Saturday, September 29, 2007

Memorias Criollas

Sunday morning in Buenos Aires. We peel ourselves out of bed at 11. We've landed five hours ago. Drunk. We step out onto Moreno, into the quintessential smell of Sunday – burning wood, warming grills.

We walk five blocks past the lightly curled smoke floating up from concrete backyards, balconies and empty lots and take the subway up to Dorrego. We catch the 176 at Chacarita, pass the tombs of Juan D. Peron and Carlos Gardel, roll through the endless Pampas of the residential neighborhoods that almost seamlessly join capital to the province. It’s been an hour since we left home. We are now in provincial San Martín, with its low houses and endless horizon. The occasional tethered horse looks up from the chopped up sidewalk at the bus rumbling down the pockmarked streets. Evita looks on from murals.

We get off the bus on the corner by the gas station. A ring of the doorbell quickly wraps us up in the bustle of preparations for the Sunday afternoon feast. This fire, like other fires all over the country, has been going since 11. It’s now one o’clock and the meat still hasn’t been laid on the grill. But salads are being prepared and an aperitif is being shared in the quincho as we keep the asador company and wait for the fire. A bit of cheese, a finger or two of whiskey, a fernet with Coke and glass of red wine clear the haze from our heads. Occasionally, we're interrupted by the bell. The ringing of the bell is always met with frantic excitement.

Who’s got the keys? It’s Mauro! Let him in. Where are the keys? ¡Hola tío! ¿Qué tomás?

We watch the fire. There will be no five minute steak this afternoon; no three minute cheeseburger. The centerpiece of the hedonistic ritual we share is Argentine beef, which stakes claim to being the best in the world. The cattle in Argentina are not factory raised. They are raised as cattle should be. They walk free, feed on grass, mature at nature’s pace, not man’s. There are no hormones; no anti-biotics. This is not “free-range”; not “organic”. It is just the way it is. Argentinian cattle represent a way of life, a way of living and eating and drinking, that, in America, seems to have been sacrificed to the bottom line and molded to fit our busy schedules. Here, quality still takes preference over quantity.

A life of gauchos and fire pits; lonely guitars and shared mates. This is food that nourishes a country. Argentina consumes more beef per capita than any other country in the world. This meat is the Argentine feeding off the land; Borges connecting with the gaucho.

The fire is ready. Glowing embers fall from its ripe flame. Now the meat can be placed on the grill. It is to be slow cooked, over the red hot embers. It will take a long time. Cuts are placed and moved along the length the grill according to cooking time, taken off as they are ready to eat. Achuras first. Now on my third glass of wine, I am handed a choripan. I open it and paint the chorizo with chimichurri. I apply the chimichurri with a paintbrush. It is the lead in to what is about to take place. We all take our seats and the feasting begins.

Chorizo and morcilla lead the way. Chinchulines and molleja. The asador (he who grills) dashes to and from the large grill. He eats standing over the smoking embers, cutting his meat directly on the heated iron. This entire ritual stems from him and his dance is too important for him to cease. As he moves between the grill and the table, he eyes our plates. For the next hour, they will never be empty. He knows how each one likes his meat.

Andrés likes it rare and is served first.

Gogui prefers it medium and waits a bit longer.

He knows who starts with morcilla and who ends with it; who smears it on bread and who prefers it alone.


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The asador at work

The meat is eaten from wooden plates, unadorned. No marinades, no sauces, no side dishes. A bit of salt before it is placed on the grill. The salads are served on glass plates, though the truly meat-minded eat only from wood. The wine pours into glass after glass and the corks are saved. We eat our meat. We raise our wine and spill our glasses, dabbing it on our foreheads for good luck. ¡Un aplauso para el asador! There’s a round of applause. We all clap and lift our wine. A toast is made. Then another.

Atahualpa Yupanqui accompanies us on his guitar. Ana’s father used to love him. Ana’s father, who played with his trio of tango on Uruguayan radio. Live, like they used to. Everyone said he sang better than Gardel.

Atahualpa Yupanqui sang too. And with purpose. He sang of poverty and freedom; the gaucho and revolution. The perfect accompaniment to the small revolution that we all take part in each Sunday. We defy the gods and stop time. Today the sacrifice is not ours to make; it is ours for the taking. For us to grill and smother in chimichurri, to be washed down with red wine and laughter and the occasional milonga.

Chimichurri

½ cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup white onion, finely minced
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients and let stand at room temperature until the flavors meld, about 30 minutes, and up to 8 hours. The sauce can be refrigerated in a tight container for two weeks.

Apply with a clean (preferably unused) paintbrush to meat, chicken, baked potatoes or grilled vegetables.

8 comments:

Seth said...

Man, it's 7 am here in Philly and your blog has me all in a tizzy. I feel drunk, vibrant.

Bert said...

Seth, you ARE drunk and vibrant.

Seth said...

I AM vibrantly drunk.

Steve said...

Excellent piece. I'm left wanting more. Is this part of a specific festival/ feast or is this something that takes place every week? If so, I'm there...

Suzanne said...

Every Sunday. In the years Andrés and I spent together down there, we missed very few.

Unbearable Lightness of Frosting said...

Even we vegetarians are salivating over this one....well done (no pun intended)!

Seth said...

unbearable:

In Argentina, meat-eaters and vegetarians alike enjoy meat.

Karen said...

This is a terrific blog post, Suzanne! Unfortunately, I was vegetarian when I visited you and Andres in Argentina that Spring. I've always sort of regretted not enjoying the Argentine asado, the Chilean curanto or the lamb that a family ceremoniously slaughtered while we were visiting Chiloe (another story for another day...).

Now I eat meat, but have not ventured into the land of beef yet. Your blog post has inspired me, though!