Of Meat & Community

I fell in love with the Argentine countryside during the endless summers of my childhood.

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Guillermo Fernandez, Heidi Lender

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6 minutes

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I fell in love with the Argentine countryside during the endless summers of my childhood. Its smells, its sounds, its infinite landscapes with bleeding horizons filled with nostalgia, and its captivating rituals lured me into an unlikely life path for a city girl. I learned at an early age that there were ceremonies across our lands that bound us in peculiar and irresistible ways. 

Asado, meat slowly cooked over hot coals, is a pillar of the Argentine traditions. It is arguably the most valued currency of celebration — to honor work, dear friends, family, marriages, farewells. It is a gastronomic symbol and an emblem of the Argentine identity. 

For centuries, when early European explorers visited these lands, they were astonished and even frightened as they observed “gauchos” — the cowboys of the Argentine grasslands — dressing full carcasses with nothing more than their simple “facones” (knives). Gauchos became experts in the art of organizing horseback expeditions to hunt wild cattle and cooking their meat — that otherwise would go to waste, as only salted hides were traded with Europe — over big open fires on simple crosses. It was the genesis of the legendary “asado.” It’s still done the same way: simply, with no extras apart from the occasional “chapa” (a piece of sheet metal) to protect the fire from gusts of wind. 

Wood and fire, with their gifts of scent, warmth and trance, are central to the experience. Wood, hard enough to break an axe, is masterfully arranged and used to re-light the fire in the morning hours, then tenderly cared for as coals form, and glowing embers whiz and twirl up in pale blue columns of smoke. Heat is skillfully distributed by the “asador” until it colors the coals with an incandescent red, covering them in a velvety layer of white ash. Meat is never moved while it cooks — coals are.

Pride is paramount in every step of the ceremonial unfolding of this culinary art — pride for the revered skill, the watchful supervision, and the extraordinary patience that is required. Renowned chef Francis Mallmann reflects on this unique skill as one that is “perfected during hundreds of Sundays directing a symphony of meat and fire.” 

No outsider’s advice is ever welcomed by an accomplished asador. Children’s presence, on the other hand, is appreciated and accepted, as they delight in observing from an early age the dexterous moves of the virtuoso, along with the sensorial scenography that will remain imprinted in their memory forever. The loyal company of dogs is never missing, patiently awaiting alms, whether they be a piece of discarded fat or rawhide, or a bone. 

Asado is a ritual so much more than it is a delicious meal. Beyond a dietary choice, it’s a core of our culture and heritage. Community is the defining reward. No other food carries such ceremonial and uniting power for Argentineans.

During the long summer vacations on my family’s ranch, and every weekend on our little farm outside the city of Buenos Aires, asado roped in small crowds of our clan with a sense of anticipation, of promising rewards to come wrapped in slow and sweet Sunday glee.

Unassuming long tables were set by the women of the family, covering simple linen with bread baskets, large bowls of simple salads, and bottles of inexpensive red wine. They were, curiously, populated with perfect timing just before rounds of meat began circulating, served by the asador strolling around the table and deliberately selecting the piece that would land on your plate. Each round would take place in a predefined order and at a perfect tempo so that the temperature of the meat would be just right, every time. Guests were never hurried nor left waiting for too long. The meal would last for hours. A voice would arise from the table calling for “un aplauso para el asador!” (a round of applause for the asador). It would be terrible manners not to acknowledge such a feat of art with this customary and expected gesture. 

And then, as slowly as it all started, the meal would wind up with plump peaches and dulce de leche, or caramel-coated flan and maybe sweetened espresso coffee, as one by one, people slowly departed. The children would leave the table to play, the youth to light a forbidden cigarette, the elders to take a siesta, and the women to clean up. We felt filled and fulfilled by the nourishing food, the lighthearted chatter, the passionate and unimportant recurrent debates during the sobremesa (the long after-meal time spent at the table discussing futbol, politics, or raising children). The day would seamlessly and peacefully melt into an indigo twilight. We all felt enriched by the renewed sense of belonging.

But today more than ever before, a new kind of community is required for this tradition to deservedly live on — a community of stewardship. Not all meat is created equal, and for it to continue to be an emblem of Argentine culture, it must reflect deep care and humble reverence for the land and the animals. There is much more to consider than in those early days of wild cattle roaming the Pampas. We need to be much more mindful than we are presently, as industrial agriculture conspicuously erodes not only the soils and rich diversity of life in these grasslands, but also the deep indigenous knowledge and cultural understanding of how to manage land in harmony with its essence and rhythms. With feedlots now rearing their ugly head, disconcerted Argentinenans are struggling to recall what good meat is supposed to taste like. 

As we pass down this notable tradition of “asado” to the younger generations in our quest to nurture community, I work and yearn to bestow upon them the more urgent and compelling legacy of profound love and homage for those landscapes that I became enamoured with during my childhood; to instill knowledge and skills for holistic stewardship focused on the beauty and complexity of the earth’s inherent abundance and resilience. This is what will feed our children, and let them feast together, in community, around the table.

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