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Bottling the Tradition 

In which our reporter travels to Argentina and discovers that when it comes to mate, Americans are doing it all wrong

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Unlike other infusions, mate doesn't stand and steep; the mate is filled and refilled with water, but the yerba endures. As a result, drinkers have developed countless techniques to keep the infusion even and delicious. Additionally, because custom calls for multiple people sharing the same straw and gourd, the act of drinking mate connotes trust and hospitality. A complex culture and vocabulary has reflexively evolved around its ceremony.

click to enlarge IN THE TRADITION In Argentina, mate is steeped and shared, with each participant drinking from the same 'bombilla.' - JAY SCHERF
  • Jay Scherf
  • IN THE TRADITION In Argentina, mate is steeped and shared, with each participant drinking from the same 'bombilla.'

"To drink mate is to share," Pitrelli explains. "It's something intimate."

In the language of mate, quotidian objects take on new properties. Water can be tempered, burned or served raw. Kettles can spout wings and fly, or they can dance around the stovetop. Figuratively, mate can be saddled up or plugged, served tufted, in the formation of a star, or like a rancher. It can be hung up or drunk peeled, or it can be long or short. Layered into this vocabulary are jokes and insults and cultural nuances sometimes more powerful than the spoken word.

At least one figure in gaucho folklore has been killed for serving mate lukewarm. Drinking bitter mate like the gauchos is masculine; tempering its strength with sugar or herbs is vaguely inauthentic, for those who can't handle the "real deal." To run out of yerba is a sexual reference; if there's none left, a hypothetical couple deciding whether they want to drink mate or get it on now only have one option.

The Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s prohibited workers in some industries from drinking mate on the job, fearing that its power to bring people together would facilitate workers organizing. When a girl takes a new boyfriend to her parents' house, suspicious parents serve him especially hot mate to try to keep his hands busy and away from their daughter. And because parents don't offer it to children due to its bitter taste and stimulative properties, Argentines consider the first time a child drinks mate home alone as a noteworthy rite of passage.

As their country has acquired a more cosmopolitan character, many Argentines attach less significance to the intricate rituals that characterize mate in its former provincial context. For example, most Argentines today would not interpret receiving mate with lemon balm as a symbol of the server's sadness or distress, as Coluccio writes it once meant. However, many widely observed customs and symbols concerning mate still exist, and mate's definition is clear. None of the Argentines I interviewed abroad knew that mate is now sold in the United States, and none of them considered Guayakí's bottles or cans to be authentic types of mate.

Amid a series of interviews I conducted with strangers in town, I spoke with Alejandro Benitez, a tourist in his 20s from Buenos Aires, who spit out the sample of the mate energy shot I offered him. He defined mate like my other sources.

"Mate" he says, "has three basic elements: the mate [receptacle], yerba and bombilla." To Benitez, Guayakí's single-use bottles and cans are "very individualistic," and he adds an important reminder: "Mate is shared."

On the porch one afternoon, I discuss American mate with Vivi's visiting relatives. "Those have nothing to do with what mate is," says Fernando Pitrelli, Vivi's brother, referring to some printout labels of Guayakí's bottles and cans. "Mate isn't drunk from a bottle; you don't get it from a can."

"It's all for business," he says. "They're losing out on what mate is, what mate means to us."

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