I remember the first time I ever met Kevin Vaughn. We crammed into our first staff meeting in a tiny room on the rooftop of a brewery that’s long since closed. I remember thinking his hat was bold. It was a fun hat—brightly colored, maybe a pattern. I don’t remember the actual hat, but I remember thinking it was a hat that wouldn’t go unnoticed. It was the sort of hat that made noise.
Months after our first beer I’d edit his rant about “trendy” restaurants erasing Asian communities. I remember hitting publish feeling so motivated. It felt invigorating to publish these types of stories—the ones that raise problems and make you reflect on your part in those problems. But also, the type that gives you hope in the future far, far away that we are progressing towards. Years later we’d meet on a Saturday morning in quarantine for a coffee (he’d drink mate) and after almost two hours of Zooming I’d feel the same way. Activated by an everything-is-part-of-a-never-ending-system-of-bullshit-but-try-anyway kind of motivation. I’d be reaffirmed that the statements Kevin Vaughn makes are worth listening to. The sorts of ideas he promotes shouldn’t go unnoticed.
At the beginning of July, the man behind MASA and our beloved food reviews, launched his solo publication Matambre Magazine, a bilingual compilation of interviews, photography, and news about the intersectional politics of food in Argentina. Subscribers get a new interview every Thursday to their email and a digital ‘zine once a month. So far he’s interviewed Manuela Donnet (from Donnet), Rosario Mercau and Marina Bartolomé (from Yedra), Tali Bek and Peter Drinan (from Americano), and Mario Amado (the union leader of grupación La Voz de Comercio). Read any of those interviews and you’ll get a taste of why this type of self-publication is so necessary to consume, of why Kevin’s self-reflection and welcoming of critique are so refreshing. The first ‘zine comes out this Saturday focused around the theme of power and includes an interview, a reported story, and an essay. Do yourself a favor and sign up now so you don’t miss any more weeks without your Matambre dose.
What inspired Matambre Mag? Why is there a need for this right now in Buenos Aires, worldwide, or for you personally?
In college, I studied Global Studies which is an interdisciplinary major that mixes political science and economics with anthropology. Our focus was learning about systems: how political, economic, and social systems function independently and mix together, and how all of those systems are inherent in everything we do. Those are things that I’ve always been really interested in examining.
What I’ve done at La La Lista is try to take a more holistic approach to food writing, to look outside of what is trendy, and really focus on giving a voice to people who are underrepresented. The food writing system in Buenos Aires is historically dependent on handouts, which means that writers cannot be anonymous in any way because they have to depend on invitations and free food. That limits the places that are written about because you are constrained by those with the resources to be consistently inviting people. Secondly, it creates an unfair system where no one can criticize anything. No one is going to piss off a publicist or bite the hand that feeds them.
There are certainly people who write about the politics and socioeconomics of food systems. But there isn’t a lot of intersection. A lot of that deeper examination is looked at as political writing and is delegated into very partisan publications. You see the same thing in the United States. Food writing is anchored by restaurant writing. The restaurant system is corrupt by nature and oftentimes contains the worst expressions of capitalism. For a journalist to admit or analyze that you also have to admit your role and your responsibility in that. Lots of people don’t want to do that.
Why is it the worst expression of capitalism, and second of all, what is your role within that if you’re the one commenting on that?
First of all, the tipping model was born out of slavery as a way for white owners to get away with subhuman or no wages to Black workers. So the foundations of restaurant culture are based in subhuman conditions. Historically, cooks until maybe the 2000s, when celebrity culture started to develop around cooks, were dirty people in the back serving food to the sector of the population that could afford it. It’s always been a male-dominated industry, men in the back, women in the front. Those roots are planted really, really deeply.
When you talk to a lot of restaurant owners and workers about the mistreatment that those workers deal with on a daily basis, they just say, “Oh yeah, well that’s the industry”, like it’s to be expected. The foundation is rotten and always has been. And so, for a lot of food writers, it’s hard to find places that are running counter to that current. If you recognize that and you’re still uplifting those places [sic] that maybe have really beautiful food or are great cooks or are working with sustainable produce, but still uphold those awful practices, how does that implicate you as a journalist still condoning to a certain degree that behavior and those systems?
So how do you combat that?
Recognizing it. I’m reading a book called Living a Feminist Life by Sarah Ahmed and one thing she talks about is that “a problem doesn’t exist until a problem has a name.” The first step is saying there is a problem.
