Cult
[kuhlt]

1. An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers.


 

 There is usually a rite of passage involved when arriving to Buenos Aires. I discovered it in 2008 when I was visiting with a friend, the year before I decided to live here for good. The rite obviously involves indulging in a lot of meat, choripán, red wine, and dulce de leche. But finding the ideal alfajor for our palates was also very high on our list. I can honestly say that, in a month and a half, we tried most, if not all of them.

Everyday around 5 PM was alfajor o’clock for us: we would run to our closest kiosco and buy a different brand each time. But on one occasion, while walking the streets of San Telmo, we stumbled upon one that would alter our perception of the sweet confection forever, a game changer as they say. The package featured a slick, retro-futuristic little boy with a helmet on his head and a big red smile on his face, accompanied by an orbit of stars and moons and the most vintage typography you could possibly imagine. I had no way of knowing it, but I had encountered the cult classic alfajor from Quilmes. I had finally come face-to-face with El Capitán del Espacio.

The legend displayed at a kiosco in Belgrano. (Credit: Pedro Camacho)
The legend displayed at a kiosco in Belgrano. (Credit: Pedro Camacho)

Before we go any further, let’s be clear on something. Although El Capitán is very popular, it’s hard to determine if it’s actually a “good” alfajor. Personally, I’ve loved it since day one. But, as usually happens with cult objects, and as will happen time and time again in this story, it’s difficult to tell facts from fiction. The opinions around El Capitán range from skepticism to passionate fetishism, with a strong tendency toward nostalgia in the middle ground. Last March, for example, on the popular foodie Facebook group called Buena Morfa Social Club, there was a person that dared to question the merits of El Capitán’s fame, even going as far as to say it was “overvalued”.

The result? The comment section tallied 497 responses (and counting), with fervent discussions both for and against the original remarks. “I’m tired of people calling this piece of crap the best alfajor around, let’s end this lie once and for all!” said one user, while another one countered: “It may be childhood nostalgia but I will always be behind it and El Capitán will always be the best”. The situation reminded me of those social media brawls that are usually reserved for politics, religion,  or Boca-River. Only this time it was about a cookie…

El Capitán del Espacio in Belgrano. (Credit: Pedro Camacho)
El Capitán del Espacio in Belgrano. (Credit: Pedro Camacho)

El Capitán del Espacio was born in 1962 in Ezpeleta, Quilmes, as a small company created by Ángel Lineo de Pascalis and his friend Arturo, who would retire from the company a few years into the venture. It’s important to note that the birthplace of El Capitán and its mystique go hand in hand. For years, the distribution of the beloved cookie was pretty much limited to the southern part of Buenos Aires Province, becoming a symbol for the people from that area, who grew accustomed to boasting that the best alfajor in Argentina was not from the capital. In the aforementioned Buena Morfa post, this sort of regional banter did not go unnoticed and became a common point of discussion. “Such resentment against the people from conurbano could be understood as envy,” one user playfully stated, while another one responded: “You people only defend it because it’s from the south, but if they made something mediocre from where I’m from, I would not defend it if my life depended on it, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be recommending it to everybody I know!”.

Facundo Calabró is sort of an expert in the field of alfajores. He has a blog dedicated to the tasty treat and was recently interviewed by VICE magazine, which went so far as to give him the honorary title of sommelier. In short, if you have a question about this Argentine delight, Facundo is probably the go-to guy for an answer. But even he is perplexed as to how El Capitán has reached the cult pantheon. “You kind of have to do a distinction between El Capitán as a cultural phenomenon and the alfajor per se. Because it transcends the spectrum of what you would expect from a product of mass consumption. What happens with it just doesn’t happen with other alfajores, or any other product you would find in a kiosco for that matter. I actually love the whole fan base it has generated”.

