Let’s begin by defining “foodways.” Wikipedia defines this term as “the cultural, social, and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food tied to larger social and economic factors.”
Immediately noted by me, an enthusiastic eater of regular meals, Argentina is a night culture and a café culture. Meals do not occur on an American schedule. The Argentine people eat four meals a day, which must be necessary for staying up half the night.
Their breakfast, or desayuno, is a light meal of coffee or mate, medialunas (pastry) and jam or dulce de leche, sometimes bread and cold cuts. Mate is worth a discussion. While everyone drinks it and it is traditional to do so, it seems to be considered a bit of a vice. Probably much like drinking coffee is here in the US. Less fortunate folk drink it to excess to stave off hunger, I was told, and it’s not uncommon to see working class people carting around their thermos of hot water along with their mate gourd (or calabazo) and straw (or bombilla). While it contains caffeine and is stimulating, it is also relaxing with a deeply vegetal flavor which is quite enjoyable.
Lunch, or almuerzo, features meat and vegetables or salad. In the larger cities I noted several vegetarian buffets, popular as lunch spots and incredibly good values. Perhaps a rebuttal to the famous Argentine beef, which is heavily favored in most meals, sometimes prepared in the Milanese style, or pounded and breaded.
After work it’s “tea time, which means time to linger forever in one of the ubiquitous street side cafés, over either tea or a “cafe solo” and lots of conversation. Maybe you prefer yours “con leche?” At this time tapas-like snacks or little panini are consumed with gusto. This is a good thing since dinner won’t be until 10 p.m. or later. My traveling companion and I got called “grandmothers” for wanting to eat by 8 or 9 pm. Hey, we’re not even mothers, just can’t sleep on a full stomach.
Returning to the cafés …many are associated with particular artistic or literary, political, or student groups and are important within the social context of the city. It’s nice to see people giving themselves permission to converse passionately and spend time together with nothing seeming to pressure them. I feel it’s time well spent.
The people in Buenos Aires love their snacks. I noticed the bakeries doing a booming business at all times of day selling delicious varieties of empanadas (think beef, chicken, seafood, Caprese, mushroom, pork….) and other savory snacks or cookies galore, like the Alfajore sandwich cookie. They ought to be illegal and are so good with their filling of dulce de leche or jam and chocolate coat. I saw more carbonated water being consumed that sodas, but the show stopper of any drink I had in the country was a fabulous “slushy” of heavily gingered lemonade. Completely refreshing, you can bet I will be making this at home this summer.
Cena, or dinner, is unfathomably late in the evening and is the largest meal of the day. Since Italians settled this place, it’s all reminding me of Rome. You can get Italian bitters like Frenet Branca anywhere after a meal. Even on your mini bar. Oh joy! I ate at some great steak joints and I can tell you that the beef is amazing, thick, juicy, delicious and all grass fed. Usually, a steak dinner is offered with salad choices, side vegetables, and lots of good red wine. I didn’t notice many desserts eaten in the evening.
If you want a traditional “asado,” or barbeque, you must go into the country where the cattlemen are…or befriend a traditionalist and hope for an invitation to a family affair. The religion is to cook over wood coals, never flame. A full compliment of meats (beef, lamb, sometimes goat, always sausage) will be roasting, often flayed open and whole. Grilled vegetables and many side salads will be offered up as well a Chimichurri sauce. Everything is mopped up with crusty bread, washed down with good red wine, and eaten off wooden plates.
Back in the city, those out for the evening will continue drinking and dancing…tango is huge, though sadly not with the youth so much. But you’d better pace yourselves. Oh, and bring your sunglasses. The younger set strike out after 1 am. Things heat up by 3 am and, to our surprise, they’re still at it Sunday morning at 10 am, sunglasses on and piling out of the clubs and onto the sidewalks. Suddenly eating dinner late is making all the sense in the world!
I noticed salmon on most restaurant menus in Buenos Aires and, while on a side trip to Chile, I remembered why. We saw salmon and mussel farms everywhere while traveling through the fiords of Chile. They look innocent enough but the waters, once pristine, are suffering and the ecosystems are dying. Most of the world’s salmon is now coming from Chile and while tasty, it is good to remember the cost of farmed fish. I am happy to report that the wild trout are still plentiful and were biting for me! I caught an 18-inch beautiful brown trout, with sweet, pink salmon-like flesh.
Did I mention ice cream? It is done in the Italian gelato style and called helado. The ice cream of Argentina is very rich and wonderful and comes in very exotic flavors, Andean chocolate became my favorite (a mix of bitter chocolate, dulce de leche and Patagonian walnuts), but you can get rosehip too and a variety of other inventive flavors!
About visiting Argentina in December…it’s early summer there, the lupines, wild orchids, and Scotch broom are in full bloom, kids are getting out of school for summer vacation, and it’s Christmas! The farms are also producing wonderful vegetables, nuts and fruits, honey, hops and berries of all varieties, cherries, strawberries, gooseberries and calafate, the mystery berry of Argentina. It’s a type of dark berry from a barberry bush. It’s said if you eat these berries, you’ll return for another stay. I bought some jam which I’ve not tasted yet, but I will keep you posted! I fully intend to return to this beautiful place for further adventure in the Patagonia.