Monday, December 22, 2008

What's Your Beef?

By Andrew

I have a beef to pick with Argentina. Actually several beefs, but bife de chorizo tops my list. It's a New York strip steak, only better: juicy, dense, and full of flavor. Heaven on the hoof. However you cut it, the beef here is magnificent. Maybe it's because the cows are pampas-ed shamelessly or because Argentines are so meat-crazed that no animal lives long enough to get tough.

I've never found much truth in national stereotypes. Not all Canadians are boring, for example, but Argentina's reputation for cow-mania is more than deserved. If anything, it's been under-publicized. The tango, a dance in which a couple walk the length of the room in a synchronized clutch, evolved in Buenos Aires purely as a way to ensure that neither partner reached the grilled lomo before the other.

I never fail to be amazed each time I walk into the grocery store. In each shopper's cart lies the better part of an entire cow. The only thing missing is four hooves pointing skyward. The check-out line, which invariably extends for a city block, looks like something out of a Hindu horror movie.

The average Argentine consumes 140 pounds of beef a year. Discount the very young and the very old (nonmasticatores) and the average climbs to an Aberdeen Angus per person per week. I always thought South Africans and Americans ate a lot of meat, but I now realize that by Argentine standards we are not yet fully weaned. One resident in our apartment block grills beef for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

Not content with wheeling bloody carcasses home for consumption, Argentines fill the remaining gaps in their culinary schedule with visits to their local parilla. A parilla, pronounced "pareejah" in Buenos Aires, is a steakhouse. You will find an average of 20 on each block, interspersed with a like number of bakeries and purveyors of hair-removal products. We have had a couple of sublime meals in parillas, highlighted by the aforementioned bife de chorizo. Lomo, the Argentine filet mignon, is a delight that I shall be experiencing this week.

To gauge the role that meat plays in the Argentine diet, a glimpse at a typical menu is in order. The main courses are usually listed simply as a cut of beef, such as vacio, bife de chorizo, or lomo. A mysterious cut known as matambre occupies a special place in the hearts of Argentines. This cut, which (if my Spanish is to be trusted) consists of the diaphragm of retired opera singers, is obscenely tough but (we are assured) oh-so-tasty. One blogger said that the cut gets its name from the Spanish "mate hambre" meaning "kill hunger." The wit goes on to explain that he did not realize that it killed your desire to eat anything ever again.

Order one of these main courses in a restaurant and you will receive a plate containing an outlandishly large amount of beef. And nothing else. If you have the temerity to seek out a vegetable, you have two choices: You can pay for a visit to the salad bar, which consists of tired leaves dumped into metal canisters near the banos, or you can turn to the very back of the menu. There, just before the desserts and just after the explanation of how the restaurant was started, you will find a list of guarniciones. If that sounds like the English word "garnish", you are not far wrong. The restaurant is essentially asking you how you want your meat decorated. The most popular choice is French fries, followed closely by pure. This is mashed potatoes whipped with butter, giving the chef one more crack at filling your arteries with animal fat.

You can order any cut of meat imaginable, but the non-pareil of parillas is the parillada, a selection of grilled meats from every corner of the cow. On the third trip to our local joint, we decided to experience the full Monty of meat consumption.

Either as a cruel practical joke or because Argentina is still bitter about that whole Falklands Islands thing, our parillada contained an awful lot of offal. Some people will go great distances for glands, kidneys, liver, and brain. Fortunately, most of them live in the Congo. The stuff is absolutely abominable. Our family sat in shocked horror, staring down at what looked like the remains of an aircraft disaster, all the while casting wistful glances at a succulent lomo on the next table.

Believe it or not, I actually thought I was going to enjoy them. I dismissed the childhood nightmare of liver and onions as one more culinary abomination committed by my boarding school. Instead, I remembered how the New York Times included sweetbreads among the trinity of epicurean decadence, alongside truffles and caviar. More than anything, though, I remembered years of classical education, where I was taught that the Greeks considered offal the best part of the animal and offered it as a burnt sacrifice to win the favor of the Gods. The ancient Greeks were so good at so much. Could they really be wrong on this count?

