¿Dónde está la manteca de maní? An Exploration of Peanut Butter in Buenos Aires
Article by Oriana Pedone
It only took me two days to peruse my cable television in my homestay and find my new favorite channel: Canal 56, one of the two primary cooking channels of Buenos Aires. Toward the end of my first week in the cosmopolitan city, I watched as one of the women from, Vive Más Simple! made a mouth-watering dessert. While she smeared vanilla cream on a spongy chocolate cake, I thought how perfect peanut butter would taste with the classic dulce de leche added on top. This was the only trigger I needed to start my new craving of peanut butter in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
One of the typical challenges of traveling somewhere new is the cuisine. Nothing is ever the same as in a home; even if one buys from the grocery store, products will be different therefore food will generally vary. It is not the difference of products that becomes the hardest part of change, and in fact, the lack of products proves to be more difficult.
The day after my initial craving of peanut butter, I ventured to one of the supermarket chains in the city—Coto—looking for the protein and fat-loaded spread. As I stood amongst a variety of jam flavors and dulce de leche brands, I could not find one tub of peanut butter in sight. After a full hour of stopping in various supermarkets with no luck, I concluded that peanut butter was nowhere to be found.
A couple days later, with the craving still prevalent, I walked into a local dietética or, health food store, near my homestay. As I gazed over gluten-free products and protein powders, the letters Manteca de Mani screamed from the shelf. Peanut butter! I had finally found peanut butter! Although the name was different from the Mantequilla de Cacahuete that my mother always used to say in her Barcelona accent, this was peanut butter through and through.
Barrio Chino is the Chinatown of Buenos Aires and also serves as a neighborhood to buy items that cannot be found in other parts of the city. Brands and items such as Heinz ketchup, Sriracha sauce, M&Ms, Tabasco sauce and many vegan options are available in all of the grocery stores within the neighborhood. This is quite different from other neighborhood grocery stores where hot spice is nowhere to be found, there are no specific vegan meals and while other candy dominates the shelves, M&Ms do not make an appearance. Even though I knew peanut butter would be very easy to find in Barrio Chino, I was surprised to see some brands I had not seen before in Buenos Aires.
As a short, Asian woman checked me out at the cash register I curiously asked her why Barrio Chino receives so many imports compared to the rest of the city. She looked at me, a little suspicious at first, and then simply answered, “There are different restrictions for this neighborhood compared to the others in Buenos Aires”. I politely thanked her and was on my way.
Buenos Aires, Argentina is a hub for travelers and local Argentines alike, where culture and tradition meets international curiosity. Not only is Buenos Aires a huge city, it also stands out in South America as the “Little Europe” of the continent. Known to have many visitors, the city embraces tourism but carefully keeps an eye on the import and export business. Buenos Aires has long known to have economic difficulties and the current government has worked to prohibit certain imports and exports in the country since February 2012, hoping to help boost the economy. While there is much controversy on the issue, the fact remains that there are little imports into the country.
The city of Buenos Aires was a mystery for me when it came to peanut butter. I quickly concluded it was not in the diet; therefore it was not on the shelves. Finally getting a grip of my surroundings after a month in the city, I began to learn that alcohol stores, Barrio Chino, and dietéticas serve as the only outlets to buy certain imports or items that cannot be found anywhere else. While I was surprised to find a jar of peanut butter in a liquor store, these observations said more about Buenos Aires than a simple spread missing from the shelves. Such scrutiny illuminated the import and export restrictions going on in the country and how the city seems to find loopholes to sell such “alternative” items. I was curious to learn more.
Francisco Olivera is a well-known economist writer for the newspaper, La Nacion, in Buenos Aires. He writes about the economy in the country and the government’s involvement with certain issues as well. Already for the year 2013, Olivera has had 33 articles published. I became in contact with Olivera through my professor, Nicolas Cassese, directing editor of the Buenos Aires magazine, Brando. While Olivera did not have any information for peanut butter specifically, he was very helpful putting the import and export restrictions into perspective:
“Import restrictions are not written, and are more a restriction set by the word of Moreno,” Olivera began to tell me over email. He refers to Guillermo Moreno, currently the Secretary of Domestic Trade in the Argentine government. A controversial figure for Argentina and Buenos Aires, Moreno has had strong influence over the economics of Argentina ever since he assumed office in 2005.
“Because restrictions are not written, the degree of discretion is extremely high. In order to have imports, places such as large supermarkets must export other items at a similar value. In the case of the dietéticas, I do not believe they have the facilities to import and export as much. Large supermarkets such as Coto do not have imported products that they are not interested in. Basically, importing for them serves as an additional cost.” As I read and translated what Olivera explained to me, it all began to make sense.
Supermarkets such as Coto do not have a desire to sell peanut butter because no one buys it. In the end, it would cost the store more to import the item than not. Dietéticas on the other hand, do not follow the same importing rules where they must export something at similar value because they do not have the facilities for it. While they have imported items, it makes sense that they come with a higher price tag.
The weather is now colder and I gaze over each chatting face in the Starbucks seating area outside of Alto Palermo mall in Buenos Aires, I pull my denim jacket closer around my sides to protect against the slight breeze. A man, my guess is early thirties, sits alone near the sidewalk, looking at the people passing by. ‘Could that be him?’ I ask myself and try to make eye contact. He doesn’t seem to be looking for anyone and appears to be very happy alone, so I continue my search. Eventually my eyes land on him—he’s standing up against the entrance wall to Starbucks, looking around curiously and holding a small, plastic bag in his left hand. He’s dressed in a mustard yellow t-shirt, wears dark-rimmed glasses and has a head full of curls that go in any direction they desire. ‘That’s him.’ I think and start walking over trying to make eye contact.
