Buenos Aires – Many years ago, during a brief flirtation with vegetarianism (which occurred during a brief flirtation of another sort with someone who was vegetarian, but that’s not worth getting into here), I spent some time reading through the then available literature on macrobiotics. Even then, some twenty years ago, macrobiotics had a weird, mixed review – for some it was the new, shining path to health, enlightenment, and world peace; to others, it was a path that only hardcore vegans who ate roots and tasteless brown food would take. All seemed to agree that it was a very limited vegetarian diet, it was more a question of the results.
Macrobiotics was introduced to the Americas primarily by Michio Kushi, a student of the founder of the movement, George Ohsawa (who introduced it directly to Europe). I remember being quite trepidatious about picking up and reading his Book of Macrobiotics, as I wasn’t quite up to the hardcore visions I had of the movement. Imagine my surprise (and I’m remembering this after twenty years, so if I’ve distorted any of it in memory, I apologize), to find that in the original precepts of macrobiotics, there was no emphasis on this tasteless brown food that I’d experienced. It wasn’t even a strictly vegetarian diet! The precepts were based on natural, organic products, and, first and foremost, a commitment to “eat locally.” That meant, in his view, to eat foods that were appropriate to and grown (or raised!) in the locale in which you found yourself. He advocated a balance (based on yin and yang and various other harmonies) in consumption, that included the occasional ingestion of dairy (in locales where appropriate), fish, and lighter meats (at specified times during the various seasons).
I showed this to my new vegetarian friends and had it summarily dismissed with an “oh, we’ve moved beyond that to real macrobiotics.” Well, no, sorry guys, what you’ve done is the typical American radical over-interpretation of a good idea and, bluntly, perverting it into something it was never meant to be. And I say that with all due affection to my fellow countrymen. It’s all part of our national character – we just have to carry a joke a few steps to far, or cross over that line drawn in the sand – it’s practically built-in to our nature. It was, I have to admit, the point at which I decided that vegetarianism just wasn’t for me as a way of life, especially veganism.
The other part I admit to not liking, even if I understood the principle, was the eating locally idea. The premise was that your body, and local foodstuffs, are adapated to the clime in which you find yourself. Ingesting things from other places in the world was likely to cause an imbalance. That was, perhaps, though I won’t necessarily endorse it, true at one time in history. I think that in this day and age, with the wide range of imports available to much of the world, from much of the rest of the world, people’s bodies begin adapting at an early age to a much wider range of food. Probably, the founders of macrobiotics would deplore this, and point to it as exactly what they were warning us against, but I think it’s too late to go back.
So what’s this all about? If you’ve looked at the link over there on the right to Buenos Aires Food and Drink, I’ve begun putting together a list of vegetarian restaurants. Not for any reason other than it seems to be an overlooked category in the various restaurant guides here (they all include some sort of section involving the idea, but aren’t particularly accurate). I have friends here who are vegetarians. And if you spend any time here, it’s hard to not hear about La Esquina de las Flores, which seems to be some sort of mystical spot, claimed as the “first house of integral foods for health.” I don’t know whether that’s true or not. The original location, at Córdoba 1587, near (but not on the corner as the name might imply) Montevideo is first and foremost a whole foods shop. But, the emphasis is more on prepared foods, especially breads (the owner has published several books on baking), than on ingredients to use at home in your own cooking. A better choice for a wide selection of natural ingredients is only a couple of blocks away, Dietetica Callao Almacén Natural, one of the better natural foods shops in the city, at Callao 484, right off the corner of Corrientes.
Back at the Esquina there’s a small steam table and lunch counter in the back of the store. The food is, well, remarkably brown, or at least in the amber ranges. Even the dishes containing greens seem to lean towards brown. There are daily specials, the orientation seems focused around simple soups and tortas, adaptations of common local dishes. Simple mixed salads are available. But all I could see, throughout the store and “dining” area, was brown. Macrobiotics carried, all over again, to its illogical extreme. Perhaps “Macro-botics,” the robotic interpretation of macrobiotics might be a better moniker.
I tried an empanada – zucchini filled. The filling was little more than mashed zucchinis. Come on folks, herbs are allowed! The breading, suprisingly given the reputation of the place for baked goods, was the consistency, texture, and flavor of a shirt cardboard. Whole wheat can make great bread, but it requires some seasoning, and it requires some form of fat, like maybe a little vegetable oil, to carry the flavor and give it a more, well, edible texture. The carbonada? Hmm… well, this is a local stew that is generally based on squash, corn, dried peaches, and various meat and sausages. Leaving out the meats was an obvious choice here. But… as best I could tell, this was little more than a light broth made from squash and tomato, basically unseasoned. There was some diced cooked squash in it. And clearly, after cooking, and with no intention to cook, but just to warm it up, some yellow sweetcorn, fresh from the cob, had been dumped into the soup. Still essentially raw (the traditional dish cooks the squash and dried white corn, or hominy, until it is falling apart and forms the basis of the thickness of the stew), the best I can say is it gave the soup some texture. No peaches – the defining element of a good carbonada. The bread served alongside? Dry, dense, and flavorless as a hockey puck, which it sort of resembled, if hockey pucks came in tan.
Still, the place was hopping with people, many of whom came in to take stuff out, either from the shop or the lunch counter. Maybe half a dozen of us were eating there (there’s only space for maybe a dozen). No one looked like they were enjoying themselves. In fact, there was a generally depressive vibe to the whole place, including from the staff. What a shame, there’s so much potential to have this truly be a place that might create some interest in macrobiotics and/or vegetarianism.
By the way, local restaurant guides list three other locations for La Esquina – Gurruchaga 1630 in Palermo, Medrano 632 in Almagro, and Pedro Goyena 1469 in Caballito. The La Esquina website doesn’t list these, so although the descriptions in the guide make it sound as if they’re all part of the same group, I can’t be 100% sure about that. Pictures of the others make them look like they’re more restaurant oriented and not so much primarily stores. Perhaps I’ll poke in to them as I wander those neighborhoods in the future.