That doesn’t mean that you have to villainize everyone. We are all stuck in this system and these are the rules of the game. And obviously you try to change those rules, but that’s a really slow process. To me what is important as a writer is finding people who are trying as best they can to make decisions that are healthy and dignified within an unhealthy and undignified system.
There’s no such thing as a perfect restaurant operating within an imperfect system and there’s no such thing as a perfect person. Everything we do has a positive and a negative impact, but it’s about trying to make a positive impact that is way more substantial than the negative. The first step is to admit it, then talk about it, then create solidarity. The role and responsibility of journalism within the larger media construct is [sic] journalism doesn’t tell us how to think but it does tell us what to think about. It’s really important not just what is told, but what’s not told. Invisibilizing a story is just as powerful as giving visibility to another one.
Is that why you decided to self publish?
Back in 2017, I traveled to Misiones a few years ago to develop a story. It’s the most biodiverse region in Argentina, also one of the most impoverished regions. The biodiversity of native plants consumed by the local Guarani before Spanish colonization was decimated when European settlers started growing yerba mate. Pine also colonized the land, as it’s a really, really destructive plant that ruins the soil. I talked to producers and biologists that were trying to rescue these lost indigenous plants and cooks that were trying to re-adopt them with a lot of pushback from diners. I was in Misiones for like two weeks, I interviewed the owner of Amanda (the yerba mate company), big plantation owners, people who had yerba mate plantations that totally ruined their land and were just living on dead land in these vestiges of Misiones’ Golden Age.
The story is super relevant because it’s about colonization, the erasure of Brown communities, indigenous communities, the industrialization of settlers and the cost of that. And I pitched and pitched and pitched and no one responded. When I finally got a response from an editor they said, that ‘sounds interesting but it doesn’t really fit the narrative of Argentina.’
What! But that is the narrative of Argentina.
Exactly! There’s this narrative of foreign spaces that are built by a white foreign gaze, propagated by mass media that trickle down into other media and the popular conscious. And that was a really devastating moment for me. It’s one thing to not get a story commissioned, but a totally other thing to have an editor tell you why they are not interested and have that be such a violent response. So I moved away from writing because I thought I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell. It would be just restaurant listicles and me trying to convince people that Buenos Aires wasn’t the fucking Paris of South America.
Then with the quarantine and having completely lost all my source of income, I was just stuck inside thinking about what the fuck was going to happen with the world. I started seeing this reckoning that is still happening in the US with food media and the restaurant industry and there being a need, and more importantly, a desire to read these things. There’s an audience, but for whatever reason editors don’t want to feed that audience.
So I said fuck it I’m just going to do this myself. Even before I launched it I was starting to get really positive, encouraging responses. That cemented in me that there was a space for this. I needed to stop waiting for some publisher to give me that space and just fucking take it.
There’s a lot of underlying themes that are similar in each interview. It’s very clear that you’re focused on elevating voices that have been underrepresented, but how do you choose these subjects?
There’s a lot of focus on me uplifting non-white male and non-heteronormative people. Not that I’m not going to talk to white guys, but we have enough of a platform already, so I want them to be the minority of my coverage. A light bulb goes off in my head. I think okay I’m really interested in this topic and a lot of that is fueled by other things I’m reading in the food world or my own self-reflection of how am I eating. How does my consumption of plastic affect things? What social systems am I upholding? Part of this is me asking a lot of questions of myself and trying to share that reflection with other people.
I loved all of the interviews so far, but hadn’t read an interview like Mario Amado’s (the union leader pictured above) before. It’s so disheartening to see that despite how deeply connected to the food industry these grocery store workers are, they aren’t making a liveable pay. I know you’ve worked in many restaurants here so you have that community, but someone like Mario, how did you come in contact with him?
I was reading and trying to find patterns of people disproportionately affected by COVID in Argentina. It’s clear that people who live in the villas are really disproportionately affected. The last time I checked (like 2 weeks ago) 50% of the Villa 31 had the virus whether asymptomatic or not. A lot of them are service workers, or in public transport going to work every day. I was trying to find these places which directed my attention to necessary workers. I hadn’t heard of restaurant workers that have been infected in my circles, but I was reading a lot about supermarket workers that were.
