Mirta Rinaldi surrounded by quince fruit, which she cooks into a thick paste. Photo courtesy of Mirta Rinaldi

We live in a world where social media makes it easy for people to portray their lives as perfect, easy and fun, the overwhelming majority of the time. And even though most of us know exactly how social media works, we fall into the trap of comparison, particularly when it comes to timelines — jobs, promotions, marriage, children and so on. Today’s Small Biz Spotlight is a reminder that timelines are arbitrary — they’re something we create ourselves, and thus have the ability to change.  

Mirta Rinaldi was 61 when she launched her own food business Mendulcina. The name is a play on her hometown, Mendoza, and the Spanish word for sweets, dulces. While she’s best known for her quince paste and alfajores — South American pastries formed by two shortbread cookies filled with dulce de leche and dusted with powdered sugar or rolled in shredded coconut (she made more than 2,000 of these in December alone) — that’s hardly the extent of what she offers. 

Alfajores. Photo courtesy of Mirta Rinaldi

“Food has been the passion of my life,” she said. “I have an amazing family, starting from my mom, my grandmothers, and my aunts, each one has their own specialties. I was always learning, making empanadas with tia Juana, making pasta with my mom, making pastel de papa [an Argentinian version of shepherd’s pie] with my aunt Josefina. It was a very enjoyable thing to do in a family circle.”

Rinaldi was born in Mendoza, Argentina, in 1951. She grew up in the kitchen surrounded by family members — cooking, she said, was their love language. They made seasonal specialties like quince paste — a sweet thick jelly made from quince fruit that Rinaldi says pairs perfectly with manchego cheese, and is one of her shop’s core products today (when in season).

Quince paste and manchego cheese, a perfect pairing according to Rinaldi. Photo courtesy of Mirta Rinaldi

In 1975, Rinaldi moved from Argentina to New York City, where she worked sundry jobs, including at a bank and as an assistant to a songwriter. But none of these were related to her love of cooking. That changed when she was laid off as an assistant in 2012.

“I thought ‘if I don’t do my passion right now, I will never make it happen.’ I started to cook full time. I worked in huge clubs in Rochester where they hosted many parties for weddings,” she said. “I thought ‘okay, they’re gonna pay me a little money, but at the same time, I’m learning.’” 

There, she learned to make “amazing” spreads of cheeses, cold cuts and vegetables before going on to work in the kitchens of the U.S. Open for five years. She recalls her time there as difficult and tiring, but a good experience that taught her how to cook for large groups.

Rinaldi hosting a mate ceremony at her home in Queens, New York. Photo courtesy of Mirta Rinaldi

Besides selling alfajores, Rinaldi caters (“chicken milanesa sandwiches, choripán, you name it”), hosts mate ceremonies where attendees learn about the different ingredients and accessories surrounding the ubiquitous Argentinian yerba mate infusion, and for the last decade has been working with The League of Kitchens, a New York-based group of women from around the world who invite you into their homes to to share their culture, stories and cook a traditional meal.  

“She [Rinaldi] is great,” said Graciel Caces, a food stylist and chef who has attended two of Rinaldi’s cooking classes, as well as a mate ceremony. “She shows great passion for her country and culture. And you know, I’m in the food industry, so for me to say I learned a lot — that means something.”

It’s Rinaldi’s passion that keeps her going, and she’s not planning to stop anytime soon. She has several new ideas in the works, including a series of classes where she will bring together people from the local arts community and Argentinian artists to talk about their work and roots. In the meantime, she visits her home country regularly, where she flies down with at least one suitcase full of hard-to-find condiments that she uses for themed cooking nights with her friends, who she says are also foodies.

“Your passion should be fulfilled at some time in your life, especially at 50-plus, which is when I started my company. Be courageous and do it, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of anything — you must jump,” she says. It’s a lot of work and time, but for me it’s a pleasure to do it. I just wake up in the morning and think about what I am going to cook.”

Learn more about Mendulcina and its offerings here. Purchase alfajores ($24/dozen) here. For questions and speciality orders, write to Info@Mendulcina.com

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