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food / travel

How Argentina's Soup Kitchen Cooks Serve Up Haute Cuisine

People like Aunt Eva, in the outskirts of Mendoza, Argentina dedicate countless hours to preparing food for the needy. They make use of whatever is at hand, and invent some remarkable dishes in the process.

How Argentina's Soup Kitchen Cooks Serve Up Haute Cuisine
Adriana Santagati

BUENOS AIRES — Pretty much everyone has at least heard of goulash, the Hungarian meat stew served in cafés the world over. But who invented it? Impossible to say. What we do know is that it's a recipe born from necessity: the need, in this case, to slowly cook dried or lesser quality meat until tender.

Indeed, many famous dishes originated this way, from people having to make do with what they had. And who knows, perhaps 20 or 30 years from know we'll be tracking the origin of the corn flour pizza that María Angélica Parodi — Mary, as most people know her — prepares in her kitchen in Rosario, in central Argentina.

The 51-year-old runs a kiosk in the city's Villa Gobernador Gálvez district. But every morning, she also plans and prepares lunch — for 120 people. Her workspace is her kitchen. It's small, but Mary makes do. She has a big heart and knows just how much people really need the food she prepares.

Shantytown kitchen

She lives in a low-income housing complex built by the state, though right beside it is the district's biggest shantytown. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Mary and her neighbors decided they needed to help out, and began organizing meals in the church. Then, as normal activities resumed, they moved to their homes.

Today she serves lunch on Tuesday and Friday, and an in-between meal on Thursday. She cooks donated foodstuffs and often spends her own money to pay for gas or buy more food. What she earns from her little kiosk "goes to the kitchen," she says.

A kind of dough.

Besides hard work, her "makeshift" meals require a large dose of ingenuity and creativity. Every dish is about finding a solution, and using every ingredient. She makes ñoquis for example, but without potatoes or ricotta cheese. Instead she uses yeast to create "a kind of dough."

"They don't inflate, but they're not heavy either. You then serve them with sauce," Mary explains, adding that a cook from Córdoba gave her the recipe.

That is how a recipe book is created: collaboratively. The same goes with her corn flour pizza, which came from too much donated corn flour. "You cook the corn flour in a half-water, half-milk broth and a bit of lard. You stretch it out on a board and cover it with sauce and cheese," she says.

Her corn-flour pizza invention

Mary's pizza is a hit, the dish people ask for most. The corn flour pizza recipe is one of several in Cocineras al Rescate (Cooks to the Rescue), a cookbook published by the multinational consumer goods company Unilever. It's a compilation of the dishes that everyday people prepare in homes across Argentina homes and in the roughly 12,000 soup kitchens and charity cafés registered through the country's Social Development Ministry.

There are recipes for stews, lentil burgers, rice pudding, pancakes and pasta dishes. One is called "Aunt Eva's noodles," named after Eva María José Cea Vidal in Guaymallén, outside of Mendoza in western Argentina.

More than just recipes.

The many children she serves call her tía, Spanish for aunt. All together, she has about 50 "nephews and nieces" who visit her home-based eatery, Los Peques, twice a week for milk, and once every fortnight for a plate of food. They love her noodles and bolognese.

"They're not recipes, they're inventions," she says of her dishes. "We chop the vegetables real small and season them generously. The biggest problem is finding meat… if we can't find any we put lentils instead."

Her secret is lots of seasoning: with red pepper, provençal herbs and oregano.

No politics served

Another of her cherished inventions is pork rind pie, baked in a tin oven: "I buy the fat, separate what I melt and finely cut the rest for the pork rind. I freeze it and use it bit by bit. As one of the kids told me the other day, 'it's not a pie without pork rind.'"

Eva works with the Social Development Ministry in the district of Guaymallén. The idea of a soup kitchen followed a conversation at work. She came home and discussed it with her sisters, and the rest is history. People donate food, but she tends to reject it from politicians wanting to take pictures. "My policy is no politics," she says.

She has created a little space for visiting children to spend time and play: "You don't help just with food. It's about providing whatever they might need. I seek them out and ask them about their problems. They know they can trust me."

Eva says she went into all of this wanting to help others, but realized over time how much the children help her. She has two daughters of her own, but also had a baby girl who died four years ago. The children eating at her house have helped her overcome the grief of that loss. She says, "The kitchen keeps me grounded."

Meat-loving Argentines need their veggies

Cooking is about giving and receiving love. It is a way of caring, which is what Laura Castillo does. She is a professional chef and one of four who cook every day for 60 women with special needs living at the Cottolengo Don Orione school in northwestern Buenos Aires. The food there is also donated and special menus are concocted for "the girls."

The four cooks work to ensure there are always vegetables, with tougher parts usually incorporated in soups. Too much lettuce donated on one occasion was chopped, fried and mixed into fritters or buñuelos. Pumpkin seeds are often added to bread.

The firm has been working for some years with the Argentine Agriculture Ministry and the UN's FAO agency on the problem of food waste. As a result, Argentina was the first country to mark the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste last month.

Food waste comes from ignorance

"We recycle what's left over. You must use up everything," says Mary, making French toast from stew (torrejas de guiso) or rice.

Jimena Solís is a chef and Unilever trainer. She helped some of the charity cooks make the best use of ingredients in creating tasty, healthy dishes. She observes that even in poor households food is wasted "out of ignorance."

The inability to properly read food labels is a problem across the socio-economic strata, Jimena says. She observed, for example, that Argentines — who tend to love beef (if they can afford it) — were fairly ignorant about vegetables and consume under a kilogram per head annually.

Ultimately, it's the soup kitchen ladies who "are the ones working the magic," Jimena explains.

That magic of course is born from necessity. But who knows, maybe some day, at an upscale eatery in the capital, curious customers will ask the chef: "How did you get the idea for the corn flour pizza?"

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