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from the May 2017 issue

The Art and Horror of the Argentine Asado

The Argentine national food is the asado. I won’t go on about its mystery and metaphors, because that tends to be mere decoration, sometimes exaggerated, other times just rubbernecking. Really, it’s a simple custom. You cook meat on a parrilla (grill), or on a disc, or even stuck onto metal spears if the asado is out in the open. In Argentina, we eat the whole cow. Its intestines, which we call chinchulines. Its glands, or sweetbreads, which we call mollejas and are exorbitantly priced, a delicacy for special events or fancy restaurants. Its kidneys, which need a little lemon to mask a bitter taste that I wouldn’t recommend thinking too much about. Its blood, in the form of morcilla sausage: a Spanish custom. A mishmash of all the rest, maybe even the eyes, go into chorizo sausages. The popular way to eat those is the choripán (chorizo on bread), a street-food sandwich that can be eaten anytime, but especially after a difficult task, or on an afternoon by the river, or during a soccer game, or a political protest—in Argentina these happen almost daily and they tend to be long: eating is key, and choripán is cheap.

Cuts of meat have their own names, often very graphic, and only some are typical in English. A sample might translate as: rump, flap meat, rib, strip, entrails (skirt steak), rump tail, oxtail, large intestine, udder. Treatises are written about how to achieve the perfect asado, and the country often participates in international competitions. Off they go, asadores dressed like gauchos in baggy trousers and black caps, and they always come back losers. The most recent World Barbecue Championship was held in Gothenburg, Sweden, and it was a tragedy: the Argentine team came in last, and to make matters worse, the British team won. Keep in mind that Argentina and England went to war in 1982 over who owned the Malvinas Islands. It was a cruel war, instigated by our dictator and by Margaret Thatcher. All the Argentine soldiers were new recruits, generally from very poor families and terribly young: in the infantry, few were older than twenty. The British soldiers were all professionals, and grown men. Some Argentines have no love for the British—in the abstract, of course, except for the palpable resentment of the ex-combatants and their families. And some British, very few, tend to do stupid, drunken things like setting an Argentine flag on fire while they’re vacationing in Patagonia. Now that will expose them to the risk of public lynching, but they’re usually lucky enough to just end up at a police station. In sum: if coming in last is bad, the British winning first is an absolute public shame. 

Later, we found out that the fault lay with the Swedes: according to their rules, the meat had to be cooked for ten hours and the sauce—the only one allowed—had to be barbecue. We never use barbecue sauce. We use chimichurri (parsley, oregano, garlic, onion, pepper, vinegar, and oil) or salsa criollo (red bell pepper, tomato, onion, olive oil). Barbecue sauce is for gringos. And so, while last place was an embarrassment as is any affront to our carnivorous pride, the true ignorance lay with the northern Europeans, who have to disguise their inferior meat with a strong sauce (our condiments are added to taste, individually and in small quantities).

The British win took up hours of TV, made newspaper headlines, and was heatedly discussed in taxis. There were several women on the Argentine asado team, an inclusion that some found disconcerting. Because the asado is men's business. That’s the time-honored country tradition and it’s the same way now, at every asado—neighborhood gatherings, street-corner barbecues, professional asados and those held on summer terraces. The man tends the meat but eats very little, because the different cuts have varying cooking times and he has to serve them in batches. He sweats beside the grill, monitors the charcoal or the wood, calculates the amount of meat necessary to fill up all the diners. He’s always on his feet except at the end, once everyone has eaten and is smoking and relaxing. The asador is a complex discussion in terms of gender roles. Yes: women should tend the asado just as men do, and the esoteric knowledge of the grill is a form of power. But in the act of the asado, the male takes on the more traditionally feminine role: the one who cooks, who pleases, who serves, the one who receives a symbolic reward (he’s applauded at the end, if the meat was to everyone's liking), while the women wait, seated, knives in hand, like lords. In many cases they don’t even make the salad. It’s not very pleasant standing there beside the flames in the sweltering summer, just to reaffirm some macho who-knows-what. At the same time, it’s a world that must be entered, because nothing should be exclusive.