In hindsight, my teachers were naive twits. What hundreds of years' worth of classical scholarship has failed to appreciate is something that every Brit on a package tour to Santorini can tell you after one day: The Greeks would swindle their own mother to get an edge.

Where did we get the silly idea that the Greeks considered offal a delicacy? Homer's Odyssey, of course. Like many of you, I have often wondered why Odysseus had such a tough row to hoe. What did he do to get the Gods so peeved?

A careful re-reading of the Greek shows that Odysseus was nothing but a two-bit con man. Every time he sacrificed a cow, he would dedicate to the Gods what he termed "the choicest cuts" but were actually the dreaded innards. These were flung into the sacrificial fire, with the smoke rising up to Olympus. While Odysseus sat on the beach tucking into a grilled bife de chorizo, the Gods had to make do with the poo-poo platter.

I don't blame the Gods one bit for tossing the little bastard around the Mediterranean for a while. He's lucky he made it home at all.

Katharine would not have been so charitable. After a first bite of pancreas (gall bladder? spleen?), she looked as if she had licked a car battery. Only hunger and a passion for sausages brought her back to the table. Unfortunately, the most repellent bits of the beast were hidden in sausage skins. What followed is not something I care to recount, let alone remember. Put it this way: A week later, in Patagonia, I experienced a pang of intense discomfort as I watched adult penguins regurgitating squid for their fledglings.

Six weeks after arriving in Argentina, I felt I had a sufficient understanding of the local diet to make a bold prediction: that all Argentines would be dead by Wednesday. When this failed to happen, I took to the Google, expecting to find a litany of health articles showing that Argentines drop dead at a rate higher than that of the common fruit fly. Nothing. Nada. From an arterial standpoint, they are no more congested than the rest of us.

My first thought was that I had stumbled on a Latin American equivalent of the French paradox. As you know, the French appear able to eat obscene amounts of butter, cheese, and wine without dying or turning into Gallic Hindenburgs. The only side-effect is an unpleasant arrogance. Had I stumbled on the Argentine Enigma?

Like the United States, Argentina is a country of immigrants. The answer could not possibly lie in the gene pool. Argentines were staying alive--and reasonably trim--by some other, unknown mechanism. The answer, I am happy to report, is dulche de leche.

Argentines love sugar. Each block in BA is crammed with enough bakeries and cake shops to make the population of Missouri diabetic. Even the ground coffee in grocery stores is sold with sugar already added. But dulche de leche is the pinnacle of Argentina's sugary artistry. It's made from heating sweetened condensed milk until it caramelizes. Argentines put it in literally everything, from croissants to empanadas to ice cream. They spoon it over bread, they coat it with chocolate, they eat it with a dollop of cream. I think they even use it as caulk. If Ronald Reagan had been Argentine, he would have named it a food group.

I am convinced that dulce de leche, in all its gooey glory, is the Liquid Plumr of the Argentine diet. Combined with the country's strong coffee, it speeds up the Argentine metabolism to a point where cholesterol is simply incinerated in the furnace of caloric excess. More power to them, I say. It sure beats cauliflower.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I have never heard so much complaining! I can't believe you even had a go at the Greeks.

corie said...

I am crying, I am laughing so hard! Andrew, it is good to know you haven't lost your touch.

Rosa de Australia said...

Carne, queso, dulce! Muchas risas .
Tu ha causado alegria leyando tus palabras.
Escribe mas con felicidad.

Anonymous said...

Louise the dulce de leche is made in adifferent way, thats the recipe to get it done at home in a very fast way. I´m glad you enjoyed it!!!
Funny... but there are also many vegetarians in Argentina, next trip could be for that purpose, how argentinians turn vegetarian!!!