“It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song. You can’t believe it. You were always singing along. It was so easy, and the words so sweet. You can’t remember. You try to feel the beat. Eet, eet, eet, eet, eet.” ~Regina Spektor
As family and friends back at home gather today to celebrate Thanksgiving, the most gluttonous day of the year, we have journeyed via a 20-hour bus ride to the northwestern Argentine province of Salta to celebrate sans traffic, turkey, tryptophan or tummyaches. Kind of like pilgrims ourselves tonight as we’ll have our first dinner in a new land, we look forward to continuing the research we’ve begun on the native consumption customs.
Two days before the holiday, Jess and I stayed up until 4:30 a.m. discussing the fascinating relationship between people and food and how this relationship varies by culture.
Our nascent research in Buenos Aires has produced several paradoxes that I’m still struggling to make sense of. It seems as if people here enjoy their food more than we do at home, yet we also heard on a local podcast that Argentina has the second highest rate of eating disorders in the world, behind Japan. Healthy food options are lacking compared with home – I haven’t seen this much regular Coke since the ’90s and Buddy the Elf would be in heaven with the way that people add sugar to everything. At the same time, there are markedly less overweight people here than at home – although I suppose my standards aren’t too high coming from one of the fattest cities and countries in the world.
But one observation that seems to be clear is the difference in how they consume: slowly and socially. In addition to helping me acquire those hips I need for dancing, my new helado loves have also enlightened me on another key life skill I need to master while living here: mastication.
Immediately upon arrival, even in a massive city flooded with people and in a neighborhood teeming with traffic at all hours, I could sense a slower pace of life. Inserted into this relaxed rhythm, I quickly noticed that I don’t chew while I’m eating.
I had observed while using the kitchen table as my home office for the nine months before moving here that most of my family members eat as if they’re training for a competitive eating contest. My brother could devour a meal faster than I could emit an email. But with the mirror turned on myself in my new environment, I’ve noticed that I don’t chew either.
And it’s not just my family but our whole culture. Both Jess and Angie have made poignant comments during meals such as:
“It’s impossible for me not to eat quickly,” and, “I’m eating like someone’s going to take it away from me.”
Remembering how I ate my last meal in the United States – out of a Tupperware container in the car en route to the airport – it has been an interesting cultural observation that people rarely eat or drink on the go here. Rather, consumption is savored and used as a vehicle for social interaction:
1. Meeting midday for a café con leche.
I haven’t actually participated in this ritual because the first and last time my pal Peter persuaded me to try café con leche – atop a mountain in Spain in 2008 – I had to put myself to bed because it made me so dizzy and my throat starting closing up. But according to my sources, this is a popular activity here to slow down and socialize.
2. Sharing mate (MAH-tay), the traditional tea that locals drink communally in any and every situation imaginable.
Not for germophobes, mate is passed around tea mates in a small bowl, not unlike marijuana. It’s sipped through – quickly emerging as one of Argentines’ favorite objects – a straw.
I was a little hesitant about mate since I’d lost my second battle with hot beverages in Spain as well. Since coffee hadn’t work out, Peter talked me into trying tea. I left the café feeling high, and I had to hold onto the walls to make it up the steps to my apartment before collapsing into bed. I’ve steered clear of caffeine since.
But mate has quickly become one of my favorite customs here. For me, it underscores the emphasis the culture places on appreciating the passing of time and the company you pass it with – something U.S. society overlooks in our constant quest to be productive.
Whereas many days back at home I don’t make time to eat a single meal during the day with friends or family, here I’ve shared mate with strangers. Whereas at home when I make plans with someone it has to be to do something elaborate that’s “worth” our time, here mate shifts the focus from the activity itself to the company and time it affords you to engage and appreciate – even if it’s just a few minutes with your own thoughts.
It barely costs anything, and it’s something that can be – and is – done anywhere: on a plaza bench, a blanket in the park, a street curb, a bus, a boat, a rock, etc. The mate sightings are so multitudinous that I’m beginning to suspect that they got the wrong version of “Green Eggs and Ham” down here, although they do put ham and eggs on everything.
“I would [drink mate] in a boat! And I would [drink it] with a goat … And I will [drink it] in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car. And in a tree. [It is] so good, so good, you see! So I will [drink it] in a box. And I will [drink it] with a fox. And I will [drink it] in a house. And I will [drink it] with a mouse. And I will [drink it] here and there. Say! I will [drink it] ANYWHERE!” ~Dr. Seuss
As U.S. newspapers reported massive power outages in the Northeast because of snow at the end of October, I basked in the hot sun in a city park, intermittently napping and reading a magic realism novel in Spanish. People packed the grass, most drinking mate, prompting the guitarist performing to expound upon the sharing of mate as one of the culture’s most defining characteristics. He even encouraged people to share with others who hadn’t brought any. It was a striking act of concert hospitality, my term for when complete strangers defy social norms – share possessions, sing to each other, go to the bathroom together, etc. – solely based on a shared musical experience.
Luckily, I have been able to embrace this custom as I’ve been told that mate has “mateine,” which is apparently different from caffeine. At first, I was skeptical of what sounded like a made-up word. But according to the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society, “It is difficult to find a plant in any area of the world equal to mate in nutritional value” as it has “practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life.”
So far, my full participation has been limited by a gypsy who tricked me into buying a “custom-made” gourd that dyed my hands green and grew mold in it before I had the chance to drink any mate out of it. But I enjoyed mate four days in a row this week, and it hasn’t made me put myself to bed yet.
