james “yo la tengo” mcnew’s
south american food diary

few bands know how to appreciate food like yo la tengo. james mcnew takes us on a cuisine-oriented tour of south america from early 2001.

2/8. it was 20 degrees in new york. it’s so hot and humid here in rio de janiero, combined with nasty jet lag, my head is spinning and sweating. I’m a sprinkler. we are taken to bar arnaudo, a great-looking old tavern way up on a windy hill, and chow down. our hosts recommend starting with caldinho de feijao, a spicy, black-peppery bean soup with cilantro and pork cracklings on top, as a pick-me-up (“very good for the hangovers”), and they were right. then a cavalcade of odd-yet-hearty beef dishes (salted, sun-dried, some with raw red onion, hard-boiled egg, peppers, etc) with rice were set upon the table; they were good, but the soup was tonight’s clear winner. tonight I also encountered the guarana soft drink for the first time — kinda like strawberry soda, only it’s the flavor of a fruit called the guarana, which I’ve never heard of. you think you’ve heard of every kind of fruit or vegetable by the time you’re 32, but no. around midnight, I stumble upon a juice bar and try a maracuja, another thing I’ve never heard of. it looks kind of dangerous but it makes a hell of a juice around midnight.

2/9 rio. lunch at porchao, one of those meat-on-skewers type places. the sheer volume of meat is awesome. it just keeps coming, like a delicious version of tetris. at each place setting is a little sign: red side up means “no thanks,” green side up means “bring me ten pounds of meat right now, please.” the meat, all grilled, was unbelievably good — lamb, pork, beef, chicken, and some, um, other stuff too. should I have told tour manager joe puleo he was about to eat skewered grilled chicken hearts? to hear him tell it, yes. backstage I try a store-bought mix of maracuja and soy milk, which, over ice, is monumentally refreshing. does that make me a vegan, for a moment there? dinner was at some buffet-type place near the gig, and nowhere as spectacular as our previous meals. I had a mini-feijoada, which was pretty good. greens were way too damn salty, but it’s probably for the best as I haven’t stopped sweating for one second since we landed.

2/10 maringa, BR. did I eat today? oh right, I ate some weird chicken thing after the gig, at about 5:00am.

2/11 maringa/sao paolo. walking around on the streets of maringa, I tried a tangerine frozen custard from a street vendor cranking an ancient, wasp-infested dr. suess-like contraption. and a maracuja milkshake at another stand, hell yeah.

2/12 sao paolo. on the way to our press conference, we stop at a stand selling “coconut water” — basically, someone with a drill press puts a hole in a coconut, pours it into a plastic cup, and there you go. later that evening, an amazing meal at a cool old place specializing in the cuisine of belo horizante, hometown of our S.A. leader, marcos “oh my god” boffa. a seemingly endless array of roasted & fried pork, yams, greens, rice and beans. I also tried a tall frosty glass of honeydew melon juice. can’t say as I recommend it.

2/13 sao paolo. good if lukewarm meal at a very nice place, no real exotic menu items tonight. we ate outside in sexy tropical darkness,and a luxurious breeze came through the palms just as the strings entered during al green’s “how do you mend a broken heart.” drank a shot of cachaca, a sugarcane spirit. it tasted kinda like sweat. earlier in the day I tried a glass of actual guarana juice — guaranas are little berries — and it was truly vile. I guess it’s not so naturally tasty, so you have to pour a ton of sugar into it. It was like drinking a glass of sour half-spun cotton candy. comparing notes with georgia, we find we’ve been going to the same place every morning for coffee, a sorta snooty café around the corner, where they snicker at me for mispronouncing everything. hey, I ain’t too proud to mispronounce, and it’s a damn good espresso. by the way, haven’t seen one starbucks down here, for all you WTO riot types.

2/14 sao paolo. dinner after gig, at a sort of brazilian version of musso & frank’s. joe and I split an “appetizer” (term used lightly here) of “ox foot without the hoof,” which was kinda a big pile of meaty, vinegary, gelatinous goo. steak with fried eggs for my main course, around 2am.

2/15 sao paolo. joe discovers delightfully addictive snack treat, crack bits.

2/16 santiago, chile. one of the best backstage spreads of all-time. are those hearts of palm? bummer of a dinner at about 3am, steak tougher than charles oakley. we were presented with drinks, a local specialty called the pisco sour, which was kind of fluorescent lavender in both color and taste. the next morning we amble down the street for empanadas ­ fantastic, big, fresh, juicy empanadas filled with large, spicy chunks of chicken and — surprise! — a big olive inside.

2/17 montevideo, uruguay. we sit down to dinner around 2:30am. I eat a very refreshing salad, and then negate it with a giant steak with goat cheese on it, for some reason. I mean, that’s what it said on the menu, and I ordered it, I’m just wondering who thought it up.

2/18 buenos aires, argentina. another 2:30am dinner, after the final show of the tour, and this time it’s an old-fashioned argentinean grilled meat explosion! chorizos, morcilla (blood sausage), brains (you heard me — great with a little lemon juice!), and vast blackened flank steaks, all grilled and seasoned to absolute perfection. accompanied by super-strong garlicky-oily chimichurri sauce, and mounds of fries.

2/19 buenos aires. outstanding take-out lunch at la reina de empanadas. ground beef with chilis, extremely messy and delicious. baked, not deep-fried like the ones in santiago. there’s a tear in my eye, and the roof of my mouth is seared as I bid a fond, warbled “adios” to the tasty continent of south america.

visit yo la tengo’s web site at yolatengo.com.