Empanadas Anonymous

By: Joel Marino

I am truly, fully, deeply obsessed with empanadas. If my last meal were an empanada, I would die happy. If every single meal leading up to my last meal were an empanada, I would die happier.

But where did this fascination with the handheld treats come from? Why not have, say, a nice celery addiction? I wondered this recently, mostly after being shamed for devouring a holiday party’s entire empanada supply.

I had a problem, annoyed friends told me. And also, a ridiculous amount of crumbs on my face.

Since then, I’ve tried to pinpoint the root of this fascination. My first conclusion: blame Spain. See, the empanada is a less-bloody remnant of our colonial past, brought to South America by Galician immigrants trailing the scorched paths of conquistadors. To this day, their presence on menus from Baja California to Tierra del Fuego is one of the few things uniting our disparate cultures. In other words, I like empanadas because I’m Latino, and that’s that.

Although... well, relying on a stereotype seemed somewhat ridiculous. Besides, I knew Latino friends who either didn’t care for empanadas or didn’t value them as much as they did other Hispanic staples. So, going back to the drawing board, I stumbled upon my next theory: obviously, I like them because I’m Argentine.

Nowhere is the empanada more exalted than in the Southern Cone nation of my birth. Argentines have a dozen regional variations, sold on practically every block of every city. There are empanada festivals, competitions and even a word for the stylized frills along the crust’s edge (el repulgue)—because true passion has its own lingo.

But I left Buenos Aires and settled in the states at an early age. How did my Argentine levels of empanada frenzy survive so long? Taking a page from Freud, I figured I’d found the next culprits: my parents.

After moving to the states, the family established a ritual we called “Empanada Fridays.” That’s when my mom would bake dozens of meat- or cheese-filled salteñas (a wheat-flour variety popular in Buenos Aires), stacking them pyramid-like on the dining table. We’d gather around the freshly made mounds, my parents sipping beers, my brothers and I making do with Coke, and we’d talk about our week through mouthfuls of flaky crust. No one left until every last golden crumb had been devoured.

Looking back, I suppose those empanada-filled evenings were a way for my parents to tether us to a culture we’d left far behind. They were trying to preserve our heritage as best they could, and to them, nothing said “Proud Argentine” as loudly as an empanada.

And they were mostly right: America may have taken my accent, but it can go to hell if it thinks Hamburger Helper will ever substitute for the delicious warmth of an empanada. From Panama’s yucca-dough carimañola to Venezuela’s plantain-and-shredded-meat de pabellón (and, of course, the oven-baked delicacies of my youth), empanadas will always fascinate me for what they say about our cultural heritage.

And yes, also, because they’re just plain delicious.

Joel Marino is a NYC-based freelance writer and editor who enjoys traveling and saying “I told you so” as much as possible. When not writing, he spends his time on a never-ending quest to find the perfect empanada.