This leg of my journey has come to an end and if you are looking to learn more about Asado, the Argentine culture, or my journey please take a look at Asado: A Journey Through Argentine Cuisine. This book is the culmination of all my experiences, writings, recipes, learnings while exploring Argentina and I am both very excited and proud to share it with our readers.
These are my real thoughts and actions, although some dates have been estimated as I tried to retroactivity piece together the past year:
I’ve had the chance to do a decent amount of flying in the past 23 years. But in seven days, I’ll be using a ticket without a plan to return for the first time. Some call me crazy, others respect my decision, some chalk it up to a millennial phenomenon, and others a classic early mid-life crisis. To me, it is just a decision, which has felt more like an idea up until now—a probability, a maybe. Even as I told people or started making preparations, my actions never felt permanent. In my mind, I was telling the story of another person.
It finally started to hit me: two weeks ago I gave my notice at work—a job I spent two years in college trying to get. Today, I have packed up all my belongings and started a drive out of Los Angeles—a city that I moved to only a year ago. In a week, I will be on a one-way flight to Buenos Aires. To quote my bae: “I’m happy, free, confused, lonely [and nervous] at the same time.”
My story itself isn’t that unique, but please don’t hold the lack of originality against me. It still feels like a fairly big deal. Also, this journey just isn’t about me; we’ll get to the “meat” of the matter soon enough. This is just the introduction.
[Enter Flashback Mode]
The story starts with a boy who grew up in suburban Texas. This kid was a nerd in school. He attended a preppy math and science high school and being surrounded by math and science pushed him towards the business world. During most of college he thought he had life figured out (or at least the career aspect of life): start in consulting, get a foot in somewhere, then make a move to a company in the entertainment field. Entertainment was to be the industry to make the business world seem interesting again. Except, a few months into this “real” world he was lost. Really, lost.
I’ve always had one foot inside the culinary world and the other foot standing on a career with a more stable foothold. My culinary journey began was I was young:
Part I: Quaker Oats and Jambalaya
Mr. Jonenson was the leader of my Cub Scout pack back in elementary school. I lacked a father figure growing up, and for those fleeting weekends we went camping, he was mine. There is something special about the food you eat when camping. On one hand, you are exhausted, starving, and surrounded by barren landscapes, with no civilization in sight. It’s primal and biological to crave food then. On the other hand, it’s about the rituals that come into play out in the woods; you don’t find these rituals anywhere else. One of the best traditions was waking up in the morning to eat oatmeal out of that brown Quaker paper packet that you were too lazy to transfer to a cup so now there is just a clump of apple cinnamon powder in one corner. You would complain. Bond with the others through your complaining. And do it exactly the same the next time.
Even more special was dinner. Everyone had their part: the fire starters, the cooks, and the cleanup crew. Fun fact: Most boys are pyromaniacs when they are young (and most still when older). The pyros would always want to be the illustrious “Fire Starters”. However, Mr. Jonenson loved cooking; he did, therefore I did. It was the simple stuff that first drew me into cooking: tossing burgers into the fire with foil wraps or throwing together jambalaya in the Dutch oven. I found styles, techniques, and rituals so different from the ones I experienced at home. Not to forget, all of this was happening in the middle of a forest, in nature, a world that surrounds us but often feels so foreign and forgotten. Everyone has his or her rituals, whether cultural or societal, when it comes to food. And jumping into a new one is exhilarating.
Part II: The Fat Man and the Sea
The setting of a Carnival cruise dining room is where my next source of inspiration came. As cruise ship dinners go, we were lumped into a communal table and I had to do one of the things I dreaded most: make small talk. There was this man that sat to my 10 o’clock on the first night. He had a rotund figure, with enough hair only for the outer perimeter of his head, and a rosy face. While he somehow managed to struggle together a prominent Dutch mustache, his mannerism clearly American. I sat in shock at the amount of food he ordered.
He ate the classics, the extravagances, and the underdogs. There was no discrimination in his palate. (If you are reading this and thinking about the waste that ensues such habit, I apologize. Let’s set ethics aside temporarily.) I, on the other hand, was sitting there ordering from the kids’ menu. The next night, he sat next to me and encouraged me to follow suit. I had unwillingly become his protégé during this dining room meal. He ordered for me, signaling to the waiter, “Let’s get two of everything I order.” I was confused, looking at my mom for comfort only to see her equally as perplexed. But when the food came and all my worries had vanished. Instead of being immersed into a new world as I was in the forest cooking on a campfire, I had new worlds being delivered right to me. Exploring with my knife and fork (and sometimes hands). I had a blast trying the escargots, the first serving of lobster tail, and then the second serving of lobster tail, and then actually this appetizer sounded interesting let’s try that, followed by the I can’t decide between these two desserts, a what’s a baked Alaska, and finally okay I’d like to get all three. I was a changed boy—my obesity years soon followed.
Part III: Cutting the Cheese
In the summer of Sophomore year, I actually quit my business internship to work as a cheesemonger at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Flatiron NY. I started in a lowly entry-position but quickly gained responsibilities due to my genuine passion for learning everything food. Yes, there were the perks of eating leftover samples and our policy to try a cheese every time a customer asked to try a cheese, but putting those aside, between being surrounded by people with the same culinary interests, getting to exploring new ingredients, and talking about food everyday (even as sales to customers) I found myself loving this world. Yet, business was still the solid platform. It was easier to lean on the foot with the stability rather than taking that shaky step forward.
November of the Year Before
I tried shrooms today. I mention this to not stir debate, but while there is no direct relationship of that act to my current decision, every idea has a beginning. The one that came to fruition over the next few months was seeded that day. I took too much for my first time and spent a solid portion of the time under the whale in the New York National History Museum fearful that I had pissed myself. But outside of those moments, I spent a lot of time thinking about life, space, and human connectedness.
For as long as I can remember, looking at the night sky has filled me with both fascination and an eerie sensation. How do you look up and not think “What the fuck is this place?” I had put off learning more over the years because of that eerie feeling, but curiosity (and shrooms) finally pushed me in the right direction.
Astrophysics isn’t necessarily what you would call a traditional philosophy, but the interplay between science and thought has existed since the very beginning. The idea of a “soup of quarks” was part of early Hinduism, in school we are taught about Aristotle and the following ramifications, etc. Astrophysics is unique in that instead of defining a world-view like most philosophies, it is attempting to define the world.
I was quickly pulled into the gravity of the content (See what I did there?) and started to learn about black holes, multiverses, time travel, string theory, simulation theory… but at a certain point (after many headaches), the world of fact is quickly replaced by that of theory. Theories start building on theories. The framework starts to resemble religion. Then, you start imagining a future world where science could in fact be religion. Where theories are mantras and scientists could be idols. Where technology would be instruments of the shaman and the public reveres what they don’t understand. And then you attempt to write a short story only to realize that Asimov has already been there, done that (i.e. Foundation Series).
What did come out of this exploration was a lot of interesting ideas and concepts, but ultimately no answers. I also unfortunately spent too much time contemplating the another infinite number of “Me’s” in infinite different universes and what they were up to, whether they were plagued with the questions that were currently plaguing me. Science had failed me, so I turned to more traditional philosophies.
March of Current Year
It was around here that somehow it was seeded in my mind that I am just living in the wrong world. My crisis had hit. There are many ways to react to a crisis:
– Giving into it, or Depression
– Running away, or Materialism
– Facing it, or seeking Perspective
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t experienced the first two of those at this point. Times where I sat down with a drink to think but ended up finishing a bottle (Black Label, Neat). Or buying a tub of ice cream (Cookie Dough) and watching every Rom-com on Netflix (shout out to “Love Actually”). Without a world-view, I risked being stuck between those first two reactions; it is easy for a sense of futility to set in, or to seek meaningless distractions to fill a void (aka my TV watching habits).
I found that philosophy is a good stepping stone in developing a world-view. The problem is, philosophy can also be a bitch. At some times it can help to create a world-view, but most of the time it makes me confused, dizzy, and longing for the comfortably constrained world of my TV shows.
My first step for seeking help was to make friends with all old, mainly dead, mainly men through the ages. I read about the Stoics, the Buddhists, Plato, and early Chinese philosophies. I revisited Hinduism, and at a low point even created my own “Midnight in Paris” based philosophy. Where I finally found resolve was with these two dead men: Thoreau and Goethe.
Thoreau’s message is often mistaken as the man that decided to live out in the woods. *Spoiler Alert* That is not what existentialism is about. Those who made it to the end of the book found that Thoreau actually returned to the city learning that the life in Walden Pond might not be the best for him, but noting an important finding: that when it comes to the existential idea of charting your own way outside of the societal norms, you won’t ever know if it is right for you unless you try. That last sentence is important—remember it.
And the last friend I made in this philosophical quest was with Goethe. Goethe would probably be severely disappointed that I referenced to him even in the slightest as a philosopher, but the anti-philosophy that came up in Faust also struck a chord: there are too many perspectives and experiences of the human condition for one philosophy. Goethe was the last in my philosopher series and it was time to move on.
There’s a scene in one my favorite movies, Ratatouille, where Ego (the critic) first goes to the restaurant:
Mustafa: [taking Ego’s order] Do you know what you’d like this evening, sir?
Anton Ego: Yes, I think I do. After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?
Mustafa: With what, sir?
Anton Ego: Perspective. Fresh out, I take it?
Mustafa: I am, uh…
Ego finds, as I wish, that perspective cannot, unfortunately, be served up on a plate. The next question that I needed to tackle was where do I actually find perspective?