After a brief kiss on the cheek and the indication of who we are, Chris Sorrentino and I decide to find a smaller, less busy café close to the mall but far from the Starbucks that we both know all too well. We sit down, order two café cortados and I slowly take out my crinkled piece of lined paper. I have several questions written down from preparation, but can immediately tell that I will not need to press questions out of Sorrentino; he is ready to speak and I am more than ready to listen.
I first heard about Chris Sorrentino from a friend.
“Yeah this guy… he like makes his own peanut butter. He’s like this hippy guy just selling his own peanut butter here in Buenos Aires. You should definitely try to get some!” Sorrentino seemed captivating just as a person, but it was the business he was creating that caught my attention. My first couple of weeks in Buenos Aires had turned a curiosity of peanut butter into an obsession. When I heard that an expat was trying to create a business for the product, I was immediately intrigued.
Chris Sorrentino, who turns 29 in June, moved to Buenos Aires after meeting his partner and eventually getting married in the gay-friendly country of Argentina. An educated man from Amherst College in Massachusetts, Sorrentino couldn’t wait to move into a big city. He had spent one spring semester in college in Buenos Aires, and he figured, why not give it another shot? Sorrentino immediately felt connected with the city, being a mix of Puerto Rican and Italian himself, and in December of 2012 he had accidently started his own business.
“I had always made peanut butter for expat friends because the peanut butter here just wasn’t quite right. I then teamed up with a girl in my writing group, Vivi, having weekly brainstorm meetings for our projects, her website, My Beautiful Air, and Mil Mantecas. It was at this moment that I realized I could make my peanut butter more marketable on the web.” In a country that stands at the bottom of the list for the production of peanut butter, Sorrentino constantly works to find new ways of introducing the commodity.
Ironically, the history of Peanut butter began in South America. The continent was the first known area to cultivate peanuts and ancient Incas would mash up the peanuts to form a nutty paste. It wasn’t long before the peanut—and its paste—began traveling across the world. First to Africa and then to Spain, peanuts and peanut paste finally made its way to North America by the 1840s. On October 21, 1884 the United States had created its first patent on something resembling the nutty spread.
The introduction of the patent, “To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, of the city of Montreal, in the District of Montreal, Province of Quebec, Canada, have invented new and useful improvements in the Manufacture of Peanut-Candy and Composition of Matter to be Made therewith,” is the earliest evidence of the production of peanut butter. By 1903 a peanut butter making machine was patented in St. Louis, Missouri and by 1914, many companies were making the spread in the United States.
So as I sit in front of Chris Sorrentino and watch as he smilingly drinks his café, the main question that occupies my mind, is “why?” Why is Sorrentino trying to create a business for something that is solely popular in the United States and some areas of Asia? Is it just for expats similar to me?
“I see a future with peanut butter here in Buenos Aires in five to ten years. My main goal is to make accessible and well-priced peanut butter. I think Argentines will buy it if it’s cheap. The problem right now is that they think it’s bad for you or don’t know how to use it.”
As Sorrentino tells me his opinion on peanut butter in Buenos Aires, I begin to understand that he is not just trying to create a business; he has a whole philosophy of the product. He is interested in the education for the uses of peanut butter, the health benefits of the non-sugared paste and even more importantly, the cultivation of peanuts in order to regenerate soil quality and lessen the pressure of exporting 98% genetically modified soy, of which Argentina is the third producer in the world.
If Sorrentino wants to increase his market, he must first increase his production. Currently he works with a hand-grain mill with an attached drill, after breaking two food processors in the past, “I now understand why not everyone makes peanut butter at home” Sorrentino remarks about the broken food processors. The process is simple, but takes a lot of time and energy. Sorrentino first hand grinds the peanuts with the machine until it turns into a “type of peanut flour”. He then runs the peanuts through again, creating more oil production and therefore, a buttery spread. In one week, Sorrentino can produce 50-60 kilos of peanut butter in his home.
Chris Sorrentino’s biggest challenge right now is getting the machine he wants into Argentina. Due to import restrictions, the next size of a grinding machine that currently sits in China supply stores cannot be immediately and legally brought into Argentina.
“I have been talking back and forth by email with Chinese exporters and one guy in the import regulation department of Argentina. Because there is so much paperwork and approval involved, he asked me if it was possible to sneak it into Argentina! Here I’m trying to get approval and now I’m brainstorming general ways to get it into the country.” Sorrentino and I laugh as he tells me the story, but the fact remains that the importing restrictions are pausing his production for this new business. He needs the machine from China because all others in Argentina are either too big or too small. While he continues to make the spread with the hand grind-mill, instead of 50-60 kilos a week, with this new machine, Sorrentino could make that in an hour.
As Chris Sorrentino and I talk about unrelated subjects and wave down our server for la cuenta, he mentions how he sees the future for this business in Buenos Aires. He speaks of different ideas he has, including an invention called, “plastic bag technology”, where buying honey jars for peanut butter wouldn’t be necessary anymore. He speaks of the price for his future peanut butter and how he wants to get it to as low as 10 pesos per “bag”. But above all, he speaks of the education. He talks about outreach programs to prisons, schools and even military bases to teach the health benefits of such a protein-powered spread.
“Once I have the means of production, I just have to educate people and get it out there. When Argentines see the benefits from the product, they’ll want to buy it. Right now, it remains as something foreign from the United States and there is uncertainty of its potential.” I nod in agreement and express my well wishes for his business. I mention how I’d love to come back in 10 years to find stores selling his product and people eating it as a late afternoon snack.
Sorrentino looks out of the window at the people passing by and smiles, “You know once I saw this Argentine woman putting it on her chicken,” he pauses and then adds, “I thought, ‘Wow! She must be a bodybuilder!’” We both laugh as the interview pleasantly comes to an end.
Find Mil Mantecas here: