Posted by: Jonathan | April 27, 2009

The Cautionary Tale of Fugazzetta & El Pibe De Oro

"Mixta" @ El Cuartito Pizza - Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s fairly safe to say that no group, with the exception of the enigmatic gaucho, played as significant a role in defining Argentine national character as the Italians. Primarily (and principally, numerically-speaking) from Liguria (particularly Genoa), Piemonte and Tuscany, but latterly also from Naples and other areas of southern Italy, these Italian immigrants, literally by the million, descended on Argentine soil during the last decades of the 19th century and the inter-war period of the 20th century having a profound effect on the social, cultural, linguistic and gastronomic life of their adopted home. (bear with me, this is going somewhere)

And nowhere in Argentina was this impact greater than in the southern barrios of Buenos Aires, La Boca and San Telmo, the neighborhoods where these Italians began their new lives. A (then) new local slang, lunfardo – which not only features a highly confusing form of wordplay known as vesre that reverses words so tango becomes gotan (as in The Gotan Project) and cafe con leche becomes feca con chele, but which is also littered liberally with words taken from various Italian dialects (for example, laburar (to work) instead of trabajar, manyar (to eat) instead of comer) – grew out of this linguistic melting-pot. And it had a similar effect of Italicizing the Porteño diet with such Italian staples as pizza, pasta, gnocchi, and a variety of Genoese chickpea flatbread known locally as faína (similar to the famous farinata of Genoa we wrote about a while back) accompanying the ubiquitous steak and offal on restaurant menus.

Of course, (and paraphrasing Karl Marx) the Argetin-izing of these Italian staples was also just as much of a historical inevitability, and while we’ll revisit our experiences with Argentine pasta in a later post, the focus here is Argentine pizza, and in particular the Buenos Aires classic dish that is the fugazzetta. Read More…

Posted by: Jonathan | September 13, 2008

Mystery Spot and Mystery Foods: When Leftovers Go Bad

You are Now Entering the Mystery Spot
Recently, Amy and I had a lovely vacation in northern California, spending the latter portion of it in the charming and constantly hilarious company of the Garing/Combs family – Amy’s aunt/uncle/cousins on her mother’s side (in case you care for that level of detail). On our penultimate day with them, we visited the “world-famous” Mystery Spot, just outside Capitola, CA., which the Garing kids had fond memories of from a tender age.

Initially, I was skeptical that it was worth wasting a perfectly beautiful sunny day at some ridiculous-sounding shack in the woods trying to relive someone else’s childhood, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I’m here to tell you that the Mystery Spot is a must-see and it would be nothing less than a travesty if it were left out of any travel itinerary to the region. Read More…

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
– William Blake

Have you ever thought, as you sit red-faced, breathing shallowly, “just… one… more… bite”? Have you ever then taken that extra bite and thought to yourself — in your blood-starved brain — “maybe, after all, I could manage another one”? And, finally, upon swallowing said final mouthful and feeling a previously unknown thickness on your tongue, have you ever thought, “perhaps I’ve overdone it”? It is at this point, as your mouth slowly stops salivating, your breath becomes labored and characterized by sharp exhalations and sighs intended to revitalize your flaccid organs, and your belly feels so tight and distended that if it weren’t for the shocking quantity of food you’ve just ingested (and several other flabby bodily areas), you might resemble a starved Ethiopian child, that you begin to understand why gluttony was included among the seven deadly sins.

Jug of House Wine and Fabada @ Casa Portal (Madrid)

Such was my state of mind as I sat, gravely concerned that I might actually suffocate myself internally as my stomach pressed up hard on diaphragm and lungs, at Casa Portal restaurant in Madrid, after a meal that would make a man’s recommended weekly caloric intake appear somehow unlikely to provide sufficient nourishment. The culprit you ask? Well, apart from my own greed, gluttony and propensity to exceed normal physical boundaries, the culprit was fabada. Fabada Asturiana to be precise. The famed bean and pork stew of the Asturian mountains (Picos de Europa) in northern Spain. Read More…

Posted by: Jonathan | February 5, 2008

Jamon, Jamon, Jamon, Jamon…

Penelope Cruz’s “break-out” film was a lusty, comedic tale called Jamon, Jamon in which one of her suitors tells her that her breasts taste like serrano ham. Throughout the film (in which Cruz frequently appears partially clothed) there are many shots of legs of jamon serrano and iberico hanging in store windows, and the film climaxes with Cruz’s two suitors (one of whom is played by Javier Bardem – recent winner of the best actor award from the Screen Actor’s Guild) attacking each other with hefty pork legs.

Jamon JamonThe film was shot in the dry, scrubby hills surrounding Zaragoza and a lot of the landscape shots include a large metal bull (the Osborne sherry insignia) sitting among a forest of radio and TV antennae – a view that is quite common in Spain. In one scene, Cruz’s other suitor, a wannabe bullfighter swings from the bulls cojones and accidentally pulls them off, castrating the beast. The sexual meaning of this is, of course, implicit in the movie, but being someone who marvels more at the wonder of pork products than at the chemistry of on-screen lovers, I find the dual motifs of ham and bulls very interesting. Read More…

Posted by: Jonathan | December 28, 2007

TV in Other Countries

Television, the drug of the nation…Contrary to what you might think, given the speed at which globalization seems to be homogenizing the world, our planet is a big place and even the most fortunate, intrepid and, most importantly, privately-wealthy amongst us will find it impossible to see everything. They might see as much as they want to see, but they’ll never see everything.

However, one of the things that nearly everyone sees, wherever they are in the world, is TV. You can argue the quality of television (I’ll echo my grandfather here, “it really isn’t what it used to be”), but you can’t argue that the medium is an effective and popular one.

I remember, years ago, watching some show about these American kids going on a trip somewhere in Europe and one of the kids saying “Dude, I can’t wait to check out what TV looks like in other countries!” At the time, I was struck by the small-mindedness of the comment, but after thinking about it some more, it occurred to me that what TV looks like in other countries could be as interesting as any other facet of a foreign culture or country. Indeed, while I’ve certainly not made it a point to sit myself down and slavishly watch TV when I’m abroad, it certainly offers a window into a culture. For example, I remember watching the French equivalent of “The Weakest Link” in which a larger, more lesbianic version of the presenter of the British version, Anne Robinson, asked the questions in exactly the same supercilious style as the original, and I thought the French are copying the British here. Then, during a commercial break – the show was broadcast in the early evening – I watched a very attractive young lady disrobe and begin lathering herself with shower gel, offering full frontal (above the waist, of course – children could be watching!) shots to the purchasing public, and thought that perhaps there remained some fundamental differences between British and French television.

I know this story sounds apocryphal, but it is absolutely true and, in fact, watching quiz shows in French and then trying to beat the contestants to the answer (and say it in French) is a fantastic way to improve your language skills. Understanding and responding at speed is tough, but even harder when you’re pulling the answer from things you learned in your native tongue and then have to translate to another before a bunch of native speakers can press the buzzer. See? TV can be educational! Don’t listen to your mother!

Indeed, as an Englishman living in America married to a woman who is mildly obsessed with popular culture, I am exposed to a lot of awful, cringe-worthy television that has taught me a great deal about my adopted home, the tastes and attitudes of its people, the functioning of its economy, and the influence of the outside world. However, these topics are too broad to deal with here, or in a single post, so I’ll write more on them later. For now, keep watching TV, and if you can’t watch it abroad, add some foreign stations to your cable subscription and watch them at home instead.