james “yo la tengo” mcnew’s
south american food diary
few bands know how to appreciate food like yo la tengo. james mcnew takes us on a cuisine-oriented tour of south america from early 2001.
2/8. it was 20 degrees in new york. it’s so hot and humid here in rio de janiero, combined with nasty jet lag, my head is spinning and sweating. I’m a sprinkler. we are taken to bar arnaudo, a great-looking old tavern way up on a windy hill, and chow down. our hosts recommend starting with caldinho de feijao, a spicy, black-peppery bean soup with cilantro and pork cracklings on top, as a pick-me-up (“very good for the hangovers”), and they were right. then a cavalcade of odd-yet-hearty beef dishes (salted, sun-dried, some with raw red onion, hard-boiled egg, peppers, etc) with rice were set upon the table; they were good, but the soup was tonight’s clear winner. tonight I also encountered the guarana soft drink for the first time — kinda like strawberry soda, only it’s the flavor of a fruit called the guarana, which I’ve never heard of. you think you’ve heard of every kind of fruit or vegetable by the time you’re 32, but no. around midnight, I stumble upon a juice bar and try a maracuja, another thing I’ve never heard of. it looks kind of dangerous but it makes a hell of a juice around midnight.
2/9 rio. lunch at porchao, one of those meat-on-skewers type places. the sheer volume of meat is awesome. it just keeps coming, like a delicious version of tetris. at each place setting is a little sign: red side up means “no thanks,” green side up means “bring me ten pounds of meat right now, please.” the meat, all grilled, was unbelievably good — lamb, pork, beef, chicken, and some, um, other stuff too. should I have told tour manager joe puleo he was about to eat skewered grilled chicken hearts? to hear him tell it, yes. backstage I try a store-bought mix of maracuja and soy milk, which, over ice, is monumentally refreshing. does that make me a vegan, for a moment there? dinner was at some buffet-type place near the gig, and nowhere as spectacular as our previous meals. I had a mini-feijoada, which was pretty good. greens were way too damn salty, but it’s probably for the best as I haven’t stopped sweating for one second since we landed.
2/10 maringa, BR. did I eat today? oh right, I ate some weird chicken thing after the gig, at about 5:00am.
2/11 maringa/sao paolo. walking around on the streets of maringa, I tried a tangerine frozen custard from a street vendor cranking an ancient, wasp-infested dr. suess-like contraption. and a maracuja milkshake at another stand, hell yeah.
2/12 sao paolo. on the way to our press conference, we stop at a stand selling “coconut water” — basically, someone with a drill press puts a hole in a coconut, pours it into a plastic cup, and there you go. later that evening, an amazing meal at a cool old place specializing in the cuisine of belo horizante, hometown of our S.A. leader, marcos “oh my god” boffa. a seemingly endless array of roasted & fried pork, yams, greens, rice and beans. I also tried a tall frosty glass of honeydew melon juice. can’t say as I recommend it.
2/13 sao paolo. good if lukewarm meal at a very nice place, no real exotic menu items tonight. we ate outside in sexy tropical darkness,and a luxurious breeze came through the palms just as the strings entered during al green’s “how do you mend a broken heart.” drank a shot of cachaca, a sugarcane spirit. it tasted kinda like sweat. earlier in the day I tried a glass of actual guarana juice — guaranas are little berries — and it was truly vile. I guess it’s not so naturally tasty, so you have to pour a ton of sugar into it. It was like drinking a glass of sour half-spun cotton candy. comparing notes with georgia, we find we’ve been going to the same place every morning for coffee, a sorta snooty café around the corner, where they snicker at me for mispronouncing everything. hey, I ain’t too proud to mispronounce, and it’s a damn good espresso. by the way, haven’t seen one starbucks down here, for all you WTO riot types.
2/14 sao paolo. dinner after gig, at a sort of brazilian version of musso & frank’s. joe and I split an “appetizer” (term used lightly here) of “ox foot without the hoof,” which was kinda a big pile of meaty, vinegary, gelatinous goo. steak with fried eggs for my main course, around 2am.
2/15 sao paolo. joe discovers delightfully addictive snack treat, crack bits.
2/16 santiago, chile. one of the best backstage spreads of all-time. are those hearts of palm? bummer of a dinner at about 3am, steak tougher than charles oakley. we were presented with drinks, a local specialty called the pisco sour, which was kind of fluorescent lavender in both color and taste. the next morning we amble down the street for empanadas fantastic, big, fresh, juicy empanadas filled with large, spicy chunks of chicken and — surprise! — a big olive inside.
2/17 montevideo, uruguay. we sit down to dinner around 2:30am. I eat a very refreshing salad, and then negate it with a giant steak with goat cheese on it, for some reason. I mean, that’s what it said on the menu, and I ordered it, I’m just wondering who thought it up.
2/18 buenos aires, argentina. another 2:30am dinner, after the final show of the tour, and this time it’s an old-fashioned argentinean grilled meat explosion! chorizos, morcilla (blood sausage), brains (you heard me — great with a little lemon juice!), and vast blackened flank steaks, all grilled and seasoned to absolute perfection. accompanied by super-strong garlicky-oily chimichurri sauce, and mounds of fries.
2/19 buenos aires. outstanding take-out lunch at la reina de empanadas. ground beef with chilis, extremely messy and delicious. baked, not deep-fried like the ones in santiago. there’s a tear in my eye, and the roof of my mouth is seared as I bid a fond, warbled “adios” to the tasty continent of south america.
visit yo la tengo’s web site at yolatengo.com.