The Pleasures of Mate


Yerba mate (MA-tay) is in the holly family. It’s cultivated in northern Argentina and its leaves are dried and shredded into goldfish food-like flakes. In Argentina the “palos,” or stems, are left in. In Uruguay the stems are taken out. Uruguayans say Argentinian mate is “all sticks.” Argentinians say, “Uruguay is not a real country.”

To prepare mate first heat water. I almost wrote “boil,” but boiling is one of the cardinal sins of mate preparation. You’re less likely to offend an Argentinian by snorting the yerba than by boiling the water. They claim it changes the water’s “composition,” that it burns the yerba. What it does do is make steep faster, and thus less suitable for sharing, which is the primary objective of mate. Mate can be drunk alone, and if you drink enough mate you’ll inevitably drink it alone, just as in life you’ll eventually be all alone. Those around you will perish, and you’ll be sitting on a park bench somewhere, sipping mate.

While the water is heating prepare your gourd, or simply “mate.” Fill it two thirds full, tilt it and insert the straw at the low end so it digs in and touches the bottom.  Some people prime the yerba with lukewarm water, claiming this makes it less likely to burn. I learned mate preparation from an Argentinian woman named Mercedes who yelled at me when it was too hot or too cold, and grumbled when it hadn’t been primed. I still remember the first time I prepared it well, passed it to her, and she said, after taking a sip, “Está bien.”

Once the yerba is primed add hot water, making sure not to get all the yerba wet at once. Pour a small quantity into the cavity created by the straw. Drink it yourself, drink it until it’s gone, then refill it and pass it to the left. Do not leave part of it un-drunk. And do not touch the straw. Hold the mate by the gourd, never the straw.  Argentinians are adamant about this. I think they think holding the straw makes you look weak.

The one who prepares the mate is called the cebador/a and is in charge of all subsequent mate pours for that session. Being the cebador is a good feeling. It’s like commanding a large fleet of ships, except in this case it’s only one ship and it’s really a small wooden vessel meant for serving tea. However, with the position of cebador comes great responsibility. Argentinians will judge you on the quality of your preparation. If an Argentinian is evaluating you as a potential mate, your ability to “cebar” will make or break his/her decision. Is she going to spend the rest of her life with someone who can’t prepare mate? Have unskilled-at-mate-preparing babies? Spend afternoons in the park drinking lukewarm water and weeping?

Lately I’ve been drinking pre-prepared mate from grocery stores like PCC and Whole Foods. It’s becoming more common. Real mate is better, but to find the real mate drinkers you need to head south. Upon crossing into Argentina you’ll start to see them. In Chile you have to go a bit further south, at least south of Santiago.

The ritual of mate is not just the social aspect, the taste, or the satisfaction you get from doing something well. It’s all of these things. It’s synergy. So go to your local grocery store and buy a bag. Or better yet, buy a gourd (they sell good, polyurethane ones on Amazon), some yerba (Guayaki isn’t terrible, but Rosamonte or Cruz de Malta are better), and make some new friends.

Just remember not to boil the water. Or touch the straw).

No One Says Typist

Wendy lurks.

Since I’ve been trying to think of ways to keep myself entertained writing this blog, today I will just write as much as I possibly can in the next 6 minutes.

I’m in El Calafate. Today Yamil comes to buy Wendy. I’ve already run into one road block: no gas. I went to the gas station and they didn’t have gas. In either of the gas stations. If it were any country other than Argentina I would be surprised, but this is standard for Argentina. You go to an ATM to get money and…no money. The ATM does not have money. This happened in El Chalten the other day. One of the most important tourist towns in Argentina had no money….for the entire town. It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous. But life goes on.

Wendy is ready to be sold. Or at least I hope she is. I need to wash her. I need to bathe her. I need to coddle her. I also need to organize all my stuff. Hopefully when my head hits the pillow tonight I’ll be on Punta Arenas, Chile. But I kind of doubt it. I think I’ll be in Rio Gallegos. I don’t want to go to Rio Gallegos, but I’m kind of fascinated by it. Apparently there’s a lot crime there. “Delincuencia,” as it would be called in Spanish. Delinquency. It’s also a big city, and it’s very far south. And it’s on the Atlantic. And I’m existed to see it, but hopefully not stay there.

But now I must pack and wash Wendy and take down my tent.

And also I must write more because another requisite in this blog is that each post have 300 words. And in 6 minutes I was only able to type 264. It’s not that I’m a slow typer! It’s just that I’m typing on my phone. And yes I realize the word is typist, but no one says typist. Everyone says “typer.”