My Love Affair with Argentine Food (Or: Peanut Butter vs. Dulce de Leche)Buenos Aires, Spring 2009
(Shameless plug: I wrote this essay for an awesome food magazine in Houston)
“¿Que rico, no?” (It’s delicious, right?)
Maria smiled at me as I bit into a piece of toast with dulce de leche, the national dessert of Argentina. It was my first breakfast in Buenos Aires, and my host sister couldn’t believe I had never tasted the sweet that Argentines worship with a fervor equaled only by their devotion to fútbol and the Catholic church.
“You have to try it!” she said, doling out an alarming quantity of the gooey spread. “Delicious” was not quite the first word that came to mind. Instead, my initial reaction was shock: how could anything taste so impossibly sweet? I could almost feel my teeth crying out in protest. Dulce de leche is like caramel on steroids: thicker, creamier, and intensely sugary. Argentines slather it on everything—bread, fruit, pastries, chocolates, ice cream. Or they just eat it by the spoonful. At first I didn’t quite get its appeal, but I also believe that cultural immersion starts with your taste buds. So I told Maria sí, muy rico, and reached for more.
Buenos Aires is home to 13 million people and—or so it seemed to me as I explored its bustling streets—almost as many restaurants and cafes. For the first month, I floated on a cloud of culinary euphoria. I discovered empanadas, little baked hot pockets stuffed with meat and cheese. One is a snack and three is a meal, a warm treat on a chilly afternoon between classes. I gaped in wonder at the thirty-plus flavors in the ice cream shops on every corner, falling for the poetry of names like frutilla con nueces and sambayón a la crema. At first I was impatient with waiters who come by every half hour and never bring the check until you ask, but I learned to savor the stillness after a meal when conversation ebbs and flows for hours over coffee cups. And don’t get me started on the wine, especially the famous Malbecs with their strong oak flavors. I’m not much of a wine snob, but even I can take a sip of a Malbec and just think about it for a while.
However, my love affair with Argentine food progressed like any other romance: after infatuation came a gradual discovery of faults I had previously ignored. The scarcity of vegetables, the puzzling tendency to put mayonnaise on everything, and the lack of anything spicy all got on my nerves. I fantasized about my favorite Houston foods: spring rolls from Mai’s, the black bean burger at Hobbit Cafe, milkshakes at 59 Diner, 2 a.m. pickles and coleslaw from Katz’s. But the absolute worst, the one thing I could not live without, was the simplest: peanut butter.
Peanut butter hasn’t caught on in South America. Still, I looked for it every time I went in a grocery store, only to find aisles of dulce de leche. Friendly clerks would suggest I try Nutella or tahini instead, but only the real thing could satiate my craving. Some of my American classmates, similarly afflicted, tracked down expensive imported peanut butter. We were like drug addicts sharing a hookup: “They’ve got the goods on the corner by the subway, hidden in the back of the International shelf. It’s creamy, high-quality stuff.”
When my boyfriend bought a ticket to visit me, I begged him for a jar of Jif. I daydreamed in class: the two of us cuddling in the park, gazing deep into each other’s eyes…and eating a PB&J. In the end, he packed it in his carry-on luggage, where it was promptly confiscated by airport security (apparently, it’s classified as a liquid).
I did manage to find one small, precious jar. One day, my American roommate and I were relishing it with apple slices when Sofia, my other Argentine host sister, stopped by. She’d never tasted peanut butter, and we insisted she try it. She chewed slowly and hesitantly. A look of surprise and confusion dawned on her face, and in it I saw myself, trying Maria’s dulce de leche that first morning. “Well?” I asked. “What do you think?” Sofia sat silent for a moment. “It’s…strange,” she said carefully. Then she smiled and reached for more.
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