A Thanksgiving Esado
By Ian Coughlan
“What you just did, don’t do that.”
I looked up, frozen, maté gourd in my left hand, straw in my right as Ruso’s gaze pierced through me. I had unknowingly committed a serious faux pas, altering his unique blend of maté serving, a time-endured gaucho tradition, as ingrained here as the landscape itself.
Ruso’s stare broke, and we began to laugh at the assertion of his statement expressing my wrongdoing. Ruso is a friend who had brought my travel buddies, Zach and Nick, along with myself to fish at his grandmother’s farm, in the town of Junin de los Andes, Argentina. The town is located about three hours north of Bariloche in central Argentina in a region marked by spectacular mountains, crystal-clear streams, and exceptional trout fishing.
Ruso, along with his wife Clarita, help manage the estancia owned by Nick’s family. He explained to us that the gaucho who is serving the maté, which is always shared, is the only person to adjust the straw as doing so will change the taste of his dish. It also tells him, without the exchange of any words, that it is not good enough for you.
It is Thanksgiving Day, and we are scattered around a fire where a lamb roasts on a spick. This is a traditional esado, an Argentine barbecue, and the maté is headed in my direction. Maté is the traditional drink of the region, similar to tea or coffee. It is earthy across the palate with a caffeine kick that would wake up any barista and is served loose in a gourd, along with a metal straw that provides filtration. Though it can be enjoyed with sugar, lemon, or honey, no gaucho would take anything but maté naturale for the same reasons a cowboy drinks his coffee black.
We spent the morning riding through the hills of a large estancia (ranch) on horseback, our traditional saddles covered by thick sheepskin, which provided welcomed cushioning for our unseasoned backsides. Tuco, Ruso’s cousin, manages the property with help from Juan Carlos, his head gaucho. Juan Carlos spends the entire year at a small outpost on the estancia keeping a constant eye on the place. The three of us had joined them on their regular ride-around, making sure the irrigation canals are all flowing properly, the cattle are in the correct pastures, and no fences are in need of repair. After the long ride (I have never spent more than two hours straight on a horse, let alone five) throughout the gorgeous property where striking views of the Andes, Red Stag, and unique rock formations were all but uncommon, we settle around the fire to drink maté and watch the lamb cook.
As the meat slowly darkens, the fat from the animal’s back gradually melts, dripping into the fire and causing a quick sizzle with the consistency of a metronome. After the maté gourd is passed around a few times (I am careful not to touch the straw this time) the meat is ready, and we admire the gauchos carving in, using a roll of bread as a rudimentary oven mitt to handle the heat of the still-burning fire. Ido my best to manage the same and, before diving in to my first bite, I take a moment to appreciate the glistening meat I hold in my hands, prepared the same way it has been for hundreds of years.
As my teeth sink in, flavor explodes across my tongue, the juicy goodness dripping down my cheek as I savor the moment of primitive euphoria invoked by bread and meat. I, along with Zach, Nick, Ruso and Tuco overeat plentifully until we cannot help but lie there in the warm sun of the Andes. Comatose and drifting in and out of consciousness we enjoy my favorite tradition of the region: the siesta.
As I rest there with both mind and stomach happy I cannot help but reflect on all I have to be thankful for. Though I miss my family, who are gathered together half a world away, I experienced something entirely new and, without question, unforgettable thanks to the graciousness and generosity of local people. They aim not to impress anything upon us, but do so thanks to their desire to make our experience in their land a pleasant one. They have willingly opened and shared their lives with us, allowing for the ultimate travel experience: to see what life is really like. This year, on Thanksgiving Day in America but a regular Thursday in November for my hosts, it is their generosity for which I am so unbelievably thankful.