Globally Aware: Learning About Food Issues From Another Hemisphere, Part 2

If you haven't yet, check out part 1 of my exploration of food issues from Argentina.

As I have attempted to continue writing about the food traditions, habits and beliefs of my acquaintances in Argentina, all seems to turn to the topic of the social life here. While food rituals are shared by families and include specific familiar dishes and routines, the social culture, and its rules and expectations dominate most interactions, and thus, any shared experiences of eating.


Socializing is obviously a big deal in Argentina, but it is not always so simple. In addition to geography and shared interests, there is also a significant class component to socializing. As someone recently explained it to me--the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and there is no one in the middle--sound familiar?? The difference is that in Argentina people are generally bound by their class association for life. Once a cleaning woman, always a cleaning woman. In contrast, if you inherit your family’s mansion and furniture, you will pass it along to your children. In either case, your specific traditions will go along with you. Change is not easy, if even possible.


There are important social norms and groupings here and interestingly, some are very similar to those I have experienced in Minneapolis. For example, I am still close with many of my high school friends and continue to socialize with them. While we are not exclusive, there is a familiarity and a history that is very important and often contributes to a particular routine or set of expectations that we share. Someone outside of the group, a visitor from another city or country for example, would not know these particular routines. In many cases this extends to the food we eat when we are together. Many of our gatherings are based around a meal, we all respect and understand one another’s specific eating habits, needs and idiosyncrasies, and many of us take great pride in preparing and sharing our food.


In Mendoza, things reach a level of exclusivity that can be alienating, but which, I have learned, is simply the way things are and are not a personal affront, especially when it comes to the food. I have not been privy to any of the more intimate and local social gatherings, and can only report on some of the more public events such as birthday parties and school related affairs. These events include (unwritten) rules about which foods and beverages to offer. For example, I have never been to an afternoon event where wine was available. While they love their Torrontés and Malbec, there are only certain hours when it is appropriate to drink. Similarly (or perhaps because of this) I have never attended anything that did not include sweets and soda. Additionally, there is always Maté. Maté is tea made from the dried leaves of the Yerba Mate plant. Sharing Maté is a classic Argentine tradition and again, there are very specific rules to this ritual. It is a lovely part of the culture here, and something that causes everyone to slow down and hang out. This helps me understand some of the practices that people have with their children as well as the long days with late dinners. I am still however baffled and concerned with the amount of sugar (both real and artificial) and white flour consumed everyday, by everyone. It is almost like a resignation. A great deal of people simply don’t want to cook, they don’t want to have to manage or think about ‘healthy’ choices or anything that requires extra effort or intentionality. Therefore, they simply accept the food that has been accepted and served for generations. It is not so much a choice, as a non-choice. The focus is on the socializing, and the food and eating is simply context or background. 


I have tried in many ways to have conversations with local Argentines about food, sustainability and health. There have been interesting comparisons and“what do you eat for breakfast?” types of talks. What have I learned? It turns out that peanut butter is a mystery to everyone here even though peanuts are ubiquitous, and eggs for breakfast is simply considered weird. Sweets are enjoyed heartily by all, but generally in the middle of the day, and dinner before 8:30 is essentially unheard of. Almost all of the families we have met have house help, which often includes someone who prepares the food.


When asked if they enjoyed cooking, several mothers told me no. Some even looked at me as if they didn’t really understand the question. When asked how and what their kids ate, it was relatively unanimous that getting them to eat vegetables was not easy. This is a culture that is incredibly meat-centric. One statistic indicates that consumers in the industrial world eat more than 80 kilograms per person of meat each year (Brian Halweil-“Meat Production Continues to Rise”, Vital Signs Online, published in August 2008 by the Worldwatch This includes both Argentina and the United states which is currently still the largest producer of beef in the world, and I am sure there are as many people in the US who struggle to get their kids to eat vegetables. There are likely similarities in the number of people who enjoy cooking.


However, Argentines don't take their meat for granted. There is a focus on and a love of meat here, centered around the Asado, a community barbecue involving large amounts of meat and a man who manages the grill, that is both exciting and shocking. No culture is devoid of its food passions and I believe that unless there is some pleasure derived through the act of cooking food, it is a struggle for most people to make any improvements to their eating habits, no matter their situation. From a public health perspective, and in my opinion, there is really no way to lead a healthy lifestyle without preparing most of your own meals from scratch, not to mention that it is also the most sustainable and affordable way to eat.


Considering that there is no recycling here, that all our waste, including plastic, glass, metal and food goes directly into the garbage, (if it makes it into a garbage can at all) it is no surprise that sustainability is not a part of the food culture in Argentina. People are willing to regularly consume the same starchy, fatty and flavorless foods for the sake of the social event or the simplicity of the meal, and seem to have little interest in the sources of that meal or the circumstances in which it arrived. Also, despite extraordinary emphasis on lean bodies, big breasts and high fashion, this does not translate to healthy lifestyles. Smoking rates in Argentina are around 33%, which puts it in the top 15 countries for smoking percentage. Plastic surgery and liposuction are as common as braces and often take the place of good old-fashioned exercise as a way to a ‘better’ body.