I don’t know any female asadoras. Or only one, really, but she has an electric parrilla, which is a synonym for inexperience and for horror. . . . 

I’ve eaten so many asados, more than I could count. I’ve seen some tragic ones—burned meat, bickering couples—and others that were delicious, or forgettable, or overcrowded. But only one could really be called indelible.

I’ve worked as a journalist since I was twenty-one years old. One of my first jobs, an assignment from the newspaper I work for now, was to cover an accident involving a cargo truck that had been headed south carrying live cows, I suspect toward a slaughterhouse. It was 1997, I think—and I say “I think” because the article isn’t digitized, I didn’t save it, and looking for it in the newspaper’s archives is a task that exceeds my tolerance for bureaucracy. That year, there were already portents of the crisis that would fully explode in 2001: unemployment, anomie, an extraordinary rise in the number of people living in the street or in precarious housing. In Argentina there have been villas (shantytowns or slums) for eighty years, but those down-and-out neighborhoods really spread in the ’90s. That was when Carlos Menem imposed his corrupt neoliberalism, after the hyperinflation under Raúl Alfonsin, whose ethical administration was fundamental in recovering democracy after the dictatorship in 1976–83 but was disastrous when it came to economic policy. Among other disasters, hyperinflation reached 1000 percent annually.

The truck full of cows, most of which died on impact, had crashed south of Buenos Aires in the city of Quilmes. It’s one of the most populous and intense areas of what we call the Conurbano, or greater Buenos Aires. Quilmes is socially diverse, but the poor people who live close to the Río de la Plata do so in very adverse and unstable conditions: back then their houses, which they had built themselves on land that was government-owned and in a flood zone, weren’t even made of brick; most people had used wood or even cardboard. The news that spurred the paper to send me to cover the accident was that the people of the surrounding slums had butchered the animals and brought pieces of them—sometimes an entire animal—to their houses, and were grilling them up. I remember it was hot. I remember the driver who brought me to Quilmes spent the whole time complaining. I decided to ignore him with the help of earphones. The photographer rode in silence as well: we barely knew each other. When we arrived the police were there, and the truck driver—who was crying—and the street, the only paved one in the area, was covered in cow’s blood and feces. The smell was unbearable. The blood that flowed down the gently sloping road, the furious midday sun, the abandoned cow heads with their staring eyes: it was biblical. I had a little notebook with me; I should have saved it, but I didn’t. I don’t know what I wrote down. From the villa along the road wafted the delicious smell of cooking meat. The blue sky was painted with smoke, and I could hear children laughing. The photographer was frantic; he made children pose beside the heads of dead cows, he slid in the blood, took pictures of the animals that were still in the truck—because not all of them had been dragged off to the houses. They were heavy. The driver was terrified: he’d tried to defend his cargo, he said, but people had pulled guns on him. He was also shouting brutal, racist slurs. He had nothing but contempt for those people who, meters away, were throwing a banquet. I didn’t dare go into the villa alone, but the photographer—Martín—took me by the hand and said: “I’ll talk to them.” I watched from a distance as he negotiated with a potbellied man. With a movement of his hand, he ushered us in. The villa’s passageways were one big party, a happy massacre. The meat was cooking on sheet metal or on grills, it was being stored in freezers, savage knives were merrily carving it up. Martín worked a little, and I interviewed a young woman who explained what had happened: the truck turned over, and the cows, she said, were already dead or very unconscious, and several groups of people, men and women, had butchered them in the road. They took around ten animals from the truck. What they couldn’t eat, they stored in their freezers—the neighborhood was illegally connected to a nearby electricity post.

“You know how long it’s been since we’ve eaten a good asadito around here?” she said.

And then she invited me to eat with her family. I said no, mainly because I had to go back to the newspaper to write the story. Martín stayed: I don’t remember what he said about it later when he returned to the editorial office. I think he had a good time.

My story about the cow butchering, which in a way anticipated the social crisis that would erupt in a few years, was published without a byline: I had just started working and hadn’t been paying my dues long enough for an article to carry my name. I remember that the photo, in black and white, didn’t in any way convey that red, blue, and gray afternoon. Nor did it transmit in the slightest the barbarity, the joy, the death, the smell of blood and shit, the shaken air in the moments after the upset, the knives sinking into hide, the crunch of ribs, the moribund moos of the besieged animals.

One of the earliest short stories in Argentine history is El Matadero (The Slaughteryard), by Esteban Echeverría, written between 1838 and 1840. It takes on the brutality of president Juan Manuel de Rosas’s government, and it culminates with the horrible assassination of a political resister. The action takes place in a slaughterhouse in the south of the city. Echeverría describes it this way:

The flayed bodies of forty-nine cattle were hanging over their hides, and some two hundred people tracked through that muddy floor spattered with the blood that poured from their arteries. Around each beast stood a group of human figures of various skin colors and races. The most prominent member of each group was the butcher, knife in hand, naked arm and chest, long, unkempt hair, shirt and chiripá and face smeared with blood.

A rough simplification for those who haven’t read this classic text of Argentine literature: it’s a political tale in which the butcher’s brutality is equated with the government’s persecutions and crimes. Echeverría opposed Rosas. I won’t go into the details of this story because not even I, who studied it—in school and because I wanted to—can understand them entirely. But I will say that the asado and political violence are linked in Argentina. During the dictatorship of 1976–1983, the most ruthless of many my country has suffered, the torture table was called the “parrilla.” Interrogators laid prisoners out, poured water over them, and applied an electric prod—a device that looks like a microphone and emits electric shocks. In 2013, some government functionaries of the Human Rights office held an asado in the ex-ESMA. The ESMA was the Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics, an enormous property in the city of Buenos Aires that had been used as a concentration camp. Very few people who were held at ESMA survived. The place had a maternity ward for pregnant detainees, and in most cases those children were stolen and “adopted” (i.e., appropriated) by families close to the military officers in government. Many detainees were thrown from planes into the river close by. They were thrown out alive: the military thought that was a more merciful death. Others were murdered in the most diverse ways. Now the ESMA is a cultural center and memorial; the Ministry of Education’s TV channel is also housed there. In sum: in 2013, some functionaries organized an open-air asado. The attendees included a representative who was born there in the ESMA concentration camp, who’d been stolen, and had recovered his identity thanks to a search carried out by human rights organizations. The whole thing was a scandal. The representative said that ESMA should be a space of joy and needed to be redefined. Some human rights leaders considered it a “trivialization,” and declared it was “like baking pastries in the Auschwitz ovens.” They considered it a “sacrilege.” That the torture device was called a “parrilla” had something to do with it, of course. Also that in the jargon of that particular concentration camp, “having an asado” referred to the act of cremating a disappeared detainee to get rid of the body. I’m often asked if Argentine writers see themselves as obligated to write about the dictatorship and political violence. I don’t think so. But the truth is that reality offers plots, scenes, and metaphors that refer back to those years all the time, every day.

….

If I focus on the asado, it’s because the Argentine diet isn’t very diverse. After meat, favorite dishes include pizza, pasta, milanesas (fried, breaded meat) and empanadas (pastry dough filled with meat or chicken or vegetables). We can add baked chicken or chicken and rice. And pastel de papas, a kind of potato casserole. There’s not much more. The Argentine palate is strongly influenced by Italian immigration, and it mysteriously excludes the delicacies of Spanish cuisine. It’s an almost infantile palate. Over the past fifteen years, the gourmet boom that is already established in the rest of the world has made inroads in Buenos Aires, but certain things don’t change. I grew up with several tried-and-true bromides; for example, that French food is disgusting. “They eat orange duck,” repeated my parents and neighbors, and they said it as a demonstration of the absurd, like finding a sewing machine and an umbrella together on the dissection table—two things that could never coexist, much less be eaten together. Throughout my childhood, “sweet-n-sour” was a synonym for the extravagant, and also the inedible. Argentina is a country of immigrants, and its migratory laws are very generous. But it’s also a subtly discriminatory country. Not in its laws, quite the opposite: in attitude. The large Syrian-Lebanese, Japanese, Jewish, and Eastern European communities have never been given the chance to add their cuisines to our National Identity. I had no idea what the Japanese ate until recently. Many Japanese I know, for example, hate fish. Decades ago, of course, assimilation forced them to accept the minimal local offering. I first had hummus fifteen years ago, I think. Long after the first shawarma stands started to appear on the street. The same is true for sushi, which in any case is roundly rejected, because the idea of eating “raw fish” is unacceptable for a large portion of the population.

