Beastly ThingsTuesday, August 21, 2012
Beautiful (beef)! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two
Pennyworth only of Beautiful (beef)?
Pennyworth only of beautiful (beef)?
With my apology to Lewis Caroll
My monthly naval pay came in an IBM envelope with sprocket holes (it was 1965 Buenos Aires). In it were two crisp one hundred peso bills which at the time were not worth more than one dollar on the black market on Calle Corrientes. My military pay was based on a pay schedule introduced in 1906 and it had never been changed.
With those two crisp bills I would often search for a corner boliche (a sort of restaurant/coffee shop/bar) and order a bife de chorizo (a very thick strip steak) a caballo (with a fried egg on top). Since I have never really indulged in wine I would order a Coca Cola with my ensalada mixta (lettuce, tomato and onion salad). In most cases I had to search my pockets for that extra money for the tip. The two crisp bills were never enough for a bife de lomo (tenderloin) but I never grieved as the taste of the bife de chorizo (nobody knows why chorizo is part of the name as there is no chorizo involved) was just fine.
As a young boy, when my birthday came around my mother would ask me what I wanted for birthday dinner. Because in Argentina not eating beef was an occurrence of great irregularity I often asked for chicken or what then to me was a real treat, a pork chop.
Several trips to the estancias on the pampa or in the Province of Corrientes taught me to shun freshly slaughtered beef. In one particular instance at my first cousin’s aunt’s ranch, Santa Teresita near Goya in the Province of Corrientes, Tía Raquel gave a party to her peones. They slaughtered a steer and a sheep and put them on spits near large coals. I asked Tía Raquel if I could have some. She said that was impossible as the meat was uncommonly tough as it was fresh. We were given cuts from meat that had been aged. She didn’t have to tell me what I already knew about carne cansada (tired meat) where cattle were not taken in trucks to graze. That meat was tough, too.
One lingering memory of my youth was being in a train that was running on that flat pampa where the horizon surrounded us in 360 degrees. I could see cattle grazing and their mouths were blood red. I asked my mother who told me that in that year there had been an abundance of strawberries so fruit farmers had gotten rid of part of the crop to push up the price. Ranchers had taken the opportunity to buy the fruit at bargain prices to feed the cattle.
We Argentines pretty well never marinate anything. The famous Argentine salsa called chimi-churri is put on the meat after cooking. We believe that only coarse salt is needed as an addition to meat on the grill or pan.
Thanks to my mother’s persistent schedule of taking me to the dentist I conserve my original teeth at this later date as I look forward to my 70th birthday not far from the feast of St. Rose of Lima. I just might cook some chewy meat (as my Lauren, 10) calls what is one of her favourite meals. I must admit that I marinate the skirt steak in oil, ginger, garlic, brown sugar and soy sauce for a whole day. I have lost some of that Argentine sense of propriety in things beef.
Luckily by the time my birthday arrives my memory of Donna Leon’s latest Commisario Guido Brunetti (set in Venice), Beastly Things will have faded for me to enjoy that skirt steak without much trace of the horror. The horror is a visit by Commisario Brunetti and Inspector Vianello to a slaughter house in nearby Mestre on the mainland. Of beef and cows Vianello comments:
Vianello picked up his second pastry, a dryish-looking thing covered with fragments of nuts. “The days of Heidi are over, Guido,’ he said and took a bit.
‘Which means?’ Brunetti asked, his own second pastry poised in the air.
‘Which means that there are too many cows, and we can’t afford to keep them or raise them or eat them any longer.’
‘“We being?’ Brunetti inquired and took a bit.
‘“We” being the people in the developed world – is just a euphemism for a rich world – who eat too much beef and too many dairy products.’
As Brunetti and Vianello arrive at the slaughterhouse Leon writes:
Brunetti opened the door. As soon as he was outside, he heard the noise: a distant growling sound that might have come from New York’s noisemakers or from the exultation of passionate lovers, or even from a badly played oboe. Brunetti, however knew what it was, and if he had not, the iron-strong smell would have told him what went on behind those gates.
Then she writes when Brunetti, Vianello and their escort Bianchi enter the actual facilities:
Bianchi turned away from him and pushed down on the bar, swinging open the door. Sound, cold, and light spilled over them. The cries and howls, whimpers and thuds mingled in a modern cacophony that assaulted more than their sense of hearing. Most sounds are neutral. Footsteps all sound the same, rally: the menace comes from the setting in which they are heard. Running water, too, is no more than that. Bathtub overfilling, mountain stream: context is all. Unweave a symphony and the air is filled with odd, unrelated noises that no longer follow one another. A howl of pain, is always that, whether it comes from a beast with two or four legs, and a human voice raised in anger causes the same reaction regardless of the language in which the anger is expressed or whit it is directed at.
The stimuli given to the other senses did not permit a pretty word or thought games: Brunetti’s stomach contracted away from a smell that was as strong as a blow, and his eyes attempted to flee from red in all its varieties and all its striations. His mind intervened, forcing him to think and in thought to find some escape from what surrounded him. He thought it was William James: yes William James, the brother of the man his wife loved, a half memory of something he’d written more than a hundred years ago, that the human eye was always pulled to ‘things that move, things that something else, blood’.
It gets much worse, a lot worse as Leon describes cows and half dead pigs attempting to escape their fate.
For a while I will indulge and enjoy the last of the wonderful crop of Manila mangoes and I will savour my grilled corn on the cob (with lots of piri-piri). But meat will have to wait for Santa Rosa.
In Argentina we like to go to Punta del Este for a vacation rest. They say that meat in Uuguay is not as good. I would strongly disagree.
|Bife de chorizo - not|