Buenos Aires – Yes indeedy folks, it’s John Frum Day. Forget Valentine’s Day yesterday – the chocolates are eaten, the flowers are wilting, those hopeful “Will You Be My Valentine?” cards are already slated for the circular file. Ignore, if you will, that today is National Gum Drop Day, Candlemas, and Lupercalia all rolled into one. Celebrate the cult that is John Frum. Whip up your best Vanatu Island (yes, the place that hosted one of the Survivor series, no I never watched it) recipes and have a feast.
It was during World War II that the first contact between many tiny, populated islands in the South Pacific and visitors from the Western world happened. The U.S. GIs who appeared seemed to come from out of the heavens with boatloads of supplies. The oddity of these contacts and the sudden “wealth” from the bountiful cargo resulted in quite a few island cultures developing cults focused on their apparently god-like, or at least sorcerous, benefactors. Smithsonian magazine’s Paul Raffaele visited one of the few remaining cults, on the island of Tanna, that still worships the legendary John Frum and his Red Cross…
“John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” I point out. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?”
Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he says, “and you haven’t given up hope.”
Today, a roundup of bits and pieces from over the last week. You would think that somewhere during the time either when I vacationed here or during the last seven months of living here, I’d have previously made it to that venerable institution of the tourist circuit, Café Tortoni, Avenida de Mayo 825, in the beautiful Palacio Carlos Gardel. Tortoni is the oldest still operating coffee shop in the country, founded in 1858, and it is both a piece of Argentina’s history and tradition, as well as a current locale to step back into an earlier era. It is a place where in the past you might have found politicians, heads of state, artists, and the wealthy and famous from throughout the world, sipping coffee, nibbling a pastry, and discussing the topics of the day. It is a place where you still might find those same sorts of folk, doing the very same. Today, however, you are just as likely to find yourself surrounded by tourists, who have come to Tortoni in hopes of spotting someone of fame, in hopes of experiencing some sort of old world epiphany, in hopes of catching one of the late evening tango shows, or in hopes of just having one of the friendly waiters take snapshot of them seated at one of the elegant marble tables. In fact, it seems nearly de rigeur that each table sport not only some model of camera, but at least one guidebook as well.
Café Tortoni is indeed a beautiful dining room, though one that has clearly seen better days. The wear and tear is evident, a down at heels yet still elegant dowager making her way through the throngs of mediocre imitations. It is a study in art history – the walls lined with clearly labelled paintings by more than a century’s worth of famed artists from throughout Latin American. It is, very simply, what a true coffee shop, or café, should be. Beyond coffee and pastries, Tortoni specializes in an array of sandwiches, here pictured their delicious Académico Nacional de Tortoni, named for the National Academy of Tango that inhabits an upper floor of the same building, essentially a ham and cheese melt on crustless white bread, with the optional touch of some roquefort atop. They do offer a menu of classic porteño dishes for those who want something more than a light snack, but those are not what they are known for.
After fortifying myself with a sandwich and parting company with my friends, who both had elsewhere to be, I walked around to the back of the building, at Rivadavia 830, where the entrance to the National Academy of Tango’s museum, the Museo Mundial del Tango, or World Museum of Tango, can be found. The museum is small, but fascinating, requiring a mere three peso entrance fee, and of course, at least some level of interest in tango. It starts with a series of rooms that cover the history of the music, the song, and the dance, from the mid-19th century to the modern day. Explanations (Spanish only) of the changes in the art, the key people and events, various bric-a-brac, sheet music, records, books, and photos fill the cases along the walls. In the final room, a long display of photos and short biographies of the important historical figures in the world of tango – whether musicians, singers, and dancers, or historians, writers, and supporters – line a room that is also used for weekly performances and demonstrations.
This is Queso Cremoso Aconcagua, from the province of Santa Fe in northwestern Argentina. My friend Michael sent me a high-priority e-mail over the weekend urging me to “run, don’t walk” to a local store that has begun stocking it. He used phrases like “one of the best cheese ever” and “haunting and delicate”. Michael’s got pretty darned good taste, so as soon as I could, I ambled – sorry, I don’t run, even for a good cheese – over to Celentano, Ayacucho 1464, one of the better little Italian-ish food shops here, and bought myself a wedge. It is indeed an excellent cheese, though I might not wax quite so rhapsodic over its innate qualities. It reminded me quite a bit of a real, traditional, German Münster, not the bland imitation that comes sliced and cryo-wrapped in the usual American supermarket. If you find yourself near to Celentano, or if you’re the sort who runs to buy a good cheese, this one is well worth the visit. It also made a fantastic broiled tomato and cheese sandwich…