Again, this begs the question: "Why is our awareness of food, health and sustainability so high in certain parts of the US?" In general, my home state of Minnesota has a history of progressive social activism and concern for all its citizens as well as a large health and wellness community. Through heroes of the original ‘DFL’ (Democratic Farmer Labor) party like Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone, we have led the way in the agenda of social responsibility as well as concern for the foundation of farming in our community. Over the years, these two primary issues have become inextricably linked together, and the awareness of how they co-exist in the pursuit of justice and sustainability is more and more apparent all the time. This historical context combined with the student and hippie cultures of the 70’s saw a collective food movement that has grown tremendously and has been supported by progressive Minnesotans in all kinds of ways, from a giant network of natural food coops to a growing number of memberships in CSA farms, as well as a healthy, local and sustainable restaurant industry.


As in the United States, where we come from and who we surround ourselves with has a lot to do with the habits we create and pass on to our children. Part of this environmental influence is in the educational sector. Once again, it is clear to me that education is a critical factor in both building awareness of food and health as well as inspiring any kind of change. The real challenge seems twofold: to inspire and encourage people to make healthy, responsible choices for their own benefit and then try and pass on the importance of this to their children in order to make those changes meaningful, enjoyable and sustainable. Without both of these pieces in place, the changes will never stick.

I attempted to find a few representatives of some of the people and communities that I have encountered in Mendoza to see if some sense could be made of the questions that I have about food and health here. What I have discovered is that there are people here with a whole range of opinions and ideas, all with their own specific story and unique traditions. It goes without saying, that all have valuable lessons that can hopefully lead to a greater understanding of how the world views food and its traditions. 


Here are a few of the people I have met that demonstrate how different people are, even within the same culture and geographic area (the names below have been changed with the exception of Diego, the chef from Buenos Aires):


Leona: Leona is a high-powered, mid 30s attorney married to another attorney and living in D__, the expensive private neighborhood above the city of Mendoza. Her 10-year old daughter is a classmate of my daughter’s. She also has a 2-year old daughter. They have at least 3 young women who help out at home, cooking, cleaning and managing the children. Leona’s daughter loves sweets. The typical Argentine meal schedule involves a small breakfast, a big lunch and a mid-afternoon snack followed by a late dinner. The few times I have spent with her daughter, I have watched her consume extraordinary amounts of sugar. Granted, it was what was available, but I remain fascinated at the willingness to offer, and allow kids to consume so much, especially at 5 or 6 in the evening. At the last small gathering I attended, this girl (and all the others as well) ate at least 6 cookies or pieces of coffee cake, and drank no less than 4 glasses of soda. They were playing outside which was a good thing, but it is not uncommon for kids to be inside watching television while eating and drinking copious amounts of sugar (or more likely high fructose corn syrup). This girl, and many of her peers are well on their way to dealing with weight problems and other related health issues if they continue to eat this way, and watch as much television as they do.  


From Diego's kitchen: Grilled artichokes and beets, almonds, greens from the garden, guava dressingFrom Diego's kitchen: Grilled artichokes and beets, almonds, greens from the garden, guava dressingDiego: Diego is a young chef who runs a private restaurant out of his home in Buenos Aires that offers regionally inspired and sustainable/organic vegetarian and fish meals. He and his American wife spend half of their year traveling to different parts of South and North America in search of ingredients, methods and flavors that represent various local traditions and foods. He then brings these ideas and ingredients back to Buenos Aires where he uses them to create unique and delicious 5 course meals (see my blog post for more about his restaurant). Interestingly, all of his clientele are foreigners. While he is glad to have the business, he is frustrated with his Argentine neighbors who he says don’t care about knowing where their food comes from or what local flavors are, and won’t even consider paying for a meal if it doesn’t include meat.


Muriel is a single mom, chef, teacher and vegetarian. She lives outside the city of Mendoza in a spectacularly beautiful community just between the Mendoza river and the Andean foothills. She explored vegetarianism at a time in her life when she had many struggles both physically and emotionally. She says that within one day after changing her diet, she was amazed at how different she felt. Despite the fact that her daily life still had the same problems and struggles, suddenly she felt lighter and healthier and more able to handle those daily challenges. She has never turned back, and is in fact attempting to make a living teaching others what she has learned about this healthy way of eating. Muriel lives very simply and has very little in terms of money and resources. She cannot afford to always buy organic foods and has to make exceptions and choices around food regularly. She maintains a simple diet of whole foods, does her own baking and canning, and sells some of her fare at the organic farmers market in Mendoza. Her son reminds me of other farm kids I have met. He is content to eat what his mother prepares and spends much of his day riding around on his bike or just being outside. He definitely watches television, but has no internet access and no real motivation to sit around indoors. When I asked her who comes to her cooking classes, she told me it is generally women who are either trying to lose weight, save money on food, or perhaps improve their health. 


These stories are in no way meant to generalize or categorize people. They are just here to show that no matter where you are, there is someone who is ignorant of food issues, someone who is making good choices and someone who is fighting to change the way things are. It is my goal that they might inspire you and give you hope.


Jenny Breen has been a professional chef in the Twin Cities since 1986. She is co-owner of Good Life Catering, and previously owned the Good Life Cafe. Jenny is a passionate advocate for local and sustainably raised foods, and has been working directly with farmers and producers since she opened her restaurant in 1993. Jenny has been teaching cooking and nutrition to adults and children at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, in the Twin Cities Food Coops and with Twin Cities schools since the mid 90s. She is a 2009 recipient of an Archibald Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and recently completed her Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Her first cookbook"Cooking up the Good Life" which emphasizes local, seasonal whole foods cooking for families, was released in April of 2011.