Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Carnal Desire

While it may seem odd for a vegetarian to be blogging about meat, I just couldn't resist.

Here in Argentina, carne is not only something you eat, but an entire culture. Not a day goes by where you walk along the street and are not engulfed by the smoke from a nearby asado (barbecue) or choripan being prepared at a street stand.

There are days when I take in my laundry, which has been drying on the balcony (it can take days due to the humidity), to find the fabric softener smell replaced by the smokey scent of sausage, or cow, or who knows what type of animal it is , but it's definitely not fleecy.

It is not unusual for me while out and about to think that a house fire has broken out before seeing my way through the smoke to find meat being cooked on the street. There are millions of things I could tell you about the kinds of meat, the different parts of the cow, the way they cook it, what they eat it with, but I'll leave that to the experts. Or better yet, I'll let you figure that out for yourselves if you ever visit Argentina, and unlike me and 0.00000001% of the population here, you eat meat.

I have become accustomed over the past months to the astonished expressions of the Argentines when they realize that I do not eat meat, as well as the conversation that ensues filled with questions about why not (when I can tell that ultimately, they think not many of my neurons are firing upstairs), and what exactly I do eat. But the most horrified expressions of all have come from fellow expats, for whom I would go so far as to say, meat may just be the country's biggest draw.

My sister was just here for a visit. It was her third time to Argentina, and when I asked her what she wanted to do on her first night here, she did not hesitate before firmly answering, "Eat steak." And so it was. Here she is at La Fonda del Polo with her bife de lomo, where until her last night here at Parrilla Don Julio, she claimed she had eaten the best steak of her life. Watching her facial expressions when she eats meat here is something...a pleasure I do not know, nor understand, but I take joy in it nonetheless.

And then there are my lovely friends from New York, Sharyn and Mike, and their infamous asados. The last one included not only the typical choripan (which I am told is a specialty at their asados) but pata de cordero, or leg of lamb. The moans of pleasure coming from the table as people bit into that meat were something to behold. Here they are biting into a leg of lamb with a joy that is best captured with a photo.

I'm not really sure how to describe the whole asado experience - it really can be kind of medieval. It is customary to eat on wooden plates with cutlery that has wooden handles. There is a lot of cutting and chewing, and is often accompanied by a lot of wine and toasting.

At parrilla restaurants, you can order this mixture of barbecued meats called parrillada that comes to your table kept warm on a mini grill. The waiters carry them out, piled high with steaks, sausages, and intestines, cracking and sizzling, and place them on the tables at which point people literally dive in. I have watched them chewing and cutting, cutting and chewing...it is almost like a ritual.

Now while asados would seem like no fun at all for the vegetarian, there are treats to be had if you can find your way through the smoke to toss on a few vegetables, like grilled calabaza (squash - delicious here) or even better, provoleta. Provoleta, or grilled provolone cheese topped with olive oil and oregano, as far as I'm concerned, is food for the gods. That with a glass of malbec is one of my favourite things to dine on over here. But I'm digressing from the topic at hand - the incomparable lure of carne.

Parrillas, the grills used to prepare meat here, are gigantic. I remember my Argentine husband scoffing at the size of the grills in Canada. While I would be marvelling at the monstrosity of my parents' new stainless steel barbecue, he would be thinking it insufficient. Now I get it. In fact, I remember him scoffing in general at the meat, even when we lived in Alberta, where they take a lot of pride in their beef. I now understand why he would look so unenthusiastic at steaks in restaurants, as opposed to now. For the record, in this picture he's halfway through his steak, and this one was not even considered large.

Despite all the carnal desire in this country, and you can take that however you want to, because it will likely be applicable, I have to say that I've never been happier being vegetarian. While it may seem like a lastima (shame) to the Argentines, and a downright sin to foreigners, I'll take grilled squash over blood sausage any day. Besides, with everything else there is going on, I don't have the energy for all that cutting and chewing.

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