The western barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is host to the incomparable Feria de Mataderos.
Once the meat-packing district, this barrio on the edge of the Pampas rocks every weekend year round to the sounds of folkloric music and dancing, A-list performers, artisan foods, crafts and antiques. It is a must for any visitor especially since few guide books even mention this treasure!
I was startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window. It was the next door neighbor of our rented Hilo water view house telling my wife and I that we had to evacuate. A Pacific-wide tsunami warning, following Chile’s catastrophic earthquake in February 2010, had been issued. Not knowing if we’d see our beautiful Japanese beach house again, we drove the 30 minutes to Volcano National Park, 4,000 feet elevation. The Park is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanos – in an island chain born of volcanos. As we had breakfast in the tropical forest we were struck that we had fled to the sides of an active volcano to escape a tsunami. This is the fragility of paradise; an environment that allows for abundance yet it just may convulse and destroy it all. Fortunately, Hawai’i was spared this time, but that wasn’t the case in 1950.
Later that week we drove the ten miles into Hilo for a day at the already famous Hilo Market – founded in 1988. I was struck by the vaguely shabby feel of Hilo’s commercial waterfront. Some fine examples of Art Deco, tropical Victorian and Arts & Crafts architecture are in various states of repair or restoration. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land, athletic fields and water activities, but that’s not the reason for its existence.
For nearly a century, prior to 1950, this land had been Japan Town, a warren of shanties and pan-Asian cooking. The legacy of Japan Town lives on in the Puna’s suburb Asian fusion cuisine. In a brief period of time one morning in 1950, Japan Town was swept into the sea by a tsunami created by one of history’s most catastrophic earthquakes centered in the same area of Chile as the 2010 event. The Hilo Market area occupies land that had been devastated by that tsunami.
As we neared the market, the scents and sights pulled us quickly along. The main stalls, flower vendors, clothing, crafts, jewelry and a seamstress radiated onto the surrounding sidewalks. The Hilo Market is not really a building. The main stalls are under a permanent cover with no walls (fortunately or else it would feel like an oven). It’s a bustling place. Organic lettuce is sold next to carnivorous plants. Taro root’s for sale if you want to make your own poi or tapioca. Exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia and the Pacific are in abundance and require conversations with vendors and fellow market goers for preparation suggestions. It’s a riot of color, textures and sounds!
The fresh coconut “milk” vendor is a perennial favorite in the tropics. Fresh, iced green coconuts have their tops sliced off with a machete. A straw is all that’s needed to enjoy a truly refreshing drink. Often when finished, the soft green shell is cut in half exposing the pudding-like coconut that can be eaten with a spoon – a double treat !
The multi-cultural quilt that is Hawai’i resulted in a fusion of comfort foods. During the Second World War, that marvel of canned foods, SPAM, hit Hawai’i like a rock star. Overnight, the refrigerator scarce islands of the 1940’s found a food of remarkable flexibility, even if it is lacking in other qualities.
The macadamia nut is nearly synonymous with Hawai’i, even though it’s native to Australia. What processors do to this buttery treat is legendary, and for another blog post, but suffice to say, the nut also married SPAM.
Farmers markets are in nearly all small towns, and even between them, on the island. The Sunday market near Hawaiian Paradise Park, south of Hilo, offers a large variety of local crafts, musical entertainment, fresh eggs, Kava (for a relaxing morning), candles and terrific poultry, beef and pork grilled over guava wood.
The lush eastern half of the Big Island is a garden, and even if you are a visitor without a kitchen, the markets of Hawai’i provide not only the best and exotic but a terrific insight into cultural fusion, entertainment and certainly an opportunity to eat authentic prepared island foods.
“We planted wheat and grew doctors.”Argentine Jewish saying
For a tourist, the Pampas present an endless flat grassland punctuated by small, nondescript towns and immense fenced estancias, many still owned by families that are a “who’s who” of Argentine society. Traveling through the Pampas is akin to driving through Nebraska. As often as possible during my many trips across the Pampas, I traveled on comfortable overnight buses knowing that I was not missing any “sites” during the 1,000 mile journeys.
