by Matt Perse
Photos by Oskana Mihailova of Maxim Bar
I found Frank Almeida, owner of Sugar and Spice, upstairs at Maxim Bar in Palermo. It was Sunday morning at 10:30, and the air was thick not only with humidity, but also with the excitement of what was to unfold later that day at Maxim: The 2nd Annual Buenos Aires Chili Cook Off.
But, wait a second, how has a spicy yanqui food been able to take root in Buenos Aires, where the food is notoriously not spicy?
“It [the chili cook off] was actually ‘Yanqui Mike’s’ idea,” Almeida elaborated, and went on to explain that when an expat foodie forum of which he was a part had been dormant for some time, he took it upon himself to find out what purpose the forum was serving. A simple question – “what are we using this forum for?” – was all it took to get the snowball rolling. Almost instantly, he got a reply from Yanqui Mike: a chili cook off. Frank explained that the idea of chili made sense to him for the same reasons that his gourmet bakery did. “I was missing something from back home,” he managed to get out between blurting instructions to his Argentine assistants in Spanish; they were getting the top of Maxim Bar ready for the event, arranging and rearranging tables, chairs, banquettes.
Frank wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The response got so much attention, in fact, that Yanqui Mike, Almeida, Dan Karlin, and Larry “El Tejano” – the “Founding Fathers,” if you will – needed to start a separate forum, just for the planning of the event. The consensus was to do it on July 3, as a part of the US Independence Day celebrations. The timing was both a blessing and a curse: what could be more American than cooking chili on the Fourth of July, after all? But on his blog, Almeida wrote at the time, “I mean, this was thought up on the 31st of May for an event that has to take place on the 3rd of July!” Nearly 300 people showed up and filled a space that would have probably comfortably held 100. It wasn’t a bad turnout by any means, but one can imagine that things were probably a bit hectic. This year, with some more planning and a stronger connection to the local foodie scene –Almeida’s blog also included Spanish posts this year – the event blossomed to about 600 attendees and more than 20 official chili entrees.
Resembling chili itself, the event consisted of a diverse collection of people and stories: all the event organizers are small business owners in a niche porteño foodie scene, and all are married to Argentines; contestants represented countries from Europe and even South Africa, and the states of Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana from the US; and, there were also plenty of Argentines around, including Francisco Terren. A wine expert, he and his girlfriend, Liza Puglia, a transplant from New Orleans who holds down culinary affairs at Tout le Monde, co-own and operate NOLA, a creole-inspired closed-door restaurant together. Terren also has hopes to be at the forefront of a craft beer scene here in Buenos Aires alongside his brother.
There was even a local charity involved. The event’s proceeds went to Sending a Child to School (SACS, or Niños a la escuela, NALE), a local non-profit run by expats from the US and other Latin American countries, with the goal of providing children with the means to receive their primary education. Many times, vice president Marcia Williamson explained, this means nothing more than giving the child in need a backpack full of school supplies.
When I stopped to think about it, answering the question as to how chili ended up in Buenos Aires didn’t really seem all that puzzling anymore. It became clear to me that chili, a food “of the people,” has evolved with the times, a fusion of ingredients, cooking methods, and personal experiences. Those who continue to make it partake in an almost ritualistic remembrance of culture, tradition, and history. That it’s found a home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is just another chapter in its long – and delicious – history.
For Puglia, though, chili’s success comes down to a “calculated laziness.” That is, using everyday ingredients to produce distinctive flavors…and of course, “it’s gotta be good and meaty.”