Backstory: Argentina - red meat and no apologies

'Barbecued tripe?! Mmmm, mom!' Here, even kids love the whole cow.

A food critic for a prestigious American newspaper reported recently about how much he enjoyed a rare steak in a Buenos Aires restaurant.

A rare steak? I've been in and out of this country for 40 years; lived in Buenos Aires for three. I've never had a bloody steak.

Argentines, probably the most food-minded people outside France and Italy, dislike undercooked meat. It's a cultural thing. If its changing, which I doubt, it must have to do with the invasion.

For years Argentina was off the map for tourists from outside the region, left alone to cultivate its oddities. People of the north cared little what went on down at the bottom of the world where the tango was born, the politics were impenetrable, and the water swirls down the drain counterclockwise.

Nowadays tourists arrive in squadrons, pouring out of airplanes, swarming off cruise ships like ravenous bees, hungry for the fruit of the Pampas: Argentine beef. The government tourist office reports that the number of visitors to Buenos Aires in the first two weeks of January amounted to double those who came last year during the same period; most were from the United States, Canada, and Europe; 2.3 million are expected in the first three months of the year.

It's to be expected some of the locals would bend tradition to meet tourists' tastes - by serving raw meat. But the tourists are missing the point.

Beef in Argentina is different from that of most other countries. For one thing, the cattle feed on the grass of the Pampas, which is to say their last days are spent in a field, not a feedlot; for another, the cuts are different. But most important, the meat is cooked and consumed fresh. Argentines find the thought of aged beef unpleasant. Here the time between the slaughter of an animal and the moment it appears on the table is much shorter than in the northern countries, where it can extend to weeks, even months.

Fernando Fascino, the best butcher in this little Pampas-bound town, says he gets his meat at local cattle fairs and from a man who raises beef on the island across the Arroyo Ubajai, an energetic stream near here. That means a few hours after the animal is dispatched, it is hanging in Don Fascino's shop. Not long after, it is being served in homes throughout town.

Don Fascino doesn't sell his meat wrapped in plastic, resting on a bed of Styrofoam. He cuts it for the customer from the carcass hanging on a hook behind his counter.

As to the cuts, an American butcher - or one trained in, say, France - might have difficulty locating or recognizing the cuadril (on the back, forward of the rump), the matambre (above the ribs), the peceto (on the rump), and the costilleta (the ribs). The latter is the most popular cut, preferred even to the lomo (filet mignon).

In America, the costilleta are called short ribs, meat for stews. They are cut along the line of the bone. Here, the cut is made across the ribs. The costilleta are the climax of the asado, the word Argentines use to describe the cookout which is in high season now, in the Argentine summer.

This desire for fresh meat is the practical reason Argentines require that it be thoroughly and slowly cooked. Fresh meat is full of integument, which makes it tiresome to chew. Aging meat allows time for the dissolution of this; it makes the meat more tender, soft enough at times "to cut with a fork." Aficionados north of the equator find this desirable. But putting it in terms unpleasant, yet quite real, aged beef is decayed beef. Argentines avoid it.

In this village of about 5,000 souls, every house, rich and poor, has a parrilla, a big steel grill, usually outside in a sheltered place. Our grill - three feet by four feet - sits in a waist-high fireplace on the back wall of a white brick pavilion with a thatched roof, open to the air on three sides. Above our grill is the skeletal head of a steer. Sometimes I think it grotesque, at others quite appropriate: I whitewashed it and hung it myself.

We have an asado every Sunday, often with family and guests. Our cook, or asador (and every male considers himself one) Oscar Ochoteco, my brother-in-law, insists on it. We went on a long motor trip up to the Andean part of Argentina near Bolivia one year; every night we ate at a parillada, a restaurant that specializes in grilled food. "Ocho" needs his meat. Up there, the main thing offered was goat (chivito).

The asado is a cultural experience as much as a culinary one. It reveals the broad range of the average Argentine's appetite. All Argentines - even the smallest children - eat nearly every part of the cow.

Ocho usually begins around noon by igniting a small mountain of charcoal (not briquettes, they burn too hot) in a corner of the fireplace beside the grill. When that mound is burning bright, he breaks the large coals into small embers and shovels them beneath the grill. Half an hour later, he lays on the small intestine (chinchulin), and later the sweet breads (molleja), maybe a kidney. These are the achuras, or organ meats. They include the large intestine (tripa gorda) and the udder of the cow (ubre), neither of which our family favors.

Two kinds of sausage go on: chorizos and morcillas, black blood sausage.The costilleta are on the grill almost from the start, and possibly another cut, such as the sobreasado (which runs along the top of the cow's ribs).

The meat is never marinated, never sauced, and only occasionally given a dash of mild seasoning during cooking.

"Ocho" feeds the fire throughout the process with small embers; he doesn't allow it to get so hot you couldn't put your hand over it. Flame never touches the meat. The slow and thorough cooking tenderizes it. "Ocho" usually covers the whole thing with a sheet of newspaper, to keep some of the heat inside. The paper never catches fire.

The entire process, including the preparation of the fire, takes nearly two hours. While the asador tends the grill, the younger guests or family members kick a soccer ball around or swim. The older ones discuss food. Their reminiscences could be put in a book titled, "Great Asados I've Known."

The food comes off the grill and is eaten in ritual order: chorizos, morcillas, achuras (a little for each person; too much is cloying). The asador cuts and distributes it himself, first one, then the other, to all the seated guests.

The costilletas - the heart of the asado - are usually the last received. After the first bite, many people applaud.

The asador feigns modesty.

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