Of ice cream and how language eatsPosted: February 24, 2011
In an effort to prevent a bounty of comments in which my dearest readers (that’s you, by the way) complain that all I discuss anymore is food, I’d like to insist that you take note of the portion of this post’s title which comes post-coordinating conjunction. I talk about language too. Its the only thing I love more than I love food.
Now then, carrying on: Argentines love ice cream. Really, really love it. While it’s been the summer season during my stay, I’m told that even when colder weather descends upon the city the Porteño persists in his commitment to helados. I’ll confirm this claim for you when I can, but there is evidence to suggest its accuracy. How else could the local economy sustain such an outlandish number of ice cream shops?
Yesterday, after an afternoon of running about the city (my guess is I clocked around five miles of pavement pounding), I decided to stop by the shop a few blocks from my apartment for a cone. Let me clarify that, like most Argentine cuisine, the ice cream of Buenos Aires is greatly influenced by the Italian tradition. It’s gelato, really. I chose menta granizado (yep, mint chocolate-chip) and it was absolutely divine. This is my second jaunt into the sweet world of helados here.* The first was a few weeks ago, (bigger cone, half raspberry, half lemon) also gloriously delicious.
Now if one were going to discuss the fact of having enjoyed or planning to enjoy an ice cream cone in the local language of Buenos Aires, one would have to be aware of the following: In Spanish there are three basic verbs for ingesting: comer (normally translated as ‘to eat’), beber (to drink), and tomar (to take or to take in). In Argentina beber is used infrequently. When a waiter wants to know what you’d like to drink he asks, “Querés algo de tomar?” though ‘drinks’ are ‘bebidas‘. Drinking (as in alcohol) is tomando. But there are some important subtleties of usage that require our attention. One does not use the verb comer when the object of the verb is ice cream or breakfast, but rather tomar. That means you don’t ‘eat’ an ice cream cone and you don’t ‘eat’ breakfast.
The import of this usage was explained to me by a Spanish teacher as follows: Breakfast isn’t something you eat in Argentina because it’s usually just tea, coffee or maté and maybe a few medialunas. And you don’t eat ice cream, you lick it or take little bites with your very small spoon.
This may appear to some as a relatively small distinction, between eating and tomando, but I don’t think it is. The language is indicative of a pretty big cultural divide. It isn’t that Argentines don’t eat. (Boy do they ever: huge slabs of meat and thick, extra-cheesy pizzas are the standards for dinner, it seems.) It’s that they think differently about some meals and about some foods than do, well, Americans, for example. And when you think differently about certain meals or certain foods, you behave differently. You socialize differently. You organize your days differently. I dare hypothesize that by using tomar when ‘breakfast’ is its object, Porteños have more or less prevented the development of a brunch culture. In my mind this is a terrible loss for them, considering brunch is the best thing to happen to the weekend, ever. I would venture to claim, too, that by using the verb when ice cream is its object, they’ve opened up a fantastic cultural space in which ice cream can be taken in at any time and in any weather. This, in my mind, is a major gain for them. Now perhaps you think I’m going to far, dear readers. And maybe I am. But I know this: I’m pretty sure I’ll be tomando un helado again, y muy pronto.
*Most Americans I’ve spoken to in the city are shocked by how little ice cream I’ve eaten. One friend of mine spent his first exploratory months in the city going from one Freddo (the most ubiquitous ice cream chain in B.A.) to another. But the truth is I’m just really more of a savory character than a sweets girl.
P.S. I realize the titular image is of little real relevance to the post, but I liked it. And (this is so obvious to those of you who know me as to make the following statement superfluous) I look just like that when I eat ice cream.
P.P.S. The second sentence of the post-script above may or may not be true.