It Takes Three to Tango
(by Andreina P. Botto Roever, Valentina Roever, and Sophia Roever)
Life for my three young daughters, growing up in New Jersey, is so different than my life growing up in Argentina. My family was loving, and my grandmother, who had emigrated from Italy, had the biggest heart. She used to cook for me and say, ”Mangia che ti fa bene,” which means ”Eat, that is good for you.” We had a strong feeling about gathering family around the table together. It was connection, tradition. But options for women were quite limited in that culture, and the message from my teachers and most adult authorities was that I had to put up with those limitations. In order for me to live a more complete, less traditional, open and fear-free life, my mother said, “Save yourself. Go to Europe.”
I got a scholarship to college in Germany and began a career in international relations. I can remember like it was yesterday when a close friend said, “You should go to New York to live the American dream.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I had just met the lovely German man who would become my husband, and we decided to move together, full of dreams and ambitions. Arriving in New York, I didn’t speak English, but half of New York spoke Spanish. After two weeks, I felt at home. I was a New Yorker. Trust me, I didn’t feel like that for the ten years I spent in Germany.
It was very important for my daughters to know my traditions and culture. I only speak Spanish to them at home, and teach them to cook and bake what my grandmother taught me, like empanadas and dulce de leche. These are ties to my heritage, not to be forgotten even though we are immersed in the American culture, which I love. I love that there is justice, security, women’s rights. I love that they can walk on the street without getting kidnapped. I love how people walk their dogs in pajamas, how millionaires are wearing T-shirts. (In South America, millionaires are expected to dress like millionaires.) The one part of the American culture that I avoid is putting too many expectations on my daughters, making them feel pressure about being “the best.” I respect their feelings and try to use inspiration and empowerment to get them to perform.
The kitchen is the heart of our family, and we have old-fashioned rules about mealtimes together. The table is set with silverware and flowers. Nobody eats standing up, ever. Cell phones are put away; and anyone who comes late does not eat alone—others have to come and give company. That’s what I used to do with my family, but I didn’t realize how unusual it was until my American neighbors commented on it. I don’t judge, but we need to bring conversation to the table. We even do the Argentinean tradition of sobre mesa or “after table,” staying and talking after the food is eaten.
My mother comes often to visit. She dances the tango with my daughters, enriches their lives with another culture. Out of a sense of urgency to connect to our roots, she and my eldest daughter wrote and illustrated a book about an Argentinean legend of the Incas. We sold the book, and with the proceeds we went to Argentina and helped a poor school in Mendoza, providing them with heaters and air conditioners, books and board games. We also participated in a program that brought various German grandmothers to live with us for several months—like sponsoring exchange students, except they were grandmas. We created the Sisters Foundation, modeling how to make a difference in the world and not forget where their ancestors came from. Most importantly, I teach them to be grateful for what they have and to always be kind to others, even if they don’t get kindness back.
My girls experience that being Argentinean and German is a privilege, that speaking multiple languages is a gift. They love my accent, and have come to the United Nations where I work 1000 times. They see this glorious bubble of an international community, and know that Mommy’s one of them.
Valentina, age 12
I am from a family of immigrant parents and American daughters, the eldest of three sisters. We are like many other families, maybe different from most. It doesn’t matter—we are the way we are, and we like it.
I was born in New York City, but did not learn to speak English until I was seven since my Argentinean mama decided right off the bat to teach me Spanish. When I went to my new school in kindergarten, everything and everyone was different. At home, I would only hear English when guests came. In school, English was spoken 24/7. Luckily, I was put in a class with kids just like me. They didn’t necessarily speak the same language as me, but we were all different in just about the same way. Then my German papa decided it was his turn, and taught me his language.
You may ask, if I’m so many things, then exactly what the world am I? For one thing, I am the daughter of the best mother in the world. The mother who plays songs in the morning and sings lullabies in Spanish at night. Who kisses and hugs me every day for being who I am. Who makes tea when I’m sick. Who makes me laugh, if I cry. Who is always ready to give advice about anything, big or small. Who has been my role model since I was small. She is who I want to be when I am big.
There are often five of us in the kitchen making traditional Argentine and German foods such as schnitzel and empanadas. Oh, and Sunday pancakes—how could I forget? My mother likes to enjoy a nice hot mate. Wait, silly me, I need to explain: Mate is an Argentine drink, really just some herbs in hot water, but she’s been drinking it every morning since I was born, and sometimes I join in. Theoretically, you should only have mate when you are sharing it with someone else. It’s the national beverage of Argentina, traditionally drunk through a silver straw, although we don’t really do that. It’s actually known as the friendship drink because it’s popular for social occasions; people pass a gourd with the tea and a straw to their friends. When no more tea remains, the straw makes a loud sucking noise, but it’s not considered rude. If someone in the group holds the gourd too long, others may say “No es un micrófono” ("it's not a microphone"), as if they were delivering a lecture.
When I look around the dinner table at our family, I couldn’t be prouder. We like being what we are and doing what we do. Every family is different, and this is who my family is, full of love and passion.
(Sophia, Paula, Andreina, Valentina, and grandmother Clarisa Ares)
Sophia, age 10
I was born in the New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. My mom crossed the Brooklyn Bridge just to have my birth certificate from New York, New York. My dad met my mom when she went to college in Germany. They saw each other on a high-speed train, and she offered him some gum. It was love at first sight. They started a conversation and gave each other their phone numbers, and seven years later, I was born.
