2000s Archive

Big Beef Country

Originally Published April 2000
Forget history and politics. If you really want to learn about Argentina, you’d be wise to study up on your meat.

A quarter century of almost continuous contact with Argentina stirs powerful memories: the return of Juan Perón with the embalmed corpse of the divine Evita; the magical pirouettes of Diego Maradona on the soccer field; wild nights of tango in clubs where crooners and dancers performed until dawn. But my most meaningful impressions of Argentina are nourished by beef. Red meat has given me as much insight into this country as any charismatic politician, sports star, or entertainer.

A few days after arriving in Buenos Aires for the first time, as a young foreign correspondent, I stopped at a construction site near my downtown office. I was drawn by the rich fumes of a lunch-break barbecue. A laborer was grilling a thick steak on a wire mesh stretched over the top of a large can filled with charcoal embers. Noticing my curiosity, he waved me over for a closer look. The meat was nearing a juicy medium-rare. Suddenly he began slicing off the less desirable bits, giving the meat the unmistakable tapered shape of Argentina. “There goes Chile,” he said, cutting away a long strip of fat. “Adiós, Uruguay,” he muttered, carving off a knob of gristle on the other side of the beef.

Not long after that day, I was invited to an estancia, one of the extravagant ranches that breed much of the country’s cattle, possibly including the specimen that had provided the steak for my construction-worker acquaintance. The estanciero, or rancher, and a few of his gauchos, as cowboys here are called, rode with me around the vast estate, located in the pampa, the legendary Argentine grasslands, where steers graze across an endlessly flat horizon in a 350-mile arc around Buenos Aires. There are no feedlots or hormonal enhancements in this country, the rancher told me, and beef makes it to market within 36 hours of slaughter. This, he said, accounts for the chewiness that puts off some Americans. (Argentines, on the other hand, complain that the aged beef so prized in the United States and Europe leaves an aftertaste of decay.)

The mock-Tudor ranch house rose behind a copse of trees. In the living room, between portraits of the rancher’s notable ancestors, were paintings of the family’s prizewinning bulls. I joked that the animals had been given equal billing, and the estanciero replied, “Why not? They have a more impressive pedigree than I do.”

In Argentina, beef is inseparable from culture in its broadest sense. Beef is nationalism: Argentines take it for granted that the rest of humanity accepts their claim to producing the best beef in the world. Beef is politics: The Peróns made sure that beef was cheaper than any other meat; even today, to allow steak prices to surpass those of lamb, pork, chicken, or fish is a sure recipe for popular unrest. Beef is also cachet: To own an estancia and raise prizewinning bulls can vault the newly prosperous into the highest social circles. Beef is even sensual: To compliment a well-shaped human torso, male or -female, Argentines are apt to remark, “Que buen lomo!”—“What a hunk of sirloin!”

To feast again on Argentina’s culture of beef, I time my most recent visit to coincide with the annual Rural Society Fair, or La Rural. Since 1886, the finest livestock in the country have been put on display here to be judged against the best of their breeds. Staged at the height of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter—during three weeks straddling July and August—La Rural sprawls over a 50-square-block enclosure in Palermo, the poshest district in Buenos Aires. This is the neighborhood where many estancieros have long chosen to make their urban homes away from their country estates. Their limestone apartment towers, with oak door entrances and brass lion’s-head knockers, offer spectacular views of the broad, coffee-colored Río de la Plata. Nearby, in leafy parks that have nothing to envy from Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, white-aproned nannies chase after toddlers. And within blocks of La Rural are the Palermo polo field and the municipal horseracing track, the settings for two other traditional estanciero pastimes.

Even though estancieros staff La Rural, own the animals, and provide the social luster, they account for only a fraction of the audience. This year I’m one of more than a million visitors—mostly middle-class and blue-collar families, students, and pensioners. They come to view the thousands of farm animals on exhibit, to watch the colorful parades of gauchos and army cavalry, maybe even to listen to the politicians extol the virtues of estancias. But most of them are here to eat beef. At La Rural, the meat is high quality, abundant, and reasonably priced.

By mid-morning, the wood-ember and charcoal grills of the cheaper meat stands glow bright, and the rich smoke of T-bones, filets mignons, sausages, and offal of various sorts wafts across the vast grounds, arousing my appetite hours before lunch. Wandering through the fair’s older pavilions, dating back a century and built in neoclassic style with Victorian statues on their roofs, I notice that since my last visit, there are also newer glass-and-concrete pavilions. They’re not as architecturally appealing as the old structures, but their superb ventilation systems have banished the barnyard smells of a previous era.

After three hours of contemplating beef, I can hold out no longer. Deciding among the restaurants at La Rural (they operate only during the weeks of the fair) isn’t easy, but I stop at the Hereford, which specializes in cuts from that breed. I order a dish that exists only in Argentina—asado con cuero, meat baked for hours with its hide still on, then served cold with an herby, garlicky chimichurri sauce. Nursing what remains of my half bottle of Hereford (yes, even some of the wines in this country have beef-themed names), I look out on prize cattle, just 20 feet away. The bulls and cows, each one in its own stall, are treated by their gaucho attendants like beauty contestants. I watch as one has its hide massaged and shampooed, another’s tail is frizzed into a pom-pom, and a third has its hooves polished to a shine. Each of their backs is draped with a fine wool cape. The gauchos are just as resplendent, with bright berets or felt hats, frilly shirts, broad belts laden with silver, and billowing pantaloons tucked into the accordion folds of their black boots.

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