Posted by: Rob Viens | September 19, 2013

The Posta Express 2: Eatin’ Pumas & Drinkin’ Mate

For today’s posta (I mean post) we’ll continue to follow Darwin as he travels north across the Argentine countryside.

OK- so I am always amused by Darwin’s fascination with eating his specimens (a habit that goes back to his charter membership in the “Glutton Club” back in college).  On September 16th, it was puma that passed his lips, which apparently is “good eating” and tastes like veal.  Read on and learn everything you every wanted to know about eating wild cats …

Posta #8:

“To the 8th Posta; galloped very fast over an extremely fine grass plain. — Arrived at the Posta on the R. Tapalguen after it was dark. At supper I was suddenly struck with horror that I was eating one of the very favourite dishes of the country, viz a half formed calf long before its time of birth. — It turned out to be the Lion or Puma; the flesh is very white & remarkably like Veal in its taste. — Dr Shaw was laughed at for stating that “the flesh of the Lion (of Africa) is in great esteem, having no small affinity with veal, both in colour, taste & flavour”. — Yet the Puma & Lion are not, I believe, closer allied than any other two of the Cat genus.— The Gouchos differ much whether the Jaguar is good eating; but all agree that the Cat is excellent.” (Sept 16)

Puma by Richard Lydekker (1896)

Puma by Lydekker

After a good night’s rest, Darwin was off again traveling north to Posta #9 and #10. Again, food and drink play a central role in his memories of the day:

Posta #9:

“To the 9th Posta, followed the course of the R. Tapalguen, very fertile country. — Tapalguen itself or the town of Tapalguen is a curious place. — It is a perfectly flat plain, studded as far as the eye reaches with the Toldos or oven like huts of Indians. — The greater part of the families of the men with Rosas live here. — There are immense herds of horses & some sheep. — We met & passed many young Indian women, riding by two’s & three’s on the same horse. These & many of the young men were strikingly handsome; their fine ruddy colour is the very picture of health. — Besides the Toldos there are three Ranchos, one with a Commandante, & two others Pulperia’s or shops.— We here bought some biscuit. — I had now been several days without tasting anything except meat & drinking mattee. — I found this new regimen agreed very well with me, but I at the same time felt hard exercise was necessary to make it do so. — I have no doubt that the Gauchos living so much on meat. — is the cause that they like other carnivorous animals can go a long time without food & can withstand much exposure. — I was told that some troops from Tandeel were in pursuit of some Indians, & that for three days they neither tasted water or food. — What other troops would not have killed their horses?” (Sept 17)

Posta #10:

“To the 10th Posta; plain, partly swamp & partly good to the East of the R. Tapalguen.” (Sept 17)

The mate  (or mattee) Darwin refers to here is made from the ground up and steeped leaved of the yerba mate plant (Ilex paraguariensis).  It is similar to, though not considered the same thing as, yerba mate tea that you can find in grocery stores all over the world today.

Yerba Mate plant by Franz Eugen Köhler (1897)

yerba mate

Traditional mate is the caffeinated drink of choice in many parts of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, where it is consumed in a traditional (and social) manner out of a calabash gourd (via a metal straw).  Like many other caffeinated drinks around the world (e.g., tea and coffee), the ritual of preparing and drinking the beverage is as much a part of the drinking experience as the infusion itself. As Darwin experienced, mate was the iconic drink of the gauchos.

Traditionally prepared mate (from Wikipedia Commons)

yerba mate gourd

On the 18th, Darwin was back on the trail – making good time as he passed through five more postas:

Postas # 11 and 12:

“To the 11th & 12th Posta, a long ride, through a country similar to the last stage: We passed a small tribe of Indians going from Tapalguen to the Guardia del Monte for commerce. — The women rode the horses with goods. — these are of hides & articles woven by hand of wool, such as cloths or yergas & garters. — The patterns are very pretty & brilliantly coloured. — The workmanship is so good that an English merchant in Buenos Ayres declared that the ones, which I had, were of English manufacture. — He was not convinced to the contrary, untill he observed that the tassels were tied up with split sinew.” (Sept 18)

Postas #12, 13, and 14:

“12th to 13th to 14th Posta: we had to ride for a long distance in water above the horses knees. — By crossing the stirrups & riding Arab like with the legs cocked up, we managed to keep pretty dry. — As it was growing dark we crossed the Salado; at this time it was about 40 yards wide, but very deep; in the summer it becomes nearly dry, the little water being as salt as the sea. — I ought to have mentioned that the 12th Posta, about 7 leagues to the South of the Salado, was the first Estancia where we saw cattle & a white woman. — Having crossed the Salado, we slept at the Posta, which was one of the great Estancias of General Rosas. It was fortified & of such extent that arriving in the dark I thought it was a Town & fortress. There were immense herds of cattle, as well there might be, the General here having 74 square leagues of land. — He used to have three or four hundred Peons working here & defied all the efforts of the Indians. — I was treated very hospitably, & [in] the morning started for Guardia del Monte.” (Sept 18)

Darwin’s energy comes through pretty clearly “between the lines” of his diary.  His descriptions imply that he seemed to really like the role of explorer, and that eating lions, crossing rivers and meeting locals were all things to be savored and enjoyed to the fullest.

The adventure continues tomorrow…(RJV)

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Responses

  1. I’ve been doing some research using the English version of the 18th century History of Louisiana by Le Page Du Pratz and am always surprised/amused/horrified by his unrelenting habit of consuming any and all creatures under study, from eagles to pelicans to rodents, and describing the edibility (or lack thereof) of their ‘flesh’.
    But chances are, the notion of tagging, ringing and tracking individual animals over a period of many years and at considerable expense, with no intent of ever hunting or consuming them, might have seemed just as curious to these early naturalists as their ‘culinary’ research seems to us.

    • Thanks for the insights from your own research. I suspect that you are correct that it was pretty common for naturalists of the time. I suppose it makes senses both from a observational and practical sense. Thanks! – Rob


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