Apr 072017

Today is the birthday (1890) of Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine writer and intellectual, who was described by Jorge Luis Borges as La mujer más argentina (“The most Argentine of women”). She is mostly known now in Argentina as an advocate for others and as publisher of the legendary literary magazine Sur, which helped launch the literary careers of many writers (including Borges). She was also a writer and critic in her own right and one of the most prominent South American women of her time. Borges admired her as a rare women who stood up for what is right at a time when women’s voices were largely silenced in Argentina, and who was fiercely independent.

She was born Ramona Victoria Epifanía Rufina Ocampo in Buenos Aires into a high society family and educated at home by a French governess. During her family’s 1906–1907 trip to Paris, her parents  allowed the 17-year-old Victoria, “well-chaperoned”, to audit some lectures at the Sorbonne and at the Collège de France. She remembered particularly enjoying Henri Bergson’s lectures at the latter. She never matriculated at either. Her old traditional wealthy family frowned on formal education for women. In 1912, Ocampo married Bernando de Estrada (aka Monaco Estrada). The marriage was not happy, and in 1920, the couple separated, and Ocampo began a long–lasting affair with her husband’s cousin Julián Martínez, a diplomat.

In Buenos Aires, she was a lynchpin of the intellectual scene of the 1920s and 1930s. Her first book, written in French, was De Francesca à Beatrice (1923), a commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Other works include Domingos en Hyde Park; El Hamlet de Laurence Olivier; Emily Brontë (Terra incógnita); a series called Testimonios (ten volumes); Virginia Woolf, Orlando y Cía; San Isidro; 338171 T.E. (Lawrence of Arabia) (a biography of T. E. Lawrence) and a posthumously published autobiography. There is also an edited book of dialogues between Ocampo and Borges.

Her own writing is arguably derivative, but she was founder (1931) and publisher of the magazine Sur, which became the most important literary magazine of its time in Latin America. Among the writers published in Sur were Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sabato, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, José Ortega y Gasset, Manuel Peyrou, Albert Camus, Enrique Anderson Imbert, José Bianco, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Waldo Frank, Gabriela Mistral, and Eduardo Mallea.

During the 1930s, Ocampo grew to be an ardent admirer of Benito Mussolini whom she met in person in March 1935 in Rome, hailing him then as “genius” and Caesar reborn. “I have seen Italy in blossom turn its face towards him.” With the start of World War II, however, Ocampo became disenchanted with fascism. She supported and edited from Argentina in collaboration with her friend and translator, Pelegrina Pastorino, the anti-Nazi magazine Lettres Francaises, directed by Roger Caillois and in 1946 she was the only Argentinean who attended the Nuremberg Trials. In 1953, Ocampo was briefly imprisoned for her open opposition to the regime of Juan Domingo Perón.

She was made a member of the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1976 (the first woman ever admitted to the Academy). The “cultural dialog”, initiated in 1977 by the de facto government but organized by UNESCO, was held in her home, Villa Ocampo, in San Isidro, Buenos Aires Province; she eventually donated the house to UNESCO in 1943.

All manner of people stayed at “Villa Ocampo” including Igor Stravinsky, André Malraux, Rabindranath Tagore, Indira Gandhi, José Ortega y Gasset, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ernest Ansermet, Rafael Alberti, Graham Greene etc. Here’s a small gallery. Spot the celebrity:

Ocampo died in Buenos Aires in 1979, and is buried in La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

To celebrate Ocampo I have chosen sandwiches de miga – a common party food in Argentina. There is some debate as to how they came to Argentina mainly because of partisan pride. Are they English, Italian, or home grown? The argument is silly, in my opinion, but I strongly suspect that this type of sandwich was introduced into Argentina by the English. Simple, yet elegant, crustless thin sandwiches are a staple of the tea table in England. The word “miga” means “crumb” and refers to the center part of pan de miga – a large white loaf.

Cut the crust off a large loaf and then slice it thinly. In Argentina thin slices of bread without crusts are available in markets ready made. You can make a single or triple sandwich. The single is a conventional sandwich, but a triple has three slices of bread with fillings in two sections. You should spread the inner parts of the sandwich with mayonnaise or butter and then choose your fillings.  You can use any meats common in Argentina such as ham, prosciutto, cantimpalo (smoky sausage) or the like, cheeses including Roquefort, brie, or provolone (which are produced in Argentina), and other ingredients such as tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives (green or black), hearts of palm, roasted red peppers, peaches, pineapple, cooked asparagus, and lettuce.

To make a sandwich de miga worthy of Ocampo I suggest you get really creative with your choice of ingredients. I’ve always liked fresh figs and prosciutto, as well as Roquefort and thinly sliced hard-boiled eggs. Of course, to get authentic ingredients you will need to travel to Argentina. But either way, whether you stay home or make a trip to South America, don’t be boring.

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