The Allure of Yerba Mate

Diane Oh/New University

Fall quarter 2007. It was 4 o’clock in the morning and I was up to my neck in Aristotle. I paused for a moment, averting my eyes from that hateful, hateful text, and took a sip of a warm, restoring sustenance.

A group of my dorm mates stomped through the study area. They were playing tag. Half of my floor was there. Then suddenly a friend blurted out:

“Greg! Let me hit that.”

“Ummm. Ooookay. Go ahead if you want to, but I’m warning you, it’s an acquired taste.”

“Wait. What? This is a bong. Right?”

“No man, it’s yerba mate.”

“Huh?”

Throughout my freshman year, I got strange looks from people passing through my dorm in Mesa Court, finally culminating in an awkward conversation with a UCIPD officer.

I spent what seemed like five minutes convincing him that my mate was just tea and not a drug. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I don’t just drink regular “I’m tired and I need caffeine,” or, “I’m gonna pull an all-nighter,” drinks like coffee or Red Bull.

I still remember the first time I tried mate. It was a balmy July evening at my grandparents’ farm in Hood River, Ore., and I was sitting on the deck looking out over the endless rows of cherry and pear orchards, but most of all, up toward the snowy peak of Mount Hood.

The sunset stained that monolith in the distance delicate shades of pink and blue, and my grandparents’ shepherd-labrador mix, Blackie, licked my hand.

My grandparents and mother were passing around this weird little cup filled with crushed green leaves, called yerba. I watched with my 6-year-old curiosity as they took turns drinking out of the cup from a long metal straw, refilling the cup with hot water and passing the cup to the right.

“Gregory ¿querés probarlo? [Do you want to try it].”

“¿Qué es abuelo, un tipo de té? [What is it grandpa, a type of tea].”

“Sí. Probá [Yes. Try it].”

I raised the old metal cup and gingerly took a sip. My mouth was bowled over by an onslaught of flavors. First, a slight bitterness danced around the edges of my tongue and the roof of my mouth while the acrid tang of smoky peat ballooned on my palate and drove its way into my nose. As the bitter smoke subsided, grassy earth seemed to coat the inside of my mouth, rich and loamy and strangely satisfying.

In the intervening years, mate has always been a part of my life, serving as a constant reminder of a small portion of my family’s history.

My mother keeps a small green cup, dulled with age, in one of the kitchen cupboards.

Its sides are dinged and scratched, and the paint on the two small handles, elegantly curved up to the cup’s rim, is almost worn through. There is a metal straw, called a bombilla, next to the cup in the cupboard. It feels like a product from the heyday of the Industrial Revolution — heavy, metallic, solid, all the way from its mouthpiece down to the filter mechanism at the other end.

There’s an old teakettle too. Its lid rattles like the clanging of a bell atop an old-fashioned alarm clock, and on its bottom are stamped two words: Industria Argentina.

Every time I drink mate I am reminded of where I came from. My mother was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and immigrated to Hollywood a few years before the rise of the brutal Argentine military dictatorship.

In Argentina, mate is the undisputed national drink. People drink it throughout the day, sipping it hot out of bombillas, brewing it like a normal tea in a preparation called “mate cocido,” drinking it cold as “mate tereré,” drinking it with milk, with sugar, mint, lemon, etc.

But most importantly, mate is meant to be shared over conversation.

People take turns passing the little cup or gourd around and sipping from the bombilla while they sit and relax and chat just as my grandparents and mother did while I sat watching on that deck all those years ago.

As I grow older I find myself wondering more and more about my heritage. All those mate-fueled conversations at my grandparents’ farm in Hood River never yielded any information about life in Argentina.

There was a wall of silence, a refusal to speak much about “the old country.” That past has been hidden from my sight, and I fear it is now lost to the halls of memory.

All I have connecting me to this cultural past is what has always been within my reach — a cup, bombilla and some good yerba. Now to find some friends and pass the cup.