Buenos Aires, Argentina
Within but a few blocks of my apartment here in Buenos Aires, there are three Chinese restaurants. No surprise really; Chinese food can be found the world over. But the same cannot be said of Argentine cuisine. Indeed, in the American Pacific Northwest where I hail from, cooking inspired by this country is experienced as often as a Sasquatch sighting.
The sad fact of the matter is that the food here is simply not popular in the world outside of Mongolian forced labor camps, and even there the Geneva Convention limits the servings to one meal a day.
What is the reason for this? To discover the answer, one must first visit a typical neighborhood sandwich shop in Buenos Aires. The offerings will likely be: cheese, ham, cheese & ham or ham & cheese. Detect a subtle pattern emerging here? There also are places called Pizzerías, but instead of including such toppings as pepperoni, sausage and onions (the way God meant for pizza to be served), their idea of a wild time is grudgingly tossing a few olives on top of the cheese. And if you visit a supermarket, the Exotic Spices Section will be stocked with mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.
Personally, this has been hard to adjust to. The other day I caught myself trying to ship a box of Seattle’s Dick’s Delux Burgers (which as you know can sit for weeks under heat lamps and not lose their flavor) down to Buenos Aires via Zoom Cargo, a local freight forwarding outfit. I do not know which is more disturbing, my choice of food or freight forward-er.
Yet this does not explain the reason behind the puzzling blandness of the food. Perhaps over the past century mini ozone holes have opened up ov-er the country, frying the Argentinians’ taste buds.
Or maybe it has to do with their dining habits. The average Buenos Aires resident has four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, “merienda” and dinner. Merienda takes place around 5:00 p.m. and is a light meal consisting of tea or coffee, a bit of bread, and a few cookies. By the time their dinner is ready, often well after eight o’clock, the person has crashed from his or her sugar high and hasn’t had a solid meal for nearly seven hours. (I am speaking from experience here. I tried a few crackers and cookies once in the late afternoon and by the time evening rolled around, felt like a Don-ner Party survivor.) After such a long fast, even hospital food would have gourmet-like appeal. Little wonder therefore that flavor is in such low de-mand. The entire country has a borderline eating disorder.
When tourists return to their home country, they used to kiss the ground upon exiting the airplane as a sign of their happiness to be back. For me, I’m going straight to Jalisco’s, a favorite Mexican restaurant of mine near the Space Needle, to kiss the Tabasco bottles. And when they bring those chips and salsa, you’re going to see a grown man weep with gratitude.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
In the Edgar Allen Poe classic The Masque of the Red Death, the Prince and his minions are partying heartily in the castle while outside the pea-santry is being ravaged by the dreaded disease. Eventually Death himself makes an appearance as a masked guest, spreading the fatal illness to the horrified attendees. If the story had taken place down here, Death would arrive on a hot afternoon, be enticed with a curbside table at a fancy cafe, then spend the rest of the day nursing a mineral water with his friends Pestilence and Famine. In the laid back, live-for-today atmosphere, he’d eventually conclude that even a plague would not cause these inhabitants to change their behavior.
Welcome to Buenos Aires, where ambition takes a holiday. The name, by the way, translates to “good air”. Rather ironic when the tailpipes on the diesel buses are adorned with Surgeon General’s Warnings.
The history of Argentina is typical of what you would expect to find in Latin America. There’s a national holiday celebrating the overthrow of the Spanish, then another holiday for the overthrow of the dictator who tossed out the Spanish, and so on. The constitutions down here are about as stable as a Windows beta release. Despite an admittedly raucous past, the beginning of the 20th century found this country as one of the wealth-iest in the world, ahead of even France and Germany. But then exports dropped off during World War I, the Great Depression hit a decade later, and the country never quite reclaimed its former lofty standing. The final indignity came some seven decades further on with the country’s default and collapse of the peso in 2001. Not that I am lamenting Argentina’s fall from the upper echelons. The devalued currency means everything is dirt cheap for us winter refugees from up north despite the nosedive the U.S. dollar has taken this year. It is also nice to know that regardless of what dregs the American economy may descend to, there will always be some-one below us.
Thanks to a combination of diligent internet research and good fortune, I have found a pleasant apartment for my stay in a perfect location in a middle class neighborhood called Palermo. Within walking distance of my abode there are huge parks, a variety of restaurants, the zoo and the museum for Evita Peron — the country’s answer to the Kennedys. The big project for me has been improving my laughable Spanish. I’ve found a very understanding private tutor plus a neighborhood friend who has taken pity on my earnest efforts and offered to help with my everyday language needs. For listening practice, I watch Miami Vice in Spanish. However, this has caused some misunderstandings when I combine parts of that program’s often violent dialogue with the materials from my in-structor. For example, the last time at Burger King, I ordered “Una ham-borguesa mas pronto o voy a matarte” (One hamburger right now or I will kill you.) It didn’t get me any better service.