Yet at day break, even bleary-eyed and looking out a bus window, I cannot deny the beauty of these grasslands bathed in the pink light of dawn, gossamer layers of mist hovering over the ground and the black cattle – herds of them – dotting the fields.
Gauchos are nomadic horsemen riding the plains, following herds of cattle – “cowboys” who developed their own code of honor, music, machismo and myths. Fiercely independent, they wore black hats and wide belts, and always carried a well-sharpened knife – and they still do.
As befitting an immigrant nation, the Pampas attracted its own unique settlers. Like the United States, Argentina actively recruited immigrants to fill the vast and empty country. Eight hundred eighty-four Jews arrived in 1889, escaping persecution in Russia, without tools or provisions in a geography far different than Eastern Europe.
Months later, William Lowenthal, a Romanian Jew, surveying the countryside for the Argentine railroads, discovered a ragged band of settlers living, literally, at the end of the line. Having been transported to the sparsely populated northern Pampas, they were stranded and their meager savings were soon exhausted. Lowenthal found themsubsisting on hand-outs from workers extending the line.
Appalled, he urgently appealed to the Baron Mauricio de Hirsch, banker to the Hapsburg dynasty, philanthropist and builder of the Orient Express, the legendary rail link between Paris and Istanbul. De Hirsch immediately came to the aid of the impoverished settlers. This was the beginning of the first Jewish agricultural colony in Argentina: Moises Ville (the Village of Moses).
With an endowment of $450 million ($13 billion in 2017 dollars) the Baron de Hirsch created the nonprofit Jewish Colonization Association. Between 1891 and 1932 the JCA purchased one and a quarter million acres in the provinces ofSanta Fe, Buenos Aires as well as watery Entre Rios for Jewish settlement.
The Jewish Colonization Association gave each family a 200 acre homestead, a mortgage, a few cows and some chickens. Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, many with beards and side curls, were transplanted to Spanish-speaking, Catholic Argentina bringing the Torah, pickled herring, building wooden synagogues and becoming farmers and ranchers of the vast pampas.
Jewish gauchos, playing guitars and sipping mate, could be seen strolling the village plazas in the Argentine colonies. Where there had been a wilderness, the pioneers built schools and libraries, hospitals and theaters, synagogues and agricultural cooperatives. The 72-minute documentary, Legacy — produced by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation — is the second best experience other than traveling through the pampas.
Despite an element of antisemitism, which seems to be fading since the terrible events of the early 1990’s, Jewish-Argentine society has prospered, but most of the Jewish towns in the Pampas either no longer exist or have lost their Jewish populations. In the post World War II years, the younger generations migrated to Buenos Aires for educational and professional opportunities.
Today the Jewish community in the capital is over 200,000, and youcan eat kosher pizzas or grilled Argentine beef at El Pasaje Resto & Bar and at dozens of kosher delis and shops in Buenos Aires.
…and to your own backyard. Travel with Pen and Palate Blogwill soon post on organic food in Pennsylvania, an ode to the ham and cheese sandwich and an essay on Jewish gauchos in Argentina.
Many childhood weeks visiting grandparents in Florida and wandering the South of the 1950’s excited a life-long desire to travel. Summers spent in our ancestral village in Canada stirred a love of discovery. A year of university in Ireland, nine years working in Puerto Rico, travels throughout Europe, the Caribbean Islands, Central and South America, southern Africa and South East Asia has infected me with the incurable desire to have fun learning about other cultures.
Thirty-five years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality world, and as a Chef/Educator, coupled with a diverse educational background, helps me focus on the kaleidoscope of images a traveler experiences every day.
As a chef, the question’s not only “what’s to eat?,” but rather “is the food grown/raised local?,” “who makes the best comfort food,?” and “most adventurous dishes?”
What makes the local area unique – what culture/diverse backgrounds did the residents come from? What traditions did they bring to a new land?” The more I travel the longer the list of questions, which makes the journey more exciting.
Travel with Pen and Palate will apply the same sense of wonder whether writing on a great craft market in New Jersey or catering a Good Friday meatless buffet in Tierra del Fuego.
Travel with Pen and Palate is a magazine without borders.
Chef Marc d’Entremont
Member: American Culinary Federation
Header photo by Marc d’Entremont : Alaska dawn, September 2010