Saturday, April 17, 2010

Peanut Butter in the Wine Rack: Food Memoir Part 2

Click here to read Part I

When the move came, I was fine with it. At thirteen I had about the social and emotional sense of a mushroom. I walked down the hall of junior high bragging about moving to Argentina to friends I wouldn’t see for years. In June of 1998, we took a couple long plane rides to Buenos Aires where we touched down at six A.M. on a chilly winter’s morning. After enduring my first overnight flight of insomnia, I went to my room in our new house and entered a comatose state before my head hit the pillow.

My dad woke me five hours later with a warning about sleeping the day away. I arose zombie-like and we went to Burger King, which was just six blocks from our house. It was comfort food in the alien environment.

I was too young to grasp the reality that we were in South America permanently and none of us, besides Dad, had any idea how to live there. I passed my first summer-turned-winter break being sick, watching TV, doing some sightseeing and reading the only book that Mom brought on the plane, Etiquette for Dummies. I’ve never forgotten how to set a table since!

Our Christmas traditions were completely transformed during our Argentine years. Mom bought “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” china and we each took turns reading the lines off our plates and bowls. Clam chowder, served in the new china our first year in B.A., became an annual Christmas Eve tradition. Thanks to the small American community, we were friends with the local General Authorities and mission presidents, who joined us for Christmas Eve. When they came, Mom asked us all to sign the bottom of our china plates to immortalize their company.

Later that first Christmas Eve, we were sitting around the piano singing “Silent Night” when a flurry of explosions shook the house and fireworks shone through the window. After the song we dashed to the deck to see what was the matter. From the top of our wall we watched the festive midnight pyrotechnics ring in the Nativity.

Christmas morning our stockings were filled with cans of A&W root beer, and under the tree lied brightly wrapped packages of Crisco and Miracle Whip, lifelines to save my parents from using animal lard and mayonnaise. After presents, our visiting family members spilled their suitcases full of more edible treasure on the dining room table, which became a bartering ground. Afterwards, Dad fired up the brick grill, or “parilla,” in our backyard and we hit the pool to beat the humid heat.

The root beer was the most welcome gift of all. Before the opening of each can, we would make sure we had the jealous attention of everyone in the house. Some cans would stay hidden in the refrigerator for months until anticipation overwhelmed the owner.

We were also hoarders of peanut butter. We drove to a distant Wal*Mart every few weeks to check if a shipment came in. This was, as far as we could tell, the only store in the city that sold peanut butter. We stocked up on twenty to thirty jars every time we went and stored them in our large, otherwise empty wine rack.

One American family in our branch said that once while going through customs, the official commented on how many Mormons he’d noticed hauling jars of peanut butter in their suitcases. With a straight face he asked them, “Is it some part of your religion?”

We didn’t just stick to our American food, though. We ventured out for Argentine regularly, but had to adjust to the Argentine schedule where restaurants don’t even open until nine P.M. On weekends some diners linger until five or six A.M. Waiters were uniformly heavyset and always memorized your orders as a mark of pride. When one waiter had served the rest of my family, he turned to me and said “None for you—you’re already too fat.”
He was serious.

On the menu, milanesas were typical lunch fare. They are often translated as breaded veal cutlets, though the meat doesn’t come from stall-raised calves like in the U.S. The thin cutlets are often over one foot long and six inches wide and precariously positioned in a French roll half its size, leaving a fourth of the slab bulging out on all sides. Slather on some mayo, add a lettuce leaf and a couple tomato slices and you’ve got lunch.

Empanadas hold a special place in my heart. About 3mm of blockage in my right ventricle, actually. Empanadas, which are becoming more common in the U.S., are meat turnovers filled with ground beef, chicken, or ham and melted mozzarella cheese. The best empanadas came from Pizza Bonita, which means “Pretty Pizza.” I had a ritual of eating a mess of their most delicious, greasy chicken and ham and cheese empanadas and watching “The Mummy.”

