Parilla nights begin with grilled proveletta. Wafts of that sweet medialuna aroma wake up the morning commuters. Dulce de leche is more a way of life than a special treat. At heladerías, even the smallest cup always comes with two flavors. And my most memorable food experience takes me to a late night in the middle of the Argentine country side… where I couldn’t eat anything.
Well-known Argentine exports: wine, beef. As I began to research my home for the summer, the latter intimidated me. How does a vegetarian survive in a meat obsessed country? The internet prepared me to be cautious and insistent. Here, “carne” means beef, rather than meat. This means stating that I do not eat beef, chicken, ham, fish, pork, etc. “Soy vegetariana” suffices, as long as I confirm that the dish does not contain any of the above. I hesitantly accepted the advice that Buenos Aires has become more vegetarian friendly, and stocked my luggage with a backup pantry. This is no exaggeration. My suitcases included 10 boxes of mac n’cheese, two jars of peanut butter, 30 protein bars, and a bag of granola. I was “muy nerviosa” of starvation by vegetarianism in South America.
To my relief, Buenos Aires is a safe space for vegetarians. I have tried my fair share of vegetarian restaurants, steered clear of vegan ones (I do love cheese), and perused vegetarian, or at least vegetarian-friendly, sections of parillas (classic meat restaurants). By always confirming that the dish is vegetarian, and occasionally missing an empanada opportunity, I have eaten lavishly – maybe even a bit too much. I do scoff at the abundance of ham and cheese options – sandwiches, empanadas, croissants, you name it.
I was not scoffing on my first night outside of the city. I had embarked by myself on a trip for international students to Iguazu Falls, 15 hours north of the city by bus. My backpack was full of apply slices, chocolate bars, and one pb&j sandwich. I abandoned my bag of goodies when our bus stopped around 11 pm at a small diner type establishment in the middle of nowhere. I followed my fellow foreigners into the restaurant and perused the menu. Carne, pollo, pescado, jamon y queso… empanadas! No, only meat empanadas. Pasta! With meat sauce. Pasta with cream sauce! Too expensive. I lamented aloud about the absence of veggie food. “She’s vegetarian, too”, someone pointed me toward another hopeless face.
That weekend proved me to that Buenos Aires may like to keep with the times, but the rest of the country stays loyal to their culture, especially to their meat. I learned to despise pasta with white sauce and pack an abundance of pb&j’s. Most importantly, my path crossed with a fellow vegetarian who became one of my closest friends here. This most memorable food experience takes me back to a dinner in the middle of nowhere, laughing over a plate of disappointing french fries, before getting back on the bus and swapping meatless snacks with my new friend. My vegetarian comrade and I have taken our own weekend trip since then (with lots of snacks), discovered vegetarian havens in Buenos Aires, and lamented over her host dad’s pestering her to eat some meat. She’s convinced me to learn how to dance, cooked me dinner when I was sick, and maybe even taught me how to lead a bit healthier of a vegetarian lifestyle. I’m thankful that when there was nothing for me to eat, at least I had someone to eat nothing with.