chair and watching Sebastian dance with a female student. In one of his hands, he was simultaneously cradling a lit cigarette and a plastic cup of Fernet and Coke. With his other hand, he was skillfully spinning his partner. All the while, his feet were marking time to the rhythm of the music. For lack of a better word, he looked damn cool.

Even a couple months after the fact, this particular image is burned into my memory because it was at that exact moment that I thought, “This isn’t fair.” At this point, I had spent enough time with my students to determine that this confluence of desirable traits was not unique to Sebastian. In all of our social gatherings, after a couple hours of food and/or alcohol, the festivities would inexorably devolve into an extended karaoke dance party like this one.

Our first party in the Office

During this time, students would flaunt their skills and knowledge in a variety of musical styles, such as cumbia, salsa, quartetto, and reggaeton. These “lessons” regularly last into the early hours of the morning. It seemed that every Argentinean was born with a genetic predisposition for singing on pitch, dancing with coordination, and being ridiculously attractive. This holy trifecta defies both probability and fairness, considering how hard we had to rack our brains to share a reciprocal “traditional American dance.” Against our better judgment, we halfheartedly demonstrated the old wedding standby, the Electric Slide.

Once the shame of linedancing to “Achy Breaky Heart” wore off, I started pondering the roots of the prevalent “gringo with no rhythm” stereotype, and I set out on a mission to surpass it. I made some headway after attending a lecture on Argentine music with professor Dr. Juan Raffo, who utilized a variety of techniques to demonstrate the complicated rhythms in folklore music. We learned that many of these musical styles borrowed heavily from tribal African drumbeats. The cadence of these beats was in direct opposition to our classical sensibilities of Western music, which tend to place emphasis on the downbeat, or the “one” of each phrase. We had become so accustomed to this regimented style, that any deviation felt unnatural or awkward, explaining our inability to synchronize with certain rhythms.

With this newfound musical revelation in tow, I tackled the next matter of acquiring actual dancing skills by enrolling in a bi-weekly salsa class at a nearby dance academy. Each class was structured the same way. At approximately 10:33 PM, our instructor, another well-dressed, good-looking man who knew how to dance, would lead us in a vigorous warm-up that included a laughable quantity of hip rolls and pelvic thrusts. Next, he would break down the target moves for the night, and we would drill them together. At the midway point, we would switch to practicing the new steps with partners. Since salsa is a couple’s dance, you would think that we would look forward to the opportunity to work in pairs. The only hitch: the number of female students outnumbered the males in a whopping 4:1 ratio. As such, the women were asked to line-up in a pattern reminiscent of an amusement park line in order to await their “turn.” Those lucky enough to end up with a partner would typically find themselves facing a self-conscious, sweaty-palmed young man unequipped for the pressure of physically engaging a conveyor belt of women. Out of principle, my inner feminist couldn’t handle it. After a month of classes, I decided to move on.

Being in Argentina, the only natural choice was tango. To get the full experience, I plunged into the heart of the beast: Buenos Aires. In this cosmopolitan metropolis, there are guidebooks and brochures dealing exclusively with milongas, dedicated tango halls. I signed-up for a class in the ritzy Palermo district, receiving the full “tourist” package: a tango demonstration, a formal class, and finally free dance. After a few minutes of audience banter involving a soccer ball and some attractive, well-dressed Argentine women who were likely very good dancers, the emcee finally introduced the 4 couples who would also be our teachers that evening. The lights around the dance floor dimmed, and the speakers were filled with the plaintive strains of bandoneon and violin. The couples marched effortlessly across the floor, their bodies aligned and in sync. In watching their movements, the rigid postures and complicated footwork seemed to follow very strict conventions of steps and form. Once we started actually practicing, however, we discovered that there was much less emphasis on actual choreography as much as spontaneous reaction to the music and your partner. A memorable “teachable moment” involved a partner with whom I initially had difficulties following. After several clumsy missteps, he told me to close my eyes. I obliged. In the absence of sight, I became acutely aware of the floor at my feet, my physical proximity to other couples, the stringed instruments in the music, even the scent of my partner’s cologne. Without any visual cues, my only choice was to move instinctively, and it was surprising how naturally I followed him. This incredibly visceral experience helped me appreciate the reactive, intuitive, and literal sensuality of the dance.

Obviously, a 45-minute tango lesson is not sufficient to overturn the “Americans can’t dance” stereotype. A month of salsa classes was also inadequate, as we painfully discovered the first time we wandered into a salsa bar. As we tried to maneuver our way through the sea of gyrating couples, we were repeatedly buffeted by an array of people spinning and turning in seemingly unpredictable directions. I was beginning to think my undertaking was a hopeless cause, but I decided to throw one last desperate Hail Mary. With nothing left to lose, I decided to show off my moves at a boliche, an Argentine disco. Although my experience with these dance halls is woefully limited, I have noticed a few universal commonalities: an over reliance on Matrix style lasers and fog machines; a large projector screen showing music videos; and a surly DJ who runs the playlist with dour stoicism. Each boliche has its own special gimmicks (a ceiling of disco balls, glow-in-the-dark ice cubes, etc), but it all reduces to the same thing: a big sweaty dance party. And if there is one dance move that Americans can claim as their own, it would be the club grind. There are no genre-specific steps nor does it require any formal training. Essentially, it involves bopping your head, swinging your hips, and moving your extremities in some semblance of rhythm. Depending on the song, it may also be acceptable to jump up and down in a steady bounce.
Can this even be correctly categorized as "dancing"?

In accordance with our gringo sensibilities of club dancing, my roommate and I started flailing and thrashing our limbs in reckless abandon. If an opportune hole opened up amid the mass of humanity, we would creep into it like auspicious Walmart shareholders, shaking our heads and waving our arms the whole way. Admittedly, there were occasions when we would lose control of our hopping and accidentally bump into our neighbors. Nevertheless, these incidents usually occurred during Lady Gaga songs, which provides full amnesty for your behavior within the duration of the song. After a particularly raucous rendition of “Bad Romance,” I made eye contact with yet another well-dressed, good-looking Argentine man who seemed to know how to dance. He leaned his face towards mine, and yelled something into my ear, but it was unintelligible over the thundering bass. After a few more tries, I was finally able to piece together “Bailas muy bien” (You dance very well). I grinned in understanding, and he raised his glass to me before returning to his respective party. At that moment, I was breathing heavily, sweating profusely, and feeling immensely satisfied with myself. Mission accomplished.

Just dance, gonna be okay, d-d-d-dance