Heading down Lisandro de la Torre street in south Buenos Aires at dawn on a weekday, it’s hard to believe Argentina no longer reigns as South America’s beef-eating king.
People crowd around butcher shops that line both sides of the road for half a mile, eyeing carcasses that hang in open entrances. Customers order popular cuts of ribs and flank steak just a few yards away from one of South America's largest cattle markets, where bulls, cows, and calves crammed into pens are auctioned off to slaughterhouses.
But, as the New York Times reported last week, Argentina is no longer top dog. In 2010, Uruguay replaced its neighbor across the Río de la Plata at the summit of the beef consumption league.
The average Argentine ate 123 pounds of beef last year, compared to 132 pounds in Uruguay (though figures for 2013 so far show Argentina is closing the gap).
Just don’t mention this development to porteños – the residents of Buenos Aires known across the region for their brazen pride. “Forget it. It’s a lie,” says Roberto Pérez, standing outside one of the butcher shops on Lisandro de la Torre. “The amount of meat we eat here is savage. There’s no country that compares with Argentina."
And it can certainly feel that way sometimes. The statistics tell one story, but daily life reflects another.
In his workshop in the provincial city of Bahía Blanca, carpenter Juancho Jiménez regularly loads the grill with cheap skirt steak, eaten off wooden slates with friends who supply the modest accompaniment of sliced tomato and fresh white bread.
On Sundays, that scene is mirrored in thousands of households across the country. Families gather for asados – or barbecues – feasts of red meat and conversation. At no-nonsense steakhouses in working class neighborhoods, groups of men lunch outside with plates of beef and tumblers of red wine mixed with soda water.
A number of factors are responsible for the fall in Argentina’s beef consumption since 1956, a record year in which the average person here ate 222 pounds. They range from state intervention in agriculture and reduced cattle stocks, to the profitability of soy farming and rising costs for consumers.
But as long as cows roam the Pampas, Argentina’s beef-eating culture will never die.