The Gift of Food and Friendship (Dispatch from Argentina #4)

by Laurie Coyle*

* This is the fourth in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. Click on the “Previous” button at the top of the page to read the previous dispatches and learn more about Laurie and Olga’s travels.

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Left: Mariela’s fabulous flan; center: El Loro, pasta maker extraordinaire; right: Ramiro had a little lamb

December 2, 2013

From Laurie:

It’s taken me a few days, but I’ve finally figured out why the Argentinians skip breakfast: they have to get started on planning dinner. La cena involves so many decisions: who’s cooking (the meat), what to eat (which meat), which carnicería offers the best cut (of meat). Then there’s shopping, prepping, and finally cooking. The latter can take up to five hours or more, especially an asado, the Argentinian barbecue equal in stature to the mate ritual. Our visit is a special occasion and they’ve pulled out all the culinary stops, so I won’t make any generalizations about whether they eat like this every night. But I will say that we’ve had the best roast lamb, roast pork, and fresh pasta in our lives.

Then there’s la hora de la cena—nobody in their right mind sits down to dinner before 9:30 PM, and we’ve started dining as late as midnight because roasting a whole lamb takes five and one-half hours, whereas roasting a whole pig only three and one-half. Thank goodness for the fresh salads, which are varied and plentiful, because otherwise I’d have expired already from hardening of the arteries. After a few days on this diet, I was feeling the need for a little yin to offset the yang and made a nice lentil soup. The men scoffed, while the women declared they liked it—that, possibly, out of politeness or novelty.

Lest I seem to paint our hosts as obsessive foodies, let me set the record straight: there’s nothing fussy about food here. How can you be fussy calculating a kilo of meat per person for the typical asado?

Here as elsewhere, great food, wine, and conversation bring together old friends separated by long distances and even longer time. One rainy afternoon, “El Loro” makes the lightest, most delicious pasta from scratch that I have ever eaten, while he talks about the eight years he spent in prison and how the attention brought to his case by international human rights groups probably saved his life.

El Loro taught himself to cook to overcome the crippling shyness of his childhood—hard to imagine as he regales us with hilarious stories about living in Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world where ships leave for Antarctica—where he had occasion to open the freezer door to warm up his kitchen.

There’s Ruben spreading his collection of detective novels across the table after dinner: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Chester Hines… Fellow prisoner Julio raising a toast for Olga’s return, while he delivers a sermon on the need for unity to the locals at the table. Mirta and Olga sing songs they had taught each other in prison…After 35 years, Mirta still remembers a Mexican love song, Ella.

Hear and see Olga and Mirta sing Ella, a Mexican song.

From Olga:

Throughout Latin America, Argentinians have a reputation for being arrogant, dismissive, obsessed with fashion and looks, and highly critical of everything. While there is a grain of truth in this, there is also an immense sweetness masked by these superior airs. They have to pretend not to care as they actually care a lot.

While Laurie and I are the subject of gentle teasing and verbal sparring, “You Yankees always want to steal our best kept secrets, like how to make the best asado or the best pasta,” we are treated like royalty and offered the very best of what they have. While the bantering and dissing can be jarring at times, I am reminded of the Argentinian ways—that teasing is a form of love, that loss and grief are deflected through humor, and that actions speak louder than words.

So, the elaborate planning and preparation speak volumes of the love and camaraderie we share. The attention to detail—the coals just so, the pasta the perfect thinness, the ingredients the exact proportion—can certainly be attributed to the food craze that seems to have gripped our entire generation. But it is so much more than that. It’s a pure expression of love. The gift of time, those precious hours of prepping, consulting, and deciding, followed by the actual consumption of the feasts with the wine flowing. All that followed by critiques of the meal, emphasizing its finer points: was the crispness of the cordero skin better this time? Did the dressing enhance or overwhelm dandelion greens? And then moving on to the food of the soul, songs that bring back memories and bind us together.

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