Not as unacceptable, of course, as the idea of eating something “spicy.” Finding spices in Buenos Aires, even today, involves a lot of investigation. Most of them, luckily, can be found in Chinatown. Chinese restaurants and the few spots in the city offering food from Southeast Asia greatly alter their dishes to adapt to the unadventurous porteño palate. The waiters always bring the spicy condiments separately. They don’t care if you tell them: “Please, I like it to burn.” They don’t believe you. They’ve had too many bad experiences.

I remember one gathering in particular, a small party I attended some years ago, maybe a decade. One of the guests, an upper-middle-class girl, derisively told a story about how a boy had invited her to have dinner at a Peruvian restaurant. “Imagine! Peruvian!” she said, and when she said “Peruvian” she wasn’t implying what we all know: that it’s one of the most extraordinary cuisines in the world. Rather, as she saw it, our Latin American neighbors could only own dreary restaurants, and of course could never possess an interesting cuisine worthy of exploring. That is the ignorance of discrimination: a girl educated at the most expensive schools in Buenos Aires who doesn’t know what any schlub could tell her: You’ll never eat better than in Peru, silly girl.

The Koreans settled thirty years ago in the south of the city, near my house. Koreatown is a somewhat dangerous place that often has problems with crime, but luckily its extraordinary restaurants close very early, before night falls—oh, in Argentina you usually eat around 10 p.m.—and it’s possible to eat in peace. In general the patrons are Koreans, plus a few foreigners who’ve been informed of this treasure’s existence. In many of the restaurants, if an Argentine comes calling they’re told “no, no.” Or they’re only admitted if they’re accompanied by another Korean. It’s not that the restaurant-owners are xenophobic: they’ve just had to fight too many times with Argentines who screamed like they were suffering industrial burns when their delicate tongues touched kimchi, with Argentines who don’t understand that they have to cook the food themselves at the table, with Argentines who ask for the pork to be served “less spicy.”

My cat’s veterinarian lives a block away from the Korean neighborhood. His own cat likes to roam, and one cold night he climbed into the body of a Korean neighbor’s car, between the wheel and the carriage near the motor: it must have seemed like a warm refuge. When the neighbor started his car in the morning to go to work, the wheel injured the cat; he ran yowling out of his hiding place with a wounded leg. The neighbor recognized the animal and ran to bring it to its owner’s house.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he cried. “It was an accident! I wasn’t going to eat him!”

The veterinarian, when he told me this anecdote, said: “I felt guilty. I don’t think that about him or his community. But other people do. Shame on us that they know a lot of people think they steal pets to eat them.”

Shame on us. And more shame that the neighbors don’t visit their restaurants and their lovingly served buffets.

There are many people, in the atom-based world and on social media, who complain about foods they call weird. In some cases they’re reacting to dishes with snobbish names or hipster presentations or other silly excesses. But mostly it’s a purely conservative reaction, nothing more. They complain as if the country were overwhelmed with molecular cooking and Michelin stars, when in fact, the appearance of restaurants with nontraditional cuisines is very, very recent. At the same time, there are many closed-door restaurants, street fairs, and food trucks; there’s a surge in the appreciation of food from the provinces, and every week there’s a new place serving food from Taiwan, Croatia, Cameroon, Colombia, and Mexico. Caribbean arepas are in fashion now. Hopefully it will continue, hopefully there is finally a real and accessible alternative to muzarella pizza. It’s said that change provokes anxiety in Argentines, because they’ve been forced to suffer so many changes involuntarily—shifts in the economic, political, financial, and social rules—that anything new is viewed with apprehension and opprobrium. There are few areas where this anxiety can be seen more clearly than with food. 

 

© Mariana Enríquez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.

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