If you have a social media account, you're no stranger to the perfectly-staged foodie photo. I know I'm guilty! I mean look at me..I'm pathetic -->
In between taking pictures of my salads and then of my cupcakes (#moderation), I'll be the first to admit that the food photos, no matter how colorful and eye-catching, can't possibly convey the social goodness behind the lens. Taking stock of my most recent Instagram foodie photos, I find a few examples:
Those pretty s'mores cupcakes prove looks can be deceiving. These tasted like sand, but the guests at the party spared my feelings by each taking one and nodding in God-Bless-Them approval. We ended the night by having a marshmallow fight around the bonfire.
My mom made that salad for a girls' night this past Spring. We got tipsy over couple of bottles of crisp white wine and howled with laughter while re-hashing funny stories.
So you see, in my "real" life and in my travels, food has proven to be so much more than the perfectly-Pinterest-worthy photos. It's part of the story of fellowship, conversation, and sharing.
My photos from Argentina were mostly of food (we ate A LOT!), but none of them made it to Instagram. At the time, there weren't enough hashtags in the world to describe the great times I had while sharing meals with colleagues-turned-friends. I hope that in sharing them with you now, accompanied by the stories they deserve, I can convey the exquisite hospitality and irresistible flavors of Argentina.
I first arrived in Argentina, a trifecta of unpleasantness: sweaty, stinky, and sleepy. Maite, my friend (and colleague), had arranged for someone to collect me from the airport and bring me back to her place in Buenos Aires. As I scanned the hazy airport, I didn't see anyone holding a sign with my name on it and I felt a tiny prickle of panic on the back of my neck. Then, right as I was shifting into my problem solving mode, I saw Maite herself, waving her arms and rushing toward me in the airport.
After greeting me with a big hug and customary kiss on the cheek, she explained that when her afternoon meeting had a last-minute cancellation, she rushed to the airport to pick me up herself. She brought me back to her lovely condo in one of the neighborhoods of B.A. and--taking stock of my obvious fatigue--encouraged me to take a shower and nap while she finished working.
After a much-needed rest, we officially kicked off my stay in Argentina with a wine toast and grand plans for dinner at Cafe de Maite (I say this only mildly in jest. She is a seriously talented chef). I love sampling wines when I travel and the Malbec that Mai had selected was no different. Fruity and full, it perfectly complemented the traditional sausage appetizer she prepared.
Filling our glasses as we went, we chatted excitedly about plans for our long weekend ahead, and prepared the next round of our Argentine feast. Which, by the way, was A STEAK THE SIZE OF MY HEAD (!!!) accompanied by a light salad. With each bite of my steak, I came to a more complete understanding of why Argentina is so famous for its beef. This beef was like *woah*.
After demolishing both the steak and the bottle of wine, Maite gave me a birthday gift of 1 Kilo of dulce de leche aka the nectar of the gods. Like a kid in a candy shop, I broke into the package and had my first spoonful, cracking up at the thought of carting this kilo of goodness back to the US in my suitcase. (Editor's note: The best strategy is to eat it all in Argentina and simply request a seatbelt extension for your flight home).
Maite's niece, Cele, was also staying with her on the weekend that I was visiting. On the nights that we cooked and dined in, Cele would join us for dinner. With Mai as an unofficial translator and Cele's willingness to step outside of her comfort zone and speak English, we had wonderful conversations. We talked about Cele's passion for animals and bonded over our shared love of food and Maite's cat, Simon. With food as the universal language that we all spoke, those nights the three of us spent together are some of my fondest memories of Argentina. We noshed on Mai's homemade corn souffles, potato cakes, vegetables roasted to the point of perfection, salad caprese canapes, meringues with homemade lemon curd...What can I say? We feasted!
Before coming to South America, I was prepared to eat a lot of meat and empanadas in Argentina. What I wasn't prepared for was how much Argentinians love their desserts. The surprise was a pleasant one. In the name of cultural immersion, Maite made it her mission to have me sample all of the local favorites. We ate dessert in little neighborhood cafes, dessert at home, dessert after meals out at a restaurant. After *ahem* extensive research, below are some of the sweet treats I tried, ranked in order of deliciousness. Now there is no secret to why I gained back every kilo I lost on the Inca trail.
1. Helado - ice cream
I've had a lot of different kinds of ice cream, but believe me when I say that it's just better here. Better-than-Italian-gelato-better. There is no contest, this wins every. single. time.