Even though he did a blind tasting for the people at VICE, El Capitán was not included. So I had to ask: does he like the legend? “As an alfajor, once you unwrap the legendary package, it’s not more than a mid-level [product], and should be evaluated as that. I personally think it’s very good. But objectively it’s in that segment of alfajores that range from 15 to 20 pesos, comparable maybe to Jorgito. It’s not Cachafaz, for example, not a premium brand. It’s amazing that it would earn such a cult following when certain excellent alfajores don’t.”

El Capitán in the park. (Credit: Pedro Camacho)
El Capitán in the park. (Credit: Pedro Camacho)

To this day, a lot of what surrounds the company’s viral success remains a mystery. While researching this article I must have called the factory in Quilmes about 15 times, before finally speaking to a woman who simply told me that they don’t do interviews and that they prefer to not be in the limelight. She also made a point in telling me that several journalists had tried and tried before, and that, even though they appreciated the interest, they wouldn’t change their policy. “I tried to get to them for months and I couldn’t [make headway]”, Facundo tells me. “I actually went to the factory, but they would just tell me they were going to talk to the owners and then nothing happened.” As you could imagine, this sort of low-profile mystique around the company has only served to amplify the legend of El Capitán to seismic proportions.

What is known is what can be found on their website. There, they insist on making it clear that the company has always tried to maintain its core values, emphasizing the original quality and flavor of its alfajores, even after they began to inevitably succumb to large-scale production and technological advances. It would seem as if they’ve tried to do their business with the profile of a small family company, seemingly oblivious to the cult status that began to spread around their brand.

Facundo tends to thinks that the fan base around El Capitán developed more because of chance than a planned strategy from the company. “A lot of people say they applied anti-marketing, but I think it was completely fortuitous. It’s actually not a very good name when you think about it, it’s a family enterprise, and those are usually very timid in how they approach business. So for me, what happened was [pretty much] luck”.

Even so, most people agree that El Capitán has begun to amp up its distribution in Buenos Aires during the last years. In Belgrano, were I now live, I can usually count on two kioscos on Av. Cabildo to serve as my personal dealers for the tasty cookie when I crave it. Both of them admit that they only started carrying it a couple of years back. Facundo’s blog has a map with all the pinpoint locations of el Capitán in the capital, and he’s vehement in assuring that you can definitely find it more now than before.

This change in distribution could have something to do with the passing in 2012 of Angel Lineo de Pascalis, the original owner, at age 86. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that don Ángel would’ve approved of a president going to the factory for a highly publicized visit promoting PyMEs. But that’s exactly what happened on July 20, 2016, when Mauricio Macri made the trip to Quilmes. The visit, predictably, became one of the most talked about topics on Twitter that day, with a woman issuing the warning: “Macri, if you mess around with this alfajor you’ll be messing around with all Argentines :frowny-face-emoji:”.

This sort of newfound openness, however, seems to only be reserved for world leaders. Recent news articles are keen on stressing that official statements had been refused by the company. Another recent example of the mystery around El Capitán occurred when three craft beer companies from the south of Buenos Aires Province (Guten Bier, Piu Bella, and Brescia) decided to launch a special edition Galactic Porter, flavored with the legendary treat’s unmistakable taste. “We bought a bunch of alfajores to make the beer and it kind of went viral,” explains Joaquin Sevillano, the owner of Guten. “But they didn’t really like what we did. Fortunately it didn’t go into anything legal, but they were sure to let us know they didn’t appreciate it. We were just simply paying an homage to a symbol of the south….” The beer was, as you might expect, very well-received by the public, selling out in less than four hours at one of the bars that sold it.

The lines between reality and myth are quite blurry when talking about El Capitán. But two things are certain. First, if you haven’t tried one, you should probably do everything in your power to fix that as soon as possible. And second, you should not… I repeat, SHOULD NOT engage in discussion with a member of the cult of El Capitán. As one good friend told me: “I tried it 40 years ago, they are a symbol of my youth, and every time I try one I travel to that time in my life.” Think about it. Do you really want to mess with that?