I grew up in Minnesota during the last great wave of earnest and unhealthy casseroles, when 25-year-old mothers traded recipe cards at Welcome Wagon, and “salads” often contained no vegetables.
While not every household in my hometown defined “variety” by how many different dairy products could be worked into one hot dish, or had the audacity to name an admixture of marshmallows, dried coconut, and canned fruit cocktail a word meaning “food of the gods,” mine was, by these standards, the norm. My parents were college-educated, still bought music the day it came out, and even lived for years in Japan, but when it came to mealtime, they picked up where their own parents had left off.
I’m pretty sure that the spiciest thing my mom ever added to a dish was salted butter. When she served chips and salsa, the salsa was the absolute mildest she could find; a glass of milk would score higher on the Scoville scale. A common and acceptable meal was a boiled chicken breast served with plain white rice and green peas.
When my dad cooked, things only got weirder. He only made one of two things, “slumgullion” or “whiplash.” “Slumgullion” involved dumping a variety of the previous day’s leftovers—say, chicken breast, white rice, and peas—into a pot, and stirring in a can of chicken noodle soup, no water added. “Whiplash,” meanwhile, was like goulash, but made in under ten minutes. This was possible because he did not add onions, peppers, bay leaves, potatoes, paprika, or any of the other ingredients that I would one day learn were in commonly recognizable versions of goulash.
People from the Midwest who experience a kitchen like mine often effect an equal and opposite reaction when they come of age. Some spend their twenties putting Tabasco sauce and chili flakes on everything, some learn to make their own damn food, and some become a freegan after a failed attempt to start a permaculture collective. To me, it just seemed like there could be lot more to eat in the world than what I’d been exposed to, and I wanted to try as much of it as I could stand.
My parents’ kitchen did not introduce me to the varied and bounteous repasts awaiting me in the world’s dining rooms and cafes, but it did keep me alive so that I could someday experience them on my own. My parents were fine with this, and encouraged it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it.
So, as soon as I got a driver’s license, my high school girlfriend Stacy and I set out to eat all of the food we’d only read about in magazines. Together we ate North African shekshouka at the Barbary Fig, Ethiopian injera at the Red Sea in the West Bank, and even found authentic Mexican food being served from a truck parked in the lot of the Busy Bee Café on Robert Street.
For Stacy and myself, all of this was damn near consciousness-expanding. The food itself was gustatory shorthand for a world of possibilities outside of our stultifying hometown, and it abetted a wanderlust that would go on to cost thousands in out-of-state student loans.
Stacy, for her part, eventually attended graduate school at the University of Bologna, later lived in Florence, and now has a job in New York that enables her to travel the world. I made up for my own lost time in comparative stops and starts, but I always waited for an opportunity to follow Stacy’s lead in actually living somewhere overseas, and getting the kind of culinary experience that only comes with cultural immersion.
In fall 2006, my live-in girlfriend and I broke up. After mutually trying and failing at an ill-advised attempt to be friends immediately afterward, an indefinite move to another continent seemed to be the thing to do. I stored what little I kept in the crawl space of a friend’s house in Echo Park, gave my 17-year old car to a Merchant Marine, and flew south to a rent a loft in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires lined up by an old friend from Chicago named Karen.
I’d met Karen a decade before in college, under an umbrella in a rainstorm. My version is that I was walking past Allison Residence Hall in a total downpour and I saw a shrouded figure pelted by rain, so I went over with my umbrella and walked her to her class. Her version is that she was the one with the umbrella, and I was the shrouded figure. Whatever happened, we didn’t even get each other’s names that day and it was only by some accident of fate that we crossed paths much later and became friends. By the time I was in Buenos Aires, she’d been living there for several years, working as a trapeze artist and taking wu shu classes. She carried a large sword on her back everywhere we went.
Karen also introduced me to a Castellano teacher named Natalia who I hired as my private language tutor. After a couple of weeks, when it seemed like I was able to complete a sentence, Karen and Natalia suggested that why don’t we all go out to a parilla for a total immersion dinner, with me responsible for doing all of the ordering. This was exactly what I’d been waiting for my entire life.
By this point, I’d traveled some, and had a few experiences eating local specialties (kangaroo in Darwin, ossobuco in Umbria) and badly ill-advised non-local specialties (bruschetta in Chiang Mai, tacos in Prague) and I figured I could handle anything. Building a hearty appetite for days in advance, I entered the night of my immersion dinner ready to use as many new bovine-related vocabulary terms as possible.
Compared to, say, a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse back up in the EE.UU, the Argentine parilla has a far more liberal notion of the percentage of a beef cow that’s considered edible; my estimates put that percentage in the mid 90s. They also assume that a customer is not disturbed by the idea of seeing their dinner before it hits their plate, or, quite often, before it’s completely butchered. Someone eating dinner extremely early, say around 8:00 pm, will see quartered cuts of cow paraded through the front door, and hung near a grill, usually also near the front door. Remember that skit from SNL’s first season, “Mel’s Char Palace?” The Argentines would not see the humor in it. They would ask where it is, and if they serve Malbec.
What attracts both tourists and locals, besides the quality of its grass-fed, hormone-free beef, is the price. At most parillas, a merely satisfying chunk of recently slaughtered bovine costs, in American prices, about as much as a used copy of Toby Keith’s “Shock’n Y’all” on CD. For the price of that CD new, you can get a steak that wouldn’t fit in your glove compartment.
