In one of my very first posts I included a link to the Wikipedia entry on mate (MA-tay). But if you’re like me, you didn’t actually read it.
Briefly, yerba is a small tree grown in northern Argentina, southern Paraguay and Brazil, and Uruguay. The dried leaves of this tree are used plain (mate común) or with other herbs to make tea in a special cup called a mate. Like green tea, yerba has both caffeine and antioxidants.
In an Argentine edition of Reader’s Digest, a sommelier used the vocabulary of wine tasting (terroir, body, etc.) to discuss the characteristics of yerba. Like wine in France, drinking mate is both serious and as integral to everyday life—and therefore unworthy of comment—as preparing meals at home.
What I find interesting, and even heartwarming, about mate is the social role it plays. First of all, mate is something people often drink in company, always sharing a single cup and straw. In three months I have not tired of seeing people at their worksite or sitting on a patch of grass or at the beach passing around mate. Second, mate is something that a majority of Argentines drink daily, from the poor to the rich, and in this way it has a potential leveling effect. In a self-reflection piece published in an Argentine Vanity Fair-style magazine, the author noted that even while getting high, Argentines drink mate. Of course! Lastly, drinking mate—and drinking it socially—is distinctly Argentine (I’ve been told that Uruguayans don’t have the same sharing tradition). Having a common cultural artifact helps to unify a country that is geographically large and culturally diverse.
The closest I could come to a unifying tradition in the U.S. was Thanksgiving, which is notably different for occurring just once a year and which is being undermined by the Black Friday tradition, which has nothing to do with social connections and everything to do with blind consumerism. (There, now you know how I feel about BF.)