La Nochebuena

DSC_0092It started to feel like Christmas on Sunday morning when Lou and I and most of the rest of Bariloche decided to go to La Anonima and buy ingredients for the Nochebuena dinner. The store was packed, and after disappearing briefly, Lou was returned to me with a knowing smile by a young federal police officer still in town because of the looting last Thursday.

Now that we live in a house and have more than four plates and four glasses and one frying pan and one cooking pot, we made the easy decision to invite some people from school for Christmas Eve dinner. Pete had the brilliant idea of serving beef stew, and that’s how I found myself in line at the butcher counter ordering a kilo and a half of “bisteca de pobre” (poor man’s steak, which I can tell you is not what they call it here although it made the butcher smile).

Our two-room house is in the backyard of our landlady Nora, and she must have seen me in the kitchen Sunday afternoon chopping carrots and degristling bife for the stew because she came over to see if I needed anything. The surprise encounter combined with my meat daze turned me into a stuttering, miming fool. But Nora went back to her house and returned with an assortment of baking dishes and we used them all.

Nora made us a cake and Christmas cookies!

Nora made us a cake and Christmas cookies!

Nora is a sweetheart. Pete brought most of our luggage over before the trip to Chile and enjoyed a long conversation with her. She built the casita about a year ago to provide income in her retirement and she has outfitted it with care. Her husband is an outdoorsman nicknamed Pocho, and in addition to the guest house they have another casita with a full kitchen, parrilla (grill), and space for eating or dancing and for storing Pocho’s kayaks. One of the front windows is frosted and says “Nora y Pocho.” Nora told Pete that they used to have friends over for tango dancing in the casita, and that after 11 years of classes she’s still not that good.

"Juancito" was marinated with a dressing of orange peel, paprika, garlic and other spices

“Juancito” was marinated with a dressing of orange peel, paprika, garlic and other spices

Late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, Pocho and a couple of young guys built a fire behind the Nora y Pocho casita. The young guys are friends of the family who celebrate with them every year, and the one in charge of cooking “Juancito” is a chef. Pete stood around the fire and drank beer with them for awhile before walking away with an invitation to go fishing. (Nora and Pocho have three kids and some grandkids, but I don’t think they live in Bariloche.)

Our first guest to arrive was Ramon, the 18 year old from Chicago, who came over early to make a plum cobbler with cornmeal batter. Then Priscilla, an Outward Bound instructor from North Carolina stopped by on her way to an Argentine family gathering. Next to arrive was Alex, the recording engineer and jazz musician from Bristol, England, who came fresh from the climbing gym he visited with our teacher Matías. Lou knows Ramon and Alex from weekly cooking classes at La Montaña, and he had been counting down the hours until they arrived.

DSC_0095If we had more space we would’ve invited other people from school, like Etsuko, a Japanese woman about our age who travelled internationally as an IT consultant before going to culinary school to fulfill her personal mission of teaching foreigners how to properly cook Japanese food. Her first stop was Azerbaijan and now she’s working in Guadalajara, Mexico. Her Spanish seems pretty good to me, but she said that she learned it on the job and therefore talks like a man who works in a kitchen. I also would’ve invited Andrew and Kelsey, an attractive American couple from San Diego who are traveling in South America for a few months. Andrew is an artist and has a landscaping business where he gets to use a lot of Mexican Spanish like “troque” (that’s “truck” with a Spanish accent), and Kelsey is an engineer.

My sense is that Christmas for Argentines is above all a social event. Although some people go to Mass on Christmas Eve, religious activities and gift exchanges seem far less important than eating a big, late night meal with family and close friends. We sat down at 8:30pm to eat the stew and a quinoa salad (and the last box of mac and cheese for Lou), and at 11pm the chef brought us a generous-sized piece of Juancito, which we all tried. When Pete walked Alex and Ramon out at 12:30am, he saw a big group seated around the table in the Nora Y Pocho casita, and when I went to bed at 2am the lights were still on.

All I really want for Christmas is some sun, and I hope it comes tomorrow. December has been an unusually cold and wet month, and we are ready for SUMMER!

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