"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

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.

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