A Journey of Meat – Buenos Aires, Argentina, South America
“You’re going to eat what?” I asked my dad as he ordered something called chinchulines from the menu. Maybe I’m one of those persnickety people who is not food adventurous, but my experiences visiting my grandparents in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina taught me a thing or two about appreciating the delicacies of life and wanting just macaroni and cheese.
It started the evening after we arrived. Ramos Mejia is a small suburban city south of the city center of Buenos Aires. At least it was small during Christmas of 1978. I was 11 years old. Back home we were rockin’ to disco, watching Charlie’s Angel’s and M*A*S*H on television. I was thousands of miles away in a suburb of a big city wondering, "Do they have Fruit Loops here?"
My parents are from Argentina, their experience in food is far different from mine. I’m used to cheeseburgers, steaks, chicken, salad and pasta. Regular food. My Castellano (or River Plate Spanish as the Argentinians in and around Buenos Aires speak) is rusty from lack of use. So, when we went to dinner at 10:00 p.m., I was shocked to see the “sampler platter”.
I was not used to so many different versions of cow. Argentina is cow country. It’s like Texas – cows are many and the meat is yummy. Argentinians have made a name for themselves in preparing every single piece of cow imaginable, and it’s sitting here in front of me on this “sampler platter".
Many people in the U.S. are familiar with various cuts of meat, but at 11 years of age, I was definitely a novice to this type of cuisine. I have since translated these various cuts of meat into something that is eaten in the U.S. Chinchulines (aka Chitterlings) is the small intestine of the cow (instead of pig, as in the U.S.). Mollejas, which everyone at the table was eating but me, are sweetbreads. Mondongo, is one part of the stomach and not to be confused with Tripa, which can either be stomach in one country, but in Argentina is the large intestine. Finally, Morcilla is known as blood sausage back home.
“Yum!” I said to myself sarcastically.
“Can’t I just have a steak?” I asked my mother.
My adventures in new and unique food didn’t end with the “sampