I have been delinquent in getting up my getting fat posts. I have had two of them sitting on the back burner waiting for us to get to a place where I would have the time to finish them, an unforseen delay while they clear the roads over the Andes has given me that chance. I am slipping them into their proper places in the blog. If you want you can check them out at getting fat in Eastern Europe and barely maintaining my weight in Tunisia.
If I were searching for my food heaven, Argentina would be near the top of my list. San Francisco, New York, and Sydney vie for that title because of their vast and tasty selection of world cuisines. Beijing would show up on a short list because of the many varieties of Chinese food gathered in one city, Paris is fine but a little bit too gourmet. However, my American palate may have met its culinary soulmate in Argentine cuisine. My life of eating beef has prepared me for Argentina.
When I was a kid in the ’70′s, any beef beyond hamburger was seen as a special treat. I grew up with a reverence for beef; it was the expensive food we got only once in a while. A Sunday roast or a steak on the grill were two of my favorites and I harbored a misguided affection for “steak in a bag,” an unfortunate preference I won’t go into, but think of it as shake and bake with a sirloin steak. My love of beef was heightened when my grandparents moved to live near us. My grandfather ended his career as one of the leaders of the LA savings and loan scene (long before the scandal) but in his early years, he had been a butcher and knew his meat. When we went shopping for our beef, he would always go up to the butcher at the local supermarket and explain which piece of meat he wanted and how he wanted it cut. He was likewise a master with the preparation. The thought of his teriyaki steaks still cause my salivary glands to crank into high gear, and he has been gone 10 years now.
For most people this respect for the value of beef and a basic education in all things beef would be enough to prepare one for a lifetime of eating beef, however, I had one more meat sage who would cement the deal. When Anne and I were first married we lived in Connecticut while I finished up school. Anne’s mom and stepdad lived in upstate New York where he ran his own butcher shop. As we were on a tight student budget, we didn’t buy much meat. However, every month Anne’s mom and stepdad would come visit us or we would visit them, and in either case, a large portable cooler filled with meat would be waiting for us. Bill always set us up right. He included the best cuts–filets, ribeyes, some ground beef, chicken breasts, and a few roasts of both pork and beef. Anne and I joke that during our “macaroni years,” as Bill likes to call them, we ate bacon-wrapped filet mignon. I have carried that respect and love for beef into the business world and when given the chance have visited the best steakhouses in America. Some of my favorites are Palm and Smith & Wallensky in New York, The Chop House in Chicago, Harris’ in San Francisco, and Pacific Dining Car in LA. I even understand the healing power of beef(combined with prayer). A few months before this trip I had my hip replaced. The replacement went fine but my body did not respond appropriately during post op. For the first 3 days my hematocrit (the amount of red blood cells in my body) kept going down. Even with two transfusions it slipped lower and lower each day, to the point where we and the doctors were scared. If my body did not start producing its own blood, I would be in danger of organ failure and require a long string of transfusions while they figured out what was wrong. Fed up with the paltry hospital food, I asked Anne to bring me a real steak from McCormick’s in Atlanta. She drove to the steakhouse and brought me back a giant slab of sirloin, crispy on the outside and raw on the inside. I ate the steak and we prayed for help before she returned to the kids. As she left I told her “tomorrow would be better.” The following morning they were ready to give me blood from the bloodbank but I told them to run their tests again. “I am on the mend,” I told them. Sure enough when they re-ran the test I had more red blood cells at 10 am than I had had at 6 am. Not much more, but my blood level was now moving in the right direction. I am sure the prayers were more important, but that big slab of beef sure helped.
I never asked my meat to help me heal in Argentina, but if I were looking for a beef with healing power, this is definitely the place I would find it. In Argentina the beef and its domesticated cousins, the goat and the lamb, are the center of people’s social lives. Families throw big weekend asados (barbeques). Every town has parrillas (grills) where people gather, and the Andrus family has done its best to frequent as many as we can. Dax and I are the two biggest meat eaters and on days when the rest of the family has had their fill of meat, we usually slip away and get ourselves a steak. Last night, for example, Dax and I went to our favorite restaurant in Salta at 11:15 to get a late dinner. You have to love Argentina, and what could contribute more to getting fat than a nice 18-ounce sirloin (bife de chorizo) right before bed time. However, the Argentines are not fat. They consume the most beef per capita of any nation in the world, yet there are few obese people here and most are downright skinny. One of the reasons is their beef is not as bad for you as American beef. How you might ask are cows different? Cows in Argentina are mostly raised on the pampas; they eat grass. Having lost most of their land to make room for grain farms, cattle in the US are raised on giant feedlots and fed corn. Living on a feedlot also means lots of antibiotics and hormone injections. (I bet the Argentines use the hormones as well, but they don’t need the antibiotics.) The different diets create different meat. The taste is different and I would argue a little stronger, which means if you like the taste of beef, Argentine beef is better. If you like it a little blander, then you’ll prefer the US beef version. It also changes the ratios of omega-3 fatty acids. In the US, when we want to increase the amount of omega 3 fatty acids, we eat more fish. Another idea would be to switch to grass-fed beef.
The taste of the meat is different in Argentina and so is the preparation. All of the grills either use a pit with a fire surrounded by animals or parts of animals on sticks, or a simple grill over real wood charcoal. I can’t find a a US equivalent of the wood they burn to create the charcoal, but everyone appears to us the same pampas-grown wood. (If anyone knows please feel free to leave a comment.) The meat is prepared simply. They do not marinate it or cover it with spices. They rub it with salt, a whole lot of salt, and put it on the grill or a stick. The salt helps the meat to crust up on the outside making each bite a little crunchy and very juicy.
The Argentines also try hard not to distract the eater with other fancy foods. There are vegetables at the meal, but they take their proper place on the under-card. There are usually two starches, again a perfect match for my American palate, bread and potatoes. Each meal comes with a nice tasting french bread. It is usually hard and chewy on the outside and soft on the inside, perfect for dipping in steak juices. The potatoes are usually fried or pureed and have not been anything overly special. What is special are the condiments. Usually there is one salsa and one sauce to add to the meat. The sauce is chimichiri, a succulent combination of parsley, garlic, olive oil, and the occasional chopped tomato. Each restaurant has its own spin on the national sauce, but thus far they have all been to my liking.
There is little about eating in Argentina that is not to my liking. I enjoy the food, the atmosphere of the restaurants, and the national attitude towards food. It isn’t just the food though. It is a remembrance of something we once had in America that is gone or disappearing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it stems from a vague recollection of going to old-fashioned steakhouses with their red and white checkered tablecloths. A senior-citizen aged waiter or waitress would greet us and take our order. The food wouldn’t be fancy, but when it arrived it was tasty and abundant. When the bill finally arrived, it was reasonable and everyone goes home full. That vague memory is still part of everyday life in Argentina. Even the cost of the meals hearkens back to 30 years ago. Our big steak meals have been between 4 and 8 dollars per person. Our most extravagant meals with all you can eat asado, drinks, and dessert have been between 5 and 10 dollars per person. It is hard to buy good steaks for that price in the US.
I have to tip my hat to Argentina. It the best place in the world for walking away from a well-cooked, satisfying meal with both your belly and your wallet full. The memories of the rich meat flavors we’ve experienced here will resurface and cause my mouth to water for years to come.