Catching a Glimpse of My Mother’s Past on a Trip to Buenos Aires

Catching a Glimpse of My Mother’s Past on a Trip to Buenos Aires

I arrived in Buenos Aires on a hot day in late November. It was my first time back in a decade. My mother had flown in two weeks earlier to visit a friend in Córdoba, a city about 500 miles north. I couldn’t recall our last time in Argentina together; it must have been when I was a teenager. 

I met her at my godmother’s apartment, the curtains drawn to block out the fierce midday sun. Even in the dimness, I immediately noticed a shift in my mother. I sensed her excitement, along with something else.

I feel at home here, she said, as I sat down beside her.

She had begun to unpack gifts from her suitcase: alfajores, or delicate sandwich cookies, and a jar of dried chimichurri. My mother has always looked young for her age, but in that moment, as she opened the box of confections to reveal dark strips of dulce de leche pressed between soft discs, she seemed like an entirely different person from the woman who had raised me.

Do you want an alfajor? she asked.

Before I was born, my mother had another life in Argentina. She moved there from Japan at age 23. She married, had a son, divorced, returned to school, and ended up staying in Buenos Aires for almost 20 years. In her late thirties she fell in love with my father, who was visiting from Paris for work. She followed him to France and I was born when she was 44. But she has always spoken to me and my brother in Spanish, rather than Japanese or French; and throughout my childhood, I often dreamed about her Argentine life, a chapter that remained tightly shut, mysterious. I wondered if she would have stayed there forever had she not met my father. 

So much changed in my mother’s life when she moved to France: a second marriage, a new career, another child, French citizenship—even the way she ate underwent a shift. She had always been drawn to holistic medicine, but after my birth, she adopted a strict macrobiotic diet followed by other mostly vegetarian diets. I have no childhood memories of eating red meat at home; dairy, gluten, refined sugar, and processed foods were forbidden in our kitchen, including the frozen treats that my father brought home from his job at an ice cream company. When we traveled abroad to visit family, the rules loosened somewhat, and my cousins discreetly fed me spoonfuls of jam and slices of cheese. Whenever my father and I were alone, we ate chocolate truffles and sandwiches with ham. I never dared eat these items in front of my mother. But friends would whisper stories of the foods she ate before—choux with whipped cream, bread, meat, white rice! It was hard to imagine, as though these anecdotes belonged to someone else.

For our first meal in Buenos Aires, we ate corn pudding and empanadas de carne. I expected my mother to complain about the gluten in the dough or the crisp layer of cheese covering the pudding. Instead, I watched in awe as she served herself large portions. We bit into the warm empanadas; liquid dripped through our fingers onto the plate. The beef filling was laced with raisins, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and onions. This was no anomaly: Throughout the week, my mother ate everything put in front of her with unbridled appetite. All of her food restrictions and sensitivities went out the window as she sought out familiar dishes from her past. We ate deep-fried milanesas with mashed potatoes, caramel flan covered in Chantilly. She brought me to a neighborhood café and asked whether the empanadas were made with ground or hand-cut meat. Of course ours are with carne cortada, the server said of the latter, his voice proud. Very well, she nodded, and ordered three for the table. She took bites from my tostadas—a pressed sandwich of crustless white bread, cheese, and ham.

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