Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Meat -- The great uniter

If you gave me a choice between a bowl of bean soup and grilled meat, it would be a close call. You’d think that after years of Argentine barbecues, asados as they are called here, my appreciation for a perfectly grilled steak would have deepened a bit. And I do like a little meat now and then, but as far as I’m concerned, the less it looks like an animal body part the better. My opinion is not shared by 99.9 of all Argentines, and it’s one I tend not to advertise (I guess the cat’s out of the bag now, though). What I do love about Argentine asados, though, is the whole social occasion. There are no shortcuts here, -- a gas grill would only deprive the grill master of making a fire and getting the embers, most often from firewood, just right. Guests, meanwhile, hang out around the grill and chat while the asador, the grill master, pokes and shuffles the embers around, checks and positions the meat. In Argentina, this is an art form.

Since we arrived 6 weeks ago, we have been to countless barbecues. The other day we arrived at a party where a goat, skinned and splayed was roasting over an open fire, which was in a fire pit. After 4 long years in the U.S., Luis was drooling in anticipation. Lucas was fairly intrigued by the display, and Maite was fascinated by the fire, which was just at her level. After several hours of roasting, the goat was taken down and carved. All the guests -20 or so- sat around a long massive table and each place setting had a sharp knife and a round wooden cutting board the size of a plate. Meat eating is serious business --there was no porcelain or plastic plates to be had. There were bowls of salads and bread, but no one paid them much mind. I was a little dismayed to see every single guest --even the very feminine ladies --eating with their hands, ripping meat with their teeth, sucking bones, licking their fingers. No one was using their knife. I turned to Maite, and found my sweet little girl with a bone in her tiny fist, sucking on it eagerly. Good grief. I was reminded of a barbecue years ago, at Christmas, where a skewered pig --eyes, hooves, snout and all --roasted over a fire. I found it so graphic that I couldn’t eat the meat. I always strive to be culturally sensitive, but in these situations my resolve wavers.

On this particular occasion, with the goat, I managed to eat some of the meat, which wasn’t too bad -- a little more fatty than beef, I thought. I always leave a lot of meat on the bones, and Luis happily takes them off my plate, which is a win-win situation. I don’t want the hosts to think I didn’t like their offering. Besides the meat, there was abundant wine and beer.

Argentines are very talkative, and everyone, it seems, has an opinion. There is rarely a lull in the conversation, which, with a little red wine, can go on for hours. People stay long after the meal is eaten --no one is rushed to go home and do some important chore. People played with Maite as she toddled around, and everyone wanted to hear Lucas sing in English. Parties are for everyone here --no one is excused because of their age.

Once in a while, we get invited to dinner where pasta is served, or pizza perhaps. But the asado is something very special. Here, there is no better way to spend the day than with a group of friends, a little red wine, a fire, and massive portions of meat. My soup and salad just wouldn’t cut it.