When I go into restaurants to interview people I come in and get sprayed, I keep my mask on, my backpack in a certain area, no one shares mate. There’s this very careful attention to me as an outsider coming in, and when you go into grocery stores it’s just like squirt your hand with some alcohol and that’s it. And then you add to that the complexity that these are people coming in and spending an hour or two hours on a bus or a train or a subway that is crowded to get there. Mario’s name popped up in an article and I found him on Twitter and messaged him. Within three days I was sitting in his office in Carrefour.
It was really fascinating to me to talk to someone who is actively engaging in the dismantlement of that system and bettering it at what I imagine to be enormous, personal risk because of the way that system is rooted in corruption.
If you can spoon-feed an idea or a way of thinking about things through this magazine into the mouth of your readers what is it that you want them to take away?
It’s twofold. One is to see the interconnectedness of things in order to break down these power structures. I consider myself an anti-capitalist living in a capitalistic structure. Capitalism is a pyramid and a hierarchy and living at the base is inequality and injustice. I’m focusing so much on these power structures because we are all working towards flattening that pyramid, so it looks more and more like a straight line. And that can only happen if we recognize the role we have in the pyramid and recognize the processes that are working against us to flatten that.
Something really powerful that Mario said when I asked him how we can begin to value that work was that the only way this work will be valued will be when the people implicated in that work have a voice. Not just defining who they are for themselves but having a voice in policymaking, in legislation, in the power structure. This speaks towards a macro approach. To speak to a more micro approach, when talking to Americano and Yedra, it’s clear that the relationship that exists between the person making the food and the person growing the food is so extended and so wrapped in these unnecessary and corrupt systems of mass agriculture and mass production. It’s important to recognize that and to encourage systems that are more direct. To encourage systems that allow farmers to work directly with us, the consumers.
But okay, you go to a restaurant and think I’m supporting local and eating more sustainably and that’s good. Yet I have a level of privilege that allows me to make those socioeconomic choices. So what’s the implication of some of these restaurants being forward-thinking and sustainable, and yet unattainable for someone like maybe Mario who works at a grocery store who probably can’t afford to eat at a place like Donnet?
That’s a really difficult thing. I don’t have an answer to how those restaurants can be more economically inclusive. We’re all fitting into this corrupt system. So how do you work the rules most favorably to change it? The more people like Donnet, Vallegrande, Yedra, Sheikob’s Bagels, that adopt better changes, the more inclusive they become, the better the systems become overall. The more producers you have working with more efficient systems, the more they can start selling to a larger variety of people.
I also want to start breaking down this false idea that the most important players in the food world are the restaurants because they’re not. They are certainly important as expressions of culture and creativity and society but so are home cooks and farmers and the artisans making jams and breads and all sorts of things that we consume at home. We need to get rid of this idea that restaurant people are exceptional. I’m not saying that they’re unexceptional but they’re not the only ones who are. Mario’s work is exceptional. Someone who has a chicken farm that’s cruelty-free that sells eggs to people is exceptional. If a restaurant isn’t accessible, I don’t think that’s a positive thing, but it’s not the most pressing issue either.
What would be the most pressing issue?
Well being fucking aware. Awareness.
In each interview (in the English version) you include tiny Editor’s Notes. They provide a lot of necessary context, be it a translation of a concept or the varied dollar exchange rates. I thought you did such a good job providing a context of Argentine society, that if you didn’t live in Argentina might not resonate the same way. Do you think someone who hasn’t had an experience living in Argentina could resonate with the same things or will be able to understand it in the same way?
Ultimately we all live in the same system. These are universal themes so I think everyone can relate to corruption and abuse, in different ways obviously. But not everything is negative! People can relate to building their own destiny, taking control. I do try to give context to how a theme is distinct within Argentina, but I want people to understand that the issue itself is not unique to Argentina. There’s this idea of what Argentina is and the popular narrative that is imposed on us and historically rooted in histories of European white exceptionalism. It’s not the reality. Those Editor’s Notes are meant to slowly pepper someone’s understanding of the complexities that this place has like any other place has.
Sustainability is a term that’s often ecological and often very personal. A lot of times the focus is on consumption. The attention is focused on me as an individual consumer, whether at a restaurant or a grocery store. There’s not a lot of deeper analysis of whether or not the chain that brought that to your table or your grocery cart was sustainable. The problem is that it’s defined by an environmental perspective when really it’s about fostering equitable ideas and practices in everything that you do. Feminism is about sustainability. Transgender rights are about sustainability. Ending racism is about sustainability. Worker’s rights are about sustainability. You can look at that economically with not getting paid enough, psychologically with someone suffering abuse. The social framework of why people are abused. It’s about seeking out equality.
