To nobody’s surprise, when I was twelve years old I announced to a room full of eighteen people that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. My mom winced, thinking, no doubt, of all the years worth of stress-filled days thrust upon her in that instant by my declaration. If it really was my favorite, she had to make it good. And let me tell you, it really is my favorite.
I’d like to think I’ve alleviated a bit of the stress as I’ve grown; each year I take on more and more of the cooking. This year I actually made most of the dishes: the sautéed Brussels sprouts, roasted root vegetables, roasted herb potatoes, and red cabbage and apples. The most notable dishes, however, are always made by my mom: the turkey, the cornbread dressing, and the sticky toffee pudding.
Sure, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the turkey. But it wouldn’t be our Thanksgiving without a portion of mealy, mushroomy dressing so large it takes up a third of your plate, or the last bite of the night being a huge spoonful of ooey-gooey, melt in your mouth sticky toffee pudding so good it might have come from a stone cabin in the highlands of Scotland.
So I guess Thanksgiving is about the food, but it’s also about the tradition, and ours is quite simple. We cook like crazy. The turkey comes out, my cousin carves it, and we all sit down to eat. We raise our glasses and my dad says a “Thanks,” that gets followed by a chorus of “Cheers!” which is stifled so quickly by the sound of china that it is a wonder it ever happened at all.
Today is officially my last day in Argentina. I’ve said almost all of my good-byes. My bags are packed (somehow I got everything to fit into the exact same bags that I came with; I have no idea how that’s possible, but I’m not going to question it for fear of them bursting right open). My flight leaves in just a few hours, and then tomorrow, after God-knows how many hours of travelling, I’ll land in California, get picked up at the airport by my parents, and start this American life once again. Hello family, old friends, Mexican food, sushi, and English spoken everywhere.
There are a lot of things from home that I’ve missed while abroad, but there’s also so much that I’m sad to leave here. Argentina may be full of economic problems, political corruption, and a frustratingly unreliable bus system (never again will I complain about having to wait eight minutes for the 1 train to arrive at the platform), but it’s also here that I’ve met the nicest, most generous, warm people. I already miss the friends I’ve made here, and I don’t even want to think about how the improvements I’ve made in Spanish are going to plummet into the abyss of invisibility when I stop speaking and hearing the language during most of the day, or how I have no idea when I’ll be having another one of those amazingly flavorful asados. Oh Argentina, what will I do without you?
There are a few things (i.e. food) that I will be able to take along with me. One of my carry-ons, for example, is filled with the different types of cookies that my host mom would serve me for breakfast (no fruit of yogurt here in the morning as you will be called a monkey if you’re caught eating a banana for breakfast). Among those many cookie boxes are six of the Manón brand; they carry my name, so I was basically obligated to take a few with me, right? I’ve also got copies of several of my host mom’s recipes and the address of an Argentine grocery store in NYC. So aside from those asados, I’m basically set.
There are also a few of us in the program who might have decided to be one of those pretentious study abroad return-students who show in the most obvious way possible that they’ve lived outside the country. So if you ever see a few people drinking mate on Low Steps, it might be us.
Mate is one of the greatest Argentine customs, and travelling to Argentina without tasting this famous infusion is like going to Italy without eating pizza or to France without enjoying a croissant. Mate is to Argentina as the hamburgers are to the US, and aside from the horrendous Fernet con Coca (which apparently is an acquired taste, but to me just tastes like something you’d take for a bad cough) it’s basically the national drink and its people’s pride and joy. While many Argentines drink it in the morning as Americans would coffee (mateina has a similar energizing effect as caffeine), mate is generally enjoyed in social settings. The tea is passed around to all participants and everyone sips from the same bombilla (metal straw), all the while respecting the protocol that surrounds this friendship ritual. There are a lot of different claims to the correct way to cure the mate cup, how to prepare the tea, which brand of yerba to use, and more, so five months in Argentina and many mates later, I still feel as though I’ve only acquired a very basic understanding of the complex ritual that surrounds this tea. Evidently, it’s much more than just a simple plant infusion.
The first time that a friend and I were offered to share mate with an Argentine that we’d just met, we were sitting in film class listening to the professor’s lecture and were thus unable to communicate our excitement to each other about having just been initiated into the most Argentine tradition that there could be. We passed notes to each other that read, “make an Argentine friend…CHECK!” and “drink mate in class…CHECK!” and did our best to control our exhilaration. I later found out that by taking just a few sips without finishing the whole cup I had totally butchered the protocol, but oh well… A couple weeks later, a few of us from the program went to the park to drink mate, and if only we hadn’t been taking a ton of pictures of ourselves we would have looked totally local. Good thing we’ve gone back since, complete with snacks and a guitar (and without the camera).
Most of all, I’m going to miss the daily mate and charla (chatting) that I’d enjoy with my host mom after waking up from the siesta. She’d set up a beautiful table of toast, homemade jams, cookies, and cake, and then we’d sit down and talk about whatever was on our minds at that moment: class, politics, friends, the repairs that needed to be made in the apartment upstairs, food, the neighbors, family, or life. Over these past five months in Argentina, I’ve gotten to be pretty close to my host mom—she’s made me feel at home in a foreign country, she’s taken me into her family even though we’d never known each other before my arrival, and she’s taught me so many valuable lessons, whether about the Spanish language, cooking, or life. My host mom is one of the most generous and genuinely good people that I’ve ever met in my life, and she will be the hardest person to say good-bye to when I leave. I’m really going to miss her, as well as our daily mate and charla, when I’m gone.
Mate is something very special, and it is a custom that I will dearly miss when I go back home. More than just a tea, it’s about friendship and the people it’s shared with. While my time in Argentina is now coming to a close, the national traditions I’ve learned about, the people I’ve met, and the people who have taken me into the their hearts will stay with me forever. There are many reasons to come back, so I hope it won’t be too long before the next time I set foot in this country once again. Un beso grande, Argentina.
Manon tells a heart-warming anecdote about heart-stopping bacon gravy. Recipe after the jump!
Most of what I’ve experienced of my grandparents’ cooking has come from my dad’s retellings of his childhood memories or from his own adaptations of his parents’ recipes. The best one of these recipes is definitely my grandfather’s bacon gravy (though he was not the only one to make it). Coming from a long line of Spanish-California rancheros, this breakfast dish is robust and rustic. And while incredibly unhealthy and promising to stink up the entire house and your clothes with the smell of bacon and burnt butter, it is a delicious meal that keeps you far from going hungry the entire day. Summer figure concerns do have to be put aside for this one.
Over the years, each generation adapted the recipe to their new and evolving tastes. My grandparents for example preferred a smooth and more viscous béchamel, so they would strain out the bacon bits before adding in the flour, and would pour in the milk tiny bit by tiny bit, all the while whisking furiously to avoid any lumps. Today though, we seem to have returned to a more rustic method of preparation: the bacon bits and lumps are left to be. Don’t be fooled though! While these adaptations may appear to result from ensuing laziness, I promise you that they add to the ancestral, ranchero feel of the dish. It is, after all, a down-to-earth and rugged meal, so less refinement adds to its texture and substance.
So, while the ingredient list and serving suggestions may frighten the heath conscious eater, (and understandably so) I can assure you that having bacon gravy for breakfast is well worth the extra workout that eating it calls for. At least you won’t go hungry on your run? Continue reading Bacon Gravy, an Ancestral Breakfast of Champions→