Saturday, June 22, 2013
QUIRKY EXPERIENCES IN SOUTH AMERICA, III: INTERNATIONAL CUISINE IN URUGUAY MEANS WHAT THEY EAT IN ARGENTINA
I’ve mentioned before that in general, Uruguayans don’t like spicy foods. Meat is salted, but not marinated, before roasting or broiling over the fire. When we lived in Montevideo in 1999, one obvious manifestation of this generalization was that there weren’t any Mexican restaurants in this city of almost 3 million inhabitants. According to a Google search on the Internet, there are at least two Mexican restaurants in town now. Roma-Tijuana seems to serve Italian-Mexican fusion cuisine according to a review (2009) I found. Apparently, the fusion is heavily biased to the Italian-Uruguayan palate. The salsa was described as “slightly spicy ketchup” and the enchiladas did not include enchilada sauce < http://www.exploringuruguay.com/2009/07/07/mexican-food-in-uruguay/>. La Lupita in Punta Carretas had real Mexican food with real, if mild, salsa. “Salsa mas picante” can be requested, and it tasted like the real thing for the native San Diegans who wrote this review on the same web site as the previous restaurant review.
After Elaine and I spent a couple of months on a steady diet of beef with more or less salt, with a tiny portion of chimichurri as a side dish if we were very lucky, the craving for a Tex-Mex dinner was becoming overwhelming. Fortunately we had by then made friends with several USA expatriates living and working in 1999 Montevideo. One of them, Luke, burst out laughing when we admitted to craving Mexican food. When he finally stopped laughing, he invited us for dinner on Saturday at his apartment, which turned out to be the local Mexican food outlet for gringos with palates that craved more than the bland local cuisine. “Yes,” he told us, “I've smuggled chilis, enchilada sauce, and other goodies into Uruguay”. He hosted weekly home-cooked Mexican dinners as his contribution to spice-starved gringos living in Montevideo, which earned him pride of place at the top of the list of who you wanted to cultivate as a friend in the large expatriate community.
Dinner that night was a choice of chicken or cheese (con permiso, pollo o queso) enchiladas (or both) in a red sauce, fresh salsa, a bowl of jalapeno peppers to munch, rice, beans, and roasted chicken in a mole sauce. Our host, Luke, a Colorado native, was the Assistant Director of a multinational NGO (Non-Government Organization) based in The United Kingdom that did something important with regard to international mining. We’ve exchanged occasional Christmas cards since then and he moved to London, England for his work. Elaine spent much of our remaining time in Montevideo trying to fix him up with one of the many attractive Uruguayan ladies she worked with as an Occupational Therapist while we were there.
Luke also participated in a couple of other quirky experiences with us while we were there. As an international V.I.P. he was invited to U.S. Embassy parties for distinguished visitors to Montevideo. As a visiting Fulbright Professor, so was I. We first met Luke at one of these parties, hosted by the Ambassador, celebrating the visit of one of the astronauts, Franklin Chang-Diaz, to Uruguay as a Public Relations investment by NASA. The party featured boring speeches (except by the guest of honor, a native Spanish speaker born in Costa Rica, who gave an interesting bilingual talk), excellent wine (French, Californian, and Uruguayan), very good hors d'oeuvres, good booze, and lots of dressed-up people celebrating a local happening.
The social stratification was interesting: most of the guests from other embassy staffs clustered around their ambassadors in groups speaking their native language. This included the U.S. embassy staff that mixed minimally, if at all, with their visitors. If the party was designed to promote international understanding and informal exchanges of ideas between the diplomats and their staffers in Montevideo, it failed miserably unless the social intercourse took place behind closed doors. We Fulbrighters were no exception; most of us stood around in a cluster talking to each other, somewhat intimidated by the atmosphere of apartheid between the various national groups. Luke was an exception as he floated between groups, seemingly at ease in four or five different languages. I never did find out what the party was all about. Maybe it was just to celebrate the astronaut’s presence in Montevideo and to show off our space program. Maybe it was just our ambassador’s turn to host the social calendar for dozens of embassies and consulates in Montevideo. Maybe a lot of important meetings occurred out of sight in the bathrooms and bedrooms. Maybe Luke carried secret messages from group to group? Quien sabe?
Finally, we met every few weeks to walk on The Ramblas, alongside the beaches of the Rio de la Plata, which marked the southern boundary of Montevideo. This was winter in the southern third of the Southern hemisphere, so it was cold and humid most of the time. The excuse to tale a walk was usually a sighting of the sun. The walk the evening took us further downtown than usual, all the way to the big park on the river. Eventually we came to a large, deserted amusement park. Luke explained this was a major destination in the summer for Montevideo families and teenagers for a number of reasons. You could have fun here. You could also find privacy here, something not so easy to do in densely populated, urban Montevideo, where children tended to live in apartments with Mom, Dad, and siblings until they were married, and sometimes even after marriage. Most young adults couldn’t afford to buy an apartment, which usually sold for about the price of a house in the United States. Apartments are sold, not rented, in most of South America, so it takes a lot of money to become independent while growing up.
Of course we found a few couples having fun at the amusement park even though it was winter and drizzling. Luke seemed to have a knack for finding couples necking (and worse) in the park. Or maybe there were so many couples there that finding them was inevitable. Remember the privacy problem. It reminded me of dating in the dorms when I was an undergraduate at The University of Wisconsin. Madison is much, much colder than Montevideo, so the search for privacy was more extreme. Even the logistics of necking are different when it’s 20 degrees below zero. If you had a car (which most young adults in Montevideo don’t unless they have a high salaried job with a large multinational corporation), you had another solution in Wisconsin, but few if any have the car, either as undergraduates at Wisconsin or in Montevideo.