One of the most interesting concepts in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” is the idea of “bubbles”:
This isn’t a novel concept. Visually, think Under the Dome or philosophically think Allegory of the Cave. Our experiences (probably a combination of nature and nurture) work to create a bubble that guides our perspective on life. My outlook or rationality is both built and limited by my experiences: growing up in suburban America, business school, the childhood instances of serving as my sister’s personal Barbie doll, and so on.
Side note: On one end, my discussion of bubbles is self-serving: to serve a sort of disclaimer that everything here is part of my bubble—so we might agree or differ on perspectives, and if there is something that my bubble restricts, please let me know.
I’ve thought in the business mindset for so long that it’s hard to think of living a different life. There’s a way of life and priorities that exist within this bubble: We live in a world where career is often put ahead of passion. Risk is cut by stability. Where we sadly have to create bucket lists of things to do before our eventual demise and our passions or interests are reduced to the glory of the check mark, and the following Snapchat, rather than being an integral part of our life.
Ever since I was first told that my father was working on his own company when he passed, I had my mind set on the business world and it drove me to attend business school. It made sense: it came with stability and was a widely popular path to take. The problem with our traditional approach to stability is that we focus on money as being the instrumental resource, when in reality, at least until we are all downloaded or made into robots, isn’t time a much bigger consideration? Time is the resource we’re always losing, is the least predictable, and can never be gained.
It makes sense to me that I can only start answering questions by first expanding my bubble. Knowing that I am limited by a bubble, I won’t find any answers by continuing to do what I am doing now. And here is where that leap of faith began.
I went back to Thoreau to contemplate my own Walden Pond. I asked myself, as of right now, if money was no concern, what would I love to be doing? The answer was pretty clear: I would want to spend extended amounts of time in countries around the world learning the cuisine and culture. And from that day, I started looking into how I can make that happen.
Costs – I started saving. I extended my Soylent subscription and cooked meals at home more. I stopped using Amazon Prime and got a library membership. I set a target amount of money to have in my account by October. I joined a website called Workaway to start searching for work-exchanges that I could use to subsidize my costs while I traveled. My primary focus was to search for culinary experiences but I couldn’t find anything specific around cuisine, so I opted for a hostel that would cover housing costs in exchange for part-time work that would enable me to then explore cuisine in my free time.
Education – After undergraduate school, I had made a decision that I didn’t want to go through another formalized education system. Being nerdy and someone who likes to read and study in my free time, I prefer to create my own learnings or in formal-speak, to do some individualized learning. So I drove down on my envisioned travel experiences to target one culinary-related learning to focus on during the countries I planned to spend an extended amount of time in:
Argentina – Asado
Japan – Tare & Yakitori
France – Foie Gras (or Forcemeats)
Chile or Italy – Wine
I booked a one way flight to Argentina to start my journey. Why Argentina? On one end, I haven’t spent any time in South America and it’s a culture that I want to learn more about. But from a culinary perspective, Argentinian BBQ (from now on referred to as Asado) is amazing. It’s a culinary aspect that touches more than just technique and ingredients to history and remains a cultural pillar today. My culinary journey actually began with fires many years ago, out in the woods during Boy Scouts camping trips, surrounded by wilderness. Asado just seemed like the perfect place to start. This is just me being cheesy, but “Azaad” is also the Urdu word for “Freedom”—so it fits, right? On the flipside, Asado is also fairly similar to Assad (i.e. Assad regime) so I shouldn’t stretch it too much.
[Exit Flashback Mode]
We are now back to where we started at the start of this lengthy introduction. I’d be pretty surprised if anyone survived until here and if you did, please reply to this post with #NotAsBoringAsExpected or #BoringButIReadItAnywaysBecauseIWasBored.
I wish I had a greater backstory. That this was the story of my impoverished background and persistence. Or that I wasn’t given opportunities and overcame struggle. My story isn’t a meteoric rise or of a lowly chai-walla escaping the slums. It is of perspective. Perspective that I find that is lost in the American middle class. Perspective, that will hopefully lend itself to purpose.
And so it begins on October 9th with a one way ticket, with a hostel work-exchange, a regular backpacking sack, and a journal dedicated to documenting everything Asado.
“You don’t grow on a secure path. In order to grow and improve, you have to be there, at the edge of uncertainty.” — Francis Mallmann, a famous Argentinian Chef.
[Enter Foreshadowing Mode]
I started reaching out to people online to try and begin preliminary research and building contacts around Asado. I knew online would be hard and in person would be best when I eventually get there, but decided to try my luck with a Reddit post.
A chain of conversation ended with me agreeing to coordinate a meet up in Chascomus where I would host my own Asado feast. This was a great idea, as I now had something to work towards. I knew that I wanted to explore History, Culture, Meats, & Techniques, but having a tangible event that I had to host not only ups the stakes, but also serves as an opportunity to put my learnings in action.
I found the perfect goal. I have a smile on my face. And if you know me, you know genuine smiles don’t happen often.
For now, Varud