2. Alfajores - the Argentina Oreo
In my mind there are two basic kinds of alfajores, although my friends from Buenos Aires would assuredly argue that there are far more varieties. I prefer the kind of alfajore with two crisp, savory cornstarch cookies with thick layers of dulce de leche sandwiched between them. I'm not as keen on the softer kind of alfajore, which has more delicate book-ending cookies and is covered in a thin layer of chocolate.
3. Panqueques de dulce de leche - crêpe with dulce de leche
On my last night in Argentina, Cele made these homemade for us. We ate them with dulce and helado and all was right with the world. Maybe it's my French roots, but anything with a crêpe is bound to be good (probably because bad cooks do not attempt the crêpe).
4. Queso y dulce - block of cheese + sweet potato paste
This is a strange dessert, but I can't help but like it. Maite ordered it as a sweet treat after a meal of empanadas and tamales. It's not too sweet and the creamy cheese is complimented perfectly by the thick layer of sweet potato jam on top. If you can get over the texture and don't want a sugar rush, this is the dessert is for you.
5. Rogel - sweet layer cake
This is a traditional dish that is the most un-cake-like cake you'll ever eat. It's actually crispy! And the frosting is hard! But the thin wafer layers are made a little chewy by the equally thin layers of dulce de leche that separate them, so it has a very interesting texture. Careful, though. It's super sweet and even a dessert connoisseur like me was on the struggle bus to finish it.
At the time of my trip, I worked in an international team with six members: myself, a woman from Canada, a woman from New Jersey, and three people from Buenos Aires. We communicated primarily via IM, and conference/video calls. Though these forms of communication don't seem very substantial, I slowly got to know my colleagues. In between "business as usual", we got a video tour of Rodo's kitchen remodel project, encouraged Kari to finish her thesis, and had a virtual baby showers for the three women on the team. We dressed up in home-made costumes for our team call on Halloween. We came to know that the cat meowing in the background was Lucky and the details of the painting that always hung in Jeannine's dining room when she worked from home. A slow connectedess formed over the years, so when I came to Buenos Aires on vacation, I HAD to officially meet the people I worked with every day.
One of my colleagues, Ana, and her husband graciously opened her home to us for the occasion. We all gathered for an asado. A loose equivalent of an asado in the US is the BBQ, but that comparison seems unfair. Whereas an American BBQ means grilling up a few burgers and dogs, an Argentine asado is a full-afternoon affair. It begins many hours before you sit down to eat, where the man of the household (in this case, Ana's husband) start tending to the meat. He grilled the meat in a kind of outdoor hearth while Ana poured us some wine and her boys played futbol in the backyard.
It was excellent to meet my colleagues face-to-face after three years of working virtually. Although I originally thought I had known them pretty well, I gained a fuller sense of who they were that afternoon. We chatted about my impressions of Argentina so far, of the Argentina way, of their holiday plans, and what was going on outside of work.
Before we knew it, part one of our meal was ready: grilled chorizo, blood sausage, grilled provolone cheese, and crusty bread. I was a little anxious to try the blood sausage, and my colleagues laughed at me as I took my first bit and the anxiety in my face turned to delight. More wine was served, and Ana's husband proudly produced the asado that he had so expertly grilled. It was served on a platter that had coals in the bottom...to keep the meet constantly hot and delicious. This asado, was so impressive! What flavor! I remembered all of the Monday team calls where my Argentine colleagues mentioned attending an asado over the weekend and how I made the (incorrect) association that this meant they had grilled up a few steaks on their patio. This was so wildly different, richer really, than anything I had imagined previously. The meal finished with--of course--helado (ice cream) and more relaxing time as friends around the table.
From the moment I arrived to our emotional goodbyes, I was treated as one of their own, unofficially family, an honorary Argentine. How humbling, how incredibly special to me, to be treated with such hospitality and given the very best! I smile even now at the wonderful memory.
Upon being back in the US for nearly six months, these memories are still fresh and were intensified by the accompaniment of food and friendship. My time in Argentina was a good reminder to slow down at meal times, to always welcome friends warmly into my home, and that photos of food almost always have a great story behind it.
Of possible interest:
- This article, which photographs families around the world with their week's worth of groceries
- What makes steak from Argentina so renowned?
- Make your own alfajore
- Understanding the Asado BBQ the Argentina Way
- What's the difference between dulce de leche and caramel?