Home Away from Home
by the Spoonful
By Diana Guyton | Argentina
You wouldn’t expect to find a taste of home 5000 miles south of New York, but it turns out that Argentina’s helado and asado isn’t that far from eating spoonfuls of condensed milk as a snack or enjoying a Cuban, family cookout.
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As I drop my backpack on the futon in her host parents’ apartment, my friend Raquel asks how I’m feeling. I’ve just arrived in Buenos Aires thanks to a 14-hour bus ride from my own homestay in Mendoza, a much smaller Argentine city east of the Andes Mountains. I’m still reeling from all the big-city noise that waylaid me outside the bus terminal.
“So, how are you?” Raquel watches me with concern. “Do you want a shower? A nap?”
“I think a few minutes to brush my teeth and use the bathroom should be enough.”
“Then do you want to get lunch?”
Yes, please. I could do lunch.
I’ve answered correctly; Raquel has a surprise planned for lunch and she’s eager to reveal it. We take the local bus for half an hour and arrive, oddly enough, in Chinatown. Believing this is the surprise, I make the requisite excited sounds. (Maybe she thinks I miss New York?) Raquel mentions dumplings, and my enthusiasm turns genuine—“but we’re not getting dumplings,” she says.
“Or we can, if you want. But I wanted to take you to this restaurant I read about the other day.”
We walk a couple blocks, and then I hear the salsa music, see the bright yellow walls. It’s a Cuban restaurant. In Chinatown. In the capital of Argentina. It is the oddest and loveliest and most unexpected slice of home.
As the daughter of a Cuban woman—and the granddaughter, niece, and cousin of many more Cubans, of course—I imagine that my upbringing has made some aspects of Argentine culture seem more familiar to me than to my non-Hispanic friends in my study abroad program. Kissing people on the cheek to say hello and goodbye? Check. Knowing that real dancing means moving your hips? Check. Throughout the three months I’ve already spent in Argentina, I’ve found a number of small parallels and approximations to home.
But when Raquel and I walk in to Caribe Riqueño, I’m struck by how truly familiar everything is. No more analogues. This is the real deal. I even recognize the voice of the singer coming through the speakers.
The waiter talks us into ordering a carafe of sangria (not a difficult sell, I’ll admit). We decide to split some crispy tostones and sample each other’s entrées. I go for picadillo, a personal favorite: ground beef cooked with onion, green pepper, garlic, green olives, raisins, and bay leaves, typically served over rice. The waiter and I convince Raquel to try ropa vieja, a dish of shredded steak whose name literally translates to “old clothes.” It’s a classic of Cuban cuisine, but a far cry from the vegetarian diet she has only given up for the duration of her semester here. She’s stepping outside her comfort zone to welcome me into mine.
Everything is flavorful and delicious, albeit slightly different from the family recipes I know and love. We stuff ourselves until we almost regret it. This weekend visit to Buenos Aires has come at a time when I could use some cheering up. While I’ve been insisting to friends in Mendoza that it isn’t homesickness that’s got me down, spending time with a trusted friend and some Cuban-style comfort food is doing wonders.
One truth is that I went to Argentina to get away, to get out, out of my head and out of my norm, to grow comfortable living in a corner of the world I’d never seen before, in a culture I’d never experienced.
Another truth is that, for all that the new and extraordinary elements of life in the southern hemisphere, it’s those same “parallels and approximations” that have made it easier for me to achieve some sense of belonging.
When some of my program-mates groan at the ubiquity of dulce de leche in Argentine desserts, complaining that it’s “too sweet,” I laugh and explain how my mom raised me to eat sweetened condensed milk—on its own, by the spoonful—as an afternoon snack. The helado here is so rich that it’s more like Italian gelato than American ice cream. Still, just as I do in the U.S., I’ll keep buying helado in winter and eat it while sitting under a blanket at home. (Also consistent: the bemused head-shaking this activity provokes from both my real mother and my host mother.)
The comfortable familiarity doesn’t end with the gustos of my sweet tooth, either. The Saturday following my visit to Buenos Aires, my host mom sighs at the soupiness of the polenta we’re about to have for lunch. I’ve never tried polenta, but I take my first taste and am instantly sure that I’ve eaten this before. It’s grits, I realize, giggling to myself. Thousands and thousands of miles away from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and I’m having grits for lunch.
All of this makes me wonder: Is it the culinary analogues that comfort me most? Am I really that grateful to find myself in a culture where people kiss each other on the cheek, or am I happier about spooning dulce de leche from the jar?
If someone asks me about my culinary experiences in Argentina, I try not to tell them about grits disguised as polenta and ice cream in the wintertime. I talk about the Malbec wine Mendoza is famous for producing, the empanadas, the alfajores, the locro. All of the quintessentially Argentine delicacies I know I’ll miss when I’m Stateside once again.
Chief among these is asado, the grilled beef considered to be the national dish of Argentina. Asado is almost exclusively grilled for (and eaten by) a big gathering of people—in my experience, usually my host parents’ extended family. In fact, the word can refer either to the meat or to the cookout itself. And that, I believe, is exactly where I find my answer.
The food I’ve eaten in Argentina has been wonderful in and of itself, but the real source of comfort is the loved ones who’ve experienced it with me. The joy is eating dulce de leche with a friend whose eyebrows raise at the sweetness, watching my host mom laugh at my untimely ice-cream eating, telling my host dad about polenta tasting like grits and hearing him joke, “You know, I went to Georgia and got the recipe just for you.” It’s drinking Malbec with friends who also can’t believe how inexpensive wine is in wine country. It’s banding together to find the best empanadas in Salta. It’s having our first alfajores on a plane bound for Mendoza, where we’ll meet our host parents for the first time, and it’s eating locro at a huge, ten-hour-long party my host family has thrown to celebrate a couple’s 50 years of marriage. Because at home in Atlanta and at home in Mendoza, what you love, you share.
An asado can turn into an all-day social event, boisterous and communal and warm. Maybe because I fear bungling Spanish, or maybe because I’m trying to appreciate what surrounds me, at an asado, I listen much more than I speak. Whichever aunt or uncle catches me spectating will lean over with a knowing look and more or less ask, “We’re pretty loud and crazy, huh?”
I smile and shake my head no. “My family’s exactly the same,” I say. Roasting a pig to celebrate anything. Talking and drinking with each other all afternoon. I leave an asado feeling much the way I did walking out of Caribe Riqueño: like I just stumbled across an exhilarating taste of home.
“Do you want more?” the family asks, when they notice I’ve eaten everything on my plate.
Yes, please. I could love some more.
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