Besides potatoes, pasta and bread, meat is basically all Argentines eat. Fruits and green vegetables are a once-a-month affair. They consume more beef per person than any other country in the world. Most cattle are range-fed in a natural environment and none of them are injected with hormones. As a result, the beef is as tasty as it is natural. Steaks are grilled only over wood fires and seasoned only with salt. No sauces are ever used to dress them and, after one bite, any blasphemous desire for A-1 was gone as the tender, succulent beef melted in our mouths.

Still widely discussed in the family is a particular meal in Uruguay. Just right across the Rio de la Plata from Argentina, Uruguay so culturally similar to Argentina that it is jokingly referred to as an Argentine province. The restaurant, Pulpería de los Faroles (roughly translated as “the place of tender beef among the street lamps”) is housed in a small, three-hundred-year-old brick building in the Colonia town square. Its rustic, bare brick walls hold a peculiar legend that, in 1680, a magician brewed the elixir of life there and still visits the kitchen at night to concoct his potions. The only magic we experienced was the steak, which possibly surpassed that of Argentina. The bacon wrappings made our tongues do the tango.

After we had been in Argentina for one year, the most innovative and popular restaurant in the city opened just down our street: Kansas Grill. An American entrepreneur built the grill close to the American school, where most of the Americans lived. The buzz spread like electricity throughout the community that a restaurant had opened with real American cooking.

Not only was that true, but the food surpassed our wildest fantasies with the best appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts we had ever had. The Chicago Style Spinach Dip was creamy beyond compare. The nachos put other messes of chips and cheese to shame with succulent, homemade chili draped over the lightest chips imaginable. The Traditional Salad was a king among salads. It had a medley of vinaigrette dressing, warm crumbled bacon and hardboiled eggs. Its warm croutons were crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. All these ingredients combined to form a holy alliance of flavor.

Kansas introduced ribs and barbeque sauce to the country, which sent Americans into a hysterical consumption. The marinated steaks were also not only revolutionary but downright scrumptious. Everyone I know who has tried it believes Kansas’s Hawaiian Steak is the best marinated steak they’ve ever had. In this steak, world-class Argentine beef met the flavors of American-style preparation. Sweet pineapple, soy and ginger permeated the beautiful cut whose tenderness left knives optional.

Kansas also lays claim to the best dessert experience of my life. Their carrot cake was warm and thick as a brick. Its cream cheese icing was thick and cold, covering the warm offering like a loving blanket.

When Friday came we would get in the car and drive to Kansas Grill without saying a word about our destination. The Kansas Grill has been the pinnacle of Isaacson food lore for ever since. My father recently said that without Kansas we might not have been able to make it through our five years in Buenos Aires. Argentine food was excellent, but Kansas Grill was home.


The oil in my deep, 10-inch fry pan sizzles and splatters as I hurriedly cover it before it does further damage. The cleaning of the range, walls and clothes are easily worth a nostalgic slice of milanesa. The folks at the Mercado Latino are getting to recognize me thanks to my frequent purchases of empanada dough. I’ve mastered the beef and ham and cheese kinds, but my chicken has never been up to snuff.

I’ve been cooking Argentine for about a year and a half now. After five years in Argentina as an angst-ridden teenager, all I wanted to do was leave, but now I want more than ever to return. I remind myself that all my friends, like me, have long since moved to America. But the familiar city and the food that was at the heart of it all . . . perhaps that would be worth the trip.


  1. I remember the first meal we tried to cook in BA was spaghetti with fresh noodles. I don't think we did it very well. The thing I hated carrying to BA the most was the cans of olives. Olives, always olives, why?

  2. I had no idea you lived in Argentina. That's where I served my mission. I miss some of the food so much (and other things of course). Man I want to go back one day. UTBA trip?

  3. That was an awesome trip down memory lane, B! You're a great writer. I can't BELIEVE that waiter said that to you! I laughed and laughed. Ah, yes, the Christmas fest. I shopped til I dropped collecting all those North American goodies for all. Mrs. Cavenaugh's for mom, peanut butter and crisco, taco spice mixes, other kinds of mixes, and oh, the rootbeer. I was so worried about getting those through customs! You couldn't take them nowadays! Thanks for the great article.