Also, for whatever reason, you also get a massive amount of free bread with your meal. Not just Bimbo brand white dinner rolls either, but ludicrous quantities of a wide variety of grains and loaves, even those cool flavored sticks in plastic packaging. No idea where it’s baked. Maybe, as Ben Katchor wrote, “on the windswept shore of a vast inland sea.” I hope not anywhere less fascinating or less sanitary; there were nights where I’d cleaned out the breadbasket at least twice, and it was refilled even then. Taciturn young men bring clear plastic garbage bags full of the stuff in through the front door, all day and night, like a virtual Iguazu Falls of leavened bread delivery and consumption, so I knew even if my Castellano failed me during my immersion dinner, I would not starve.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to read and recite from a menu; at the parilla that Karen chose, I never even saw one. The three of us were sat at a table for six in the middle of a windowless restaurant whose walls were lined with mounted yellow wall lamps, making the place feel like an old school no-limit poker room, where everyone was a winner and winners were paid in beef. After two bottles of wine and the chimichurri were on the table, our waiter wasted no time becoming a warm conduit between the grill and my face, and all the bits and pieces that recently assembled a living cow flew at me with steam and alacrity.
Over three hours, the waiter assailed my table with semi-recognizable cuts of shank, rib, and loin. We ate black sausage. We ate kidneys. We ate an appetizer of something red, sliced and raw. We ate something called sweetbreads, which I learned is neither sweet nor bread. I didn’t eat more in quantity than I normally had in Argentina, but that night my alimentary canal made a dashing array of sundry acquaintances.
It was a simpler immersion experience than Natalia had hoped for me, but my basic Castellano still wasn’t up yet up for the job. I said “Yes” and “Delicious” and “I want more” again and again and again, but I hadn’t yet learned the phrases “That looks disgusting” or “Absolutely not under any circumstances” or even “No, I don’t want any” (which was one of the first phrases I learned in Thai, and the most frequently used). No, I just kept telling the server, Mas. Esta Bueno. Mas, Para Todos. Me Gusta. Mas, Por Favor.
Two days later I was still in bed, fully dressed, my bed sheets and multiple comforters wrapped around me like wet eels. By this point, a series of circumstances had forced Karen to move into the loft, and it was good to have her company in a time like this, even if she felt that I’d brought my fate on myself.
She was downstairs, moving her bed from the living room into the kitchen (a completely different story) when, wrapped in a mountain of blankets, I approached her.
“Karen,” I said, “I think I have something living inside of me.”
“Yeah, could be,” she said.
Not the answer I expected.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“So am I,” she said. “You might have a parasite.”
You Might Have A Parasite. “Parasite?” I asked her. “Where am I, Cambodia?” (Ever since seeing this made-for-TV Disney movie in the 80’s called “The Girl Who Spelled Freedom,” I’ve always associated intestinal parasites with Southeast Asia).
“Sure,” Karen said, not reassuringly. “It’s not unheard of. I got some Chinese herbs? Or you wanna see a doctor?”
I was cautious. I had just taken some strong medication from a local pharmacy and I didn’t want to mix meds. But I also didn’t want to rush to conclusions. Karen was busy that day with a cousin in town, and it was a Sunday and the doctor’s offices wouldn’t be open anyway, just the ERs.
“Let’s see how I am tomorrow morning,” I said.
In the meantime I decided to make peace with my intestinal parasite. I figured if there was a living thing inside of me, it was kind of like a pet, so I should give it a name. I decided on Mystery Lou.
At first the relationship between Mystery Lou and I was, like many parasitic relationships, decidedly ambiguous. After a while, I wasn’t sure where I stopped and he began; for my taste, it was a bit too much like that Gollum/Smeagol situation in the second Lord of the Rings film. Luckily, over time our relationship improved into something more nuanced, like the emotional but problematic bond between Truman Capote and Perry Smith, and I wondered if I would need to keep Mystery Lou alive so I could gain more material for a book about him.
All I’d learned to that point is that having a parasite, if that’s indeed what it was, is the most miserable physical experience this side of a kidney stone. Whatever it was I ate that gave birth to Mystery Lou I swore I’d never touch again, but I’d eaten so much weird shit that night I had no idea what part of the cow to blame.
Days passed, and either Mystery Lou died or went into hibernation, because I eventually regained an appetite and fully digested solid food again. After about a week without either, this was completely exciting. For me, it felt like graduating from high school, if high school had meant four years of vomiting and irregularity.
In the years since Mystery Lou, I’ve discovered the hard way that I’m lactose intolerant, that most pork products give me heartburn, and that almost all desserts and fried foods make me sick to my stomach. I still have the same inherent sense of adventure with cuisine, but my digestive tract has seemingly thrown in the serviette. Just like other phases some Midwestern guys experience—being into ska music, drinking Natty Ice, sleeping with girls from Wisconsin—the brazen pursuit of things like black sausage and sweetbreads may be something I’ve outgrown.
After I left Argentina in July of 2007, I immediately flew to Minnesota. My first night back in my hometown, my grandma Doris made me a splendid dinner of an iceberg lettuce salad, chicken breast, white rice, and peas. The meal did exactly what I needed it to do.
For that, I apologize to my mom and dad for my abandonment of their cuisine. I now see the point, and I’ll never doubt it again.