3. Fresh-squeezing every single glass of orange juice.
Now this is a breakfast beverage I can embrace without reservations, thanks to its definite lack of caffeine. Not only is this elixir of life offered nearly everywhere in the city, but our apartment even has its own hand juicer.
Whereas I used to fake cry – apparently my go-to move as an 8-year-old – and dramatically fake choke on the pulp when my Dad used to make us drink it before school, I now take the time to make it every single morning. And I don’t drink it while diving into my work emails, but instead I savor every sip on a stool in our sitting area as sunlight streams in through the wall-to-wall windows that skim our ceiling.
Nantucket Nectars and Odwalla, which I spent 500 dining dollars on during one semester of college, have been officially dethroned.
4. Lingering over a meal for hours.
During that fateful first tour of the city when the helado love affair began, my guide, who is also from the United States, informed me about this cultural contrast between here and home. At home – based on whether we’ve ever worked in the service industry – we either A) start readjusting the tip calculator when servers don’t attend to us quickly or smile widely enough or B) feel rude if we take up their tables for too long so that they can’t turn them over and maximize their tips. But here, meals are expected to last for hours, so that it’s actually considered rude for a server to come over and interrupt your conversation.
In addition to smoothing out any suspicions of sloth-like servers, this slight shift in standpoint has also swayed us to sample some slow-down strategies. Putting our utensils down in between bites encourages us to chew our food completely before swallowing, take a break before eating more and actually talk to each other during a meal. It’s alarmingly challenging yet enlightening.
5. Consuming alcohol slowly enough – and combining it with snacks – that it’s surprisingly easy to stay conscious until sunrise.
The attention here is placed more on savoring the social experience than attaining the end goal of getting wasted. Whereas at home we think the faster we drink the more fun we’ll have, here a slower and more sustainable drinking pace actually enables you to enjoy a longer night.
Whenever I think it’s 2 a.m., when bars close at home, it’s always 4. And since I have regressed to using a sundial since I don’t own a cell phone or a watch, the next thing I know it’s sunrise. My sleep mask from my fortuitous flight has become the dark horse in the race for my 2011 MVP – most valuable possession.
More sustainable drinking is also promoted by the incorporation of snacks. It never fails to fascinate me that whenever we get together to drink with new Argentine amigos, they always go out of their way to make sure there are snacks.
Maybe it’s because I learned to drink in a culture where our guy “friends” used to charge us $5 for a Solo cup to drink from a keg in the woods of Philadelphia or a park where a rapist was perpetually striking according to news reports, never mind snacks. My girl friends and I used to even skip dinner in order to be able to get drunk before having to return home by curfew. Oh, how keeping the drinking age at 21 continues to promote safe and responsible drinking in the strict and sober States …
Here, however, the gents not only insist on snacks – or, gasp, an entire meal – while drinking, but they also refuse to accept a cent for any of it. It’s remarkably refreshing.
Easing into this new culture of consumption, we’ve been slowly mastering the skill of mastication week by week. And when we relapse, there’s usually a reminder. As a yoga teacher from my studio at home said one class, we are so absorbed in our whirlwinds that we call lives that sometimes we need a physical barrier to slow us down. Like the massive splinter that burrowed itself into my foot to stop me from devouring the sushi deliveryman when I sprinted across our apartment to answer the door for him.
That 300-pound tequila importer also reminded me to breathe in between bites when he, for reasons I still can’t discern, slapped my pizza out of my hand from the table behind us at a restaurant. His no less strange but certainly more successful impression on our consumption speed was when he initiated a cheers with us. In broken English and a deep voice – not unlike the spirit stick scene in “Bring It On” – he seared into our brains that if we didn’t always pause to make eye contact with each person we clinked glasses with before taking a sip, we would be cursed with: “five years without orgasm.”
I nearly spit my malbec across the table at what would have been a wildly inappropriate comment at home for meeting us only two minutes earlier. But I must say, I no longer rush that first sip anymore. And resolute on not denying myself an ounce of bliss with my latest lovers, I always make damn sure to look my helado scooper in the eyes.
We also receive a reminder to reduce our rate of consumption when we see what we’re trying to avoid. One Thursday, we made the mistake of attending a pub crawl for study abroad students. Maybe it was because we’re not study abroad students, but it was appalling.
Upon registration, I made the mistake of mentioning that it was my first time attending the event. Immediately, an overzealous organizer whipped a beer bong out of his backpack faster than I could say,
“I don’t do beer bongs because it’s barbaric and unladylike.”
As they mocked me, I wondered once again why this was less suggestive than drinking orange juice out of a bottle without a straw. Would they be providing a straw with this beer bong? I told them that I sadly couldn’t participate without one.
The cultural clash continued to catapult toward catastrophe as the emphasis on binge drinking – something I’d been happy to leave at home – endured. At every bar the organizers handed us a shooter – they physically wouldn’t let me not take one off the tray – and made us shout “HOLA!” at the bartender, among other ridiculous things. Locals trying to enjoy their culture, which we were supposed to be in the country appreciating but were now instead desecrating, stared at us as I slunk in the corner and tried to look French or Spanish.
We thought we’d at one point met someone on the same page as us – a guy from Philadelphia who is here doing research on a Fulbright scholarship – until an hour later we spotted him on the ground partaking in a push-up contest. This was before he and another girl from the United States decided to compare their abs in the middle of a bar and after she let beer bong boy take a body shot off of her.
Unfortunately, none of them got splinters or slapped by a 300-pound man to make them snap out of it. But they do have this lovely reminder to perhaps prompt them to rethink while they’re abroad, as we’ve been doing, their culture of consumption:
“Do you remember when 21 years was old?” ~Phoenix