So what is this stuff people are drinking out of a little gourd with a funny metal straw? Yerba Mate is an evergreen plant of the Holly family (scientific name ilex paraguariensi) and is indigenous to subtropical south America. The Guaraní people, who inhabited the area that we now know as southern Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, first learned to harvest and brew mate. People of the Río de la Plata region have been drinking mate for thousands of years.
Mate leaves contain caffeine. Depending on who you talk to, of course, mate has significant health benefits: it’s anti-carcinogenic, anti-oxidant, speeds up your metabolism, clears your sinuses, lowers your cholesterol, relaxes your muscles, and promotes a healthy heart. Sounds good to me! But I’m already addicted to black tea! From time to time I buy mate, brew a cup (it’s called mate cocido if you brew it with a tea bag instead of loose tea in your gourd) and drink it with a little sugar… delicious!
The flavor of mate is reminiscent of green tea. Freshly harvested mate is sometimes smoked over a wood fire to give it a smoky flavor. Sounds like the cowboy version. According to La Nación, straight, unsweetened mate is called cimmarón and is preferred by men, while women and children prefer theirs sweetened, and children especially like it mixed with milk or juice. Mate can be drunk hot or iced. Street vendors sell it. In Brasil, on the coast, they drink mate batido: iced, sweetened, with or without fruit flavoring, made with the smoky mate which is spicier and less bitter. Shake it up and it becomes creamy, like a smoothie. Yum! More please!
But mate is not just a drink, it’s a social activity. Families and friends drink mate ritually. The gourd is passed from person to person. Each person drinks it up, then passes it back to the host or hostess who throws in some more herb and then fills the gourd with hot water (not boiling! or it will be bitter), and it gets passed to the next person. Even little kids drink mate in the morning before school. This could be the perfect beverage for your little wolf pack!
Here in Buenos Aires I see people drinking mate in cafés and restaurants, at the park with friends and family, and of course tango teachers can be seen sipping it during workshops (the ubiquitious thermos and gourd: Gato and Andrea, always!).
I first read about mate when I was in grad school. Martín Fierro was the protagonist in an epic poem of the same name, written by José Hernández in 1872. He was a tough, sun-baked, hard-riding, quintessential cowboy of the Pampas. Kind of an Argentine John Wayne: independent, heroic and self-sacrificing. Martín Fierro fought social injustice and so became an outlaw.
Gauchos lived by their macho code of honor… survivalists to the core. They wore flashy belts decorated with old coins (cowboy glam: I want one!) and they were always ready to unholster their dangerously beautiful daggers (called a facón) worked in silver and horn. They had redeeming qualities though, like being fond of horses and wide-open spaces. Not surprising that Martín Fierro is considered a founding text of Argentine culture and history. Get off your horse, facón in your belt, and sip your mate as you sit of an evening around the campfire and read Martín Fierro. It’s long, and it’s all in verse. But it’s a long way to town, too, and what else can you do while you’re out there keeping watch over the herd?
About sixty years or so after Martín Fierro, Borges wrote a now-famous short story called “El Sur” in which a hopelessly civilized city youth, living in the Buenos Aires of the 1930s, returns to the town of his forefathers, on the Pampas, and is challenged to a knife-fight by a local gaucho bully. He can’t back down, because that very same macho code of honor that he still has a few drops of in his blood comes welling to the surface as he steps outside to meet his death.
Part of the Argentine self-image, then, is the gaucho and the code. We’re way beyond the mate now. We’re a long way from Tango, too, but it all fits in somewhere. This is just another piece of the puzzle of Argentina: tango, mate, gauchos, waves of migration. What a delicious, rich, cultural stew. As you read the first verse of Martín Fierro, look for the Tango lyrics, and you will find them, ready to be put to music in a new century, the 19th.
Aquí me pongo a cantar
al compás de la vigüela
que al hombre que lo desvela,
una pena estrordinaria
como la ave solitaria
con el cantar se consuela.