mate cup

Listen up. This is important. That hot, caffeinated beverage you are sipping – an infusion made from leaves steeped in hot water – is NOT tea. It is mate. How do you know? First, you are drinking it through a bombilla (metal straw) out of a calabaza (cup hand-made from a squash rind). Second, Eduardo Maldonado will politely and firmly tell you.

His office contains a number of representations of Argentinian culture, including packages of yerba mate leaves and a marvelous collection of mate gourds. Some are keepsakes, some are gifts, at least one is emblazoned with the Argentina coat of arms, and all reflect Maldonado’s pride and pleasure in his homeland.

“I drink mate every day,” said Maldonado, assistant professor in the Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy (MUSC). “In Argentina, it is a traditional social drink. If you visit someone’s home, especially if you know them well, they will offer you a mate before offering you tea or coffee.” 

During National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15), the MUSC College of Pharmacy is celebrating by highlighting some members of the MUSC pharmacy family of Hispanic heritage.

Maldonado hails from Bahía Blanca, Argentina, a country that produces more than half of the world’s supply of the yerba leaves used to create mate (MAH-te, NOT MAH-tey! Make an effort!, he says). The drink has become a liquid bond of friendship.

Typically, one person prepares the mate by filling the softball-sized gourd with yerba leaves, shaking them to settle smaller particulate, and adding hot water. He or she will then offer the mate to each member of the group in turn. They share the same cup, the same bombilla, and the same base of yerba mate, which can usually produce several servings. The bombilla acts as a filter for any loose leaves.

The complexity and precision of the tradition explains why an Argentinian might not want mate drinkers lumped in with the billions of people who drink tea. Calling mate ‘tea’ is like calling Lowcountry boil ‘gumbo.’

Maldonado can speak with authority about both, since he has been at MUSC since 2005. In Argentina, he earned his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at the Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires. Before deciding to pursue research in lipid biochemistry he spent 15 years working in small animal clinic and cardiology and teaching undergraduates. He got his PhD from the Universidad Nacional del Sur in Argentina in 2001.

After a research period in Spain, he was a postdoctoral scholar from 2005 to 2010 with John Lemasters. He was appointed research assistant professor in 2010 and assistant professor of drug discovery and biomedical Sciences in 2015. That same year, he secured a five-year, National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute RO1 award for his project “VDAC Regulation of Warburg Metabolism in Hepatocarcinoma.” His general research is about the role of mitochondria in cancer metabolism.

His long stay in the United States has not diminished his love for Argentina, where he still has friends and family. He remembers fondly traditions like asado, which is meat cooked on a parilla (open grill) with fire from wood (preferably piquillín) or natural charcoal. And put away that marinade or barbecue sauce – asado is made only with a little salt and often picked right off the spit.

Another Argentinian icon is the gaucho, similar to the American cowboy. The rural gaucho spends most of his time alone riding through the Pampas, which is a treeless prairie in central Argentina. All the gaucho had was his horse and his facon (knife), with which he was fluidly adept. Back in the day, you might see a couple of gauchos tie their hands together with a scarf and fight it out with their free hands wielding their facons. Especially if they had a few drinks in a pulperia (general store/club).

Maldonado remembers that one of his few experiences with farm animals was conducting research with another colleague into a disease that had stricken a gaucho’s herd of sheep. Gauchos can spend days or even months without seeing another human, so Maldonado’s arrival had created a significant occasion. At the end of the day, the gaucho announced they would celebrate the visit with a lamb asado. Out came the facon…

“I love animals and had spent many years of my career trying to save them but there was nothing I could do,” he said. “The gaucho was a proud man and all he had was his horse, his knife and this flock. The lamb was what he had to offer in celebration; it would have been an insult to ask him not to do it. I understood and could not object, but I could not swallow it.”

Maldonado’s background as an experienced veterinarian gives him a distinctive perspective in the basic science and makes him an internationally sought-after resource for colleagues.

“I didn’t start on my PhD until I was 35 years old, while I was still practicing as a veterinarian and teaching,” he said. “It is a handicap to have a late start, but it is an asset to have such a broad view of science.”

maldonado and mate

Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The observation encompasses anniversaries of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile and Día de la Raza.