What does it serve to have a plate of organic mashed potatoes if the hands that picked those were paid 10 cents an hour while the owner of that farm is living like a king? Is that sustainable? I don’t think so. What is the value of a restaurant that uses all organic and agroecological products but treats the women and Black and Brown bodies like garbage [sic] that’s not sustainable. I think that’s a part of the discourse that is really ignored.
Tell me about the format of Matambre.
The first 3 or 4 Thursdays, depending on the month, are interviews and then at the end of the month there’s a fanzine. In recognizing the power of my voice based on what my position of privilege weighs, it does not feel appropriate to tell those stories and center myself in those stories by being the one choosing those words and building those sentences and editing to a certain degree that story. I thought that the interview format was the only way to dilute my gaze.
I don’t want to put words into someone’s mouth or make someone feel like they have to tell me a certain thing. When I’m talking to female chefs, I don’t want them to feel like or the reader to think that I’m only talking to them because they are a woman. Or that they need to be the one responsible to explain to me what that means. That’s something I’m really conscientious about, not tokenizing someone. If I’m contacting you it’s because I’m interested in your project and if they want to speak to the intersectionality of their experience, I’m listening.
Being from the United States, is there a tension between you being the one that could be profiting off of these stories that are highlighting the people of Argentina that don’t have the connections that you have, through language, through contacts, etc. to be able to pitch their own stories to US publications? How do you battle with that?
Yeah, I do struggle with that. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. There are some topics that are universal that I don’t think are problematic. You know, talking about organic or worker’s rights. But I think when you start getting into hyper-specific issues of gender, experiences that I can never begin to relate to, it does become problematic. I would rather tell the story and open up the potential to be criticized for that and have that conversation, than not tell that story and continue to be participating within a framework that doesn’t tell those stories. The former is a healthier critique because it’s ultimately working towards a better system.
It was so important from the very beginning that Matambre is bilingual and that this information be available to local people so that other writers feel like ‘oh I can write about this’ so that eventually I don’t have to be writing about it. So that I can focus on things I can relate to based on where I come from. I’m not trying to paint myself as a martyr, that’s not how I see this. I just want this to become the norm. There are other people talking about this, but it’s not enough and like I said it is very segmented. I need to use the voice and the privilege I have to help facilitate that. These are discussions that people who look like me need to actively engage in.
What do you mean by that?
White, cis-gendered men need to start asking ourselves a lot of questions. Going back to that pyramid, we’re at the very top. Society does not require or encourage people to ask anything about whose below you and that’s why it’s a fucking pyramid. People who look like me—it’s important that we step aside and listen, which is why these are interviews, but we need to start asking how it implicates us too.
It’s a long road. All of these essays about how food journalism upholds these colonial white male excellency views [sic] that won’t be solved in a month. We’re talking about completely breaking these systems down. The first step or what I can contribute is trying to change the narrative and help it reflect the reality. Until these stories enter the collective consciousness and editors respond to it, it’s not going to happen.
So tell me about the first ‘zine that comes out this Saturday and what we can expect from Matambre in the future.
The idea with the ‘zine is that there be an interview, a reported story, and an essay. The first story is about a group of chefs who fought to have better treatment as women workers. They came into work one day and someone had posted a hand written sticker on the women’s bathroom that said “Putas (sluts).” And it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s a really cool story to tell and at first I felt uncomfortable being the one to tell it, but they gave me their blessing. Being a self-published zine it makes sense in that space. I wouldn’t write it for a national daily. For the future, I’m actively looking for biologists and agronomists, farmers that are trying to create small local ecosystems built around more just practices. I’m interested in talking to activists about anything from veganism to worker’s rights to climate change. I’m really interested in this being a national project, not just Buenos Aires.
That’s a failure in Argentina that one, everything is so BA-centric, and two, there’s not a lot of channels to connect everyone together. I reached out to a guy in Bahía Blanca whose making natural wine. I’m talking to a cook in Parana. She works with local fishermen trying to sell fish sustainably (all wild catch). I want to go back to Misiones and finally tell those stories. Next month I’m talking to a coffee shop owner who sources beans directly from a farm from Nicaragua.
I don’t want Matambre to be really exclusive about the restaurant world. The restaurant is the final link in the entire supply chain and focusing on that is completely counterproductive to the goal that I have which is to show just how many hands and processes are involved and interlock with one another.