Now we come back to the present. I live in New Jersey and am in fifth grade, where I gladly learn new things. My favorite subject in school is math. Not many people really like math, but I love it. Social Studies, science, reading, writing, and math—I love them all. School is a real treat for me. Most kids say they don’t like school, which I don’t get.
My family and I have done a lot of traveling, especially Germany and Argentina to see cousins and grandparents and godparents and aunts and uncles and step-aunts and step-uncles. It feels like I bring home the many places I have been because when my mom or dad or nanny cooks, they make the foods of the places we’ve visited. I speak German to my dad, Spanish to my mom and my nanny, and English to my two sisters. I love that I can speak many languages because I can socialize with people that don’t live in the United States, and they will understand me.
I learned how to do the tango from my grandmother (called Babu, short for Babushka). Sometimes my sisters and my mom join in, but my mom dances in her own way. My mom always has Argentinean music in the kitchen when we’re cooking or baking, having an after-school snack or eating meals. From the time I was tiny, she got empanadas from a sweet panaderia near our house, but now we also make them ourselves, and I often go to the supermarket with her to buy the ingredients. (Since I’m the middle child, she tries to spend a little extra time with me.) When I first started making them, I had trouble with the crust, but I was inspired by my mom, as well as my nanny (a/k/a Rosita who is like a second mom to me, also from Argentina). The trick is to make the crust in the form of a hill, so it goes up and down, up and down.
My sisters and I created a foundation and raised $5,000, which we took to Mendoza in the mountains of Argentina, to help the people build a school and get things like air conditioners, heaters, board games, books for a library, socks, and jackets for the kids that were less fortunate. My mom always tries to help with my concern about saving the environment. We try not to use so much plastic at home, and we pick up plastic from the beach. We even sold bags made with recyclable materials in front of a supermarket, so that people don’t always use plastic bags. Wow, my mom really is super.
Andreina P. Botto Roever lives in Montclair, New Jersey. She has worked for over 15 years at the United Nations and is currently an Innovation and Communication expert there. She and her daughters Valentina, Sophia, and Paula created the Sisters Foundation.
Argentinean Beef Empanadas
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 lb. ground beef (20% fat)
2 medium onions, chopped
2 small red bell peppers, seeded, chopped
kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
3 T. ground cumin
2 T. sweet paprika
1 T. dried oregano
¼ t. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 c. low-sodium chicken stock or broth
2 t. sugar
1/2 c. raisins
3 packages (12 each) puff pastry dough for turnovers/empanadas (preferably Goya)
1/2 c. pitted green olives (Picholine or Spanish), rinsed well, cut in half lengthwise
Heat 2 T. oil in a large pot over high.
Cook beef, breaking up with a spoon, until browned but not completely cooked through, about 6 – 8 minutes.
Transfer to a medium bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving as much fat in pan as possible.
Reduce heat to medium and cook onion, bell peppers, and remaining 1 T. oil, stirring, until tender but not browned, 6 – 8 minutes.
Season with salt and black pepper.
Add cumin, paprika, oregano, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add chicken stock and reserved beef along with any accumulated juices to pot.
Stir in sugar, 4 t. salt, and 1/4 t. black pepper.
Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, until most of the liquid is evaporated, 15 – 20 minutes.
Taste and season with salt and black pepper, if needed.
Stir in raisins.
Transfer to a medium bowl, cover, and chill at least 3 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Let dough sit at room temperature 15 minutes.
Remove 6 rounds from package, keeping plastic divider underneath, and arrange on a work surface.
Place 2 T. filling in the center of each round.
Top with 2 olive halves.
Brush water around half of outer edge of each round.
Using plastic divider to help you, fold round over filling, and pinch edges to seal.
Using a fork, crimp edges.
Remove plastic and transfer empanada to a parchment-lined sheet tray, spacing 1 inch apart. Repeat with remaining rounds (you’ll get about 12 empanadas on each tray).
Bake, rotating tray halfway through, until golden brown and slightly darker around the edges, 25 – 35 minutes.
Do ahead: Filling can be made 3 days ahead. Keep chilled. Unbaked empanadas can be made 3 months ahead; freeze on sheet tray, then transfer to freezer bags and keep frozen.
Dulce de Leche, classic method
4 c. milk
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/4 t. baking soda
1 t. vanilla
Stir together milk, sugar, and baking soda in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until caramelized and thickened, about 1 1/2 - 1 3/4 hours.
(After about an hour, stir more often as milk caramelizes, to avoid burning.)
Stir in vanilla.
Transfer to a bowl to cool.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Sweetened condensed milk method
14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
Pre-heat oven to 425 F. with rack in middle.
Pour sweetened condensed milk into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate, and cover tightly with foil.
Set plate in a roasting pan, and add enough hot water to pan to reach halfway up pie plate.
Bake for 45 minutes.
Check water level and add additional, if necessary, then continue to bake 45 minutes more, or until milk is thick and brown.
Remove pie plate from water bath and cool, uncovered.
Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
Dulce de leche will keep for a couple of weeks, refrigerated. It would be great stirred into coffee or cocoa, spread on toast, or warmed and drizzled on ice cream. Try it with peanut butter on a sandwich (surely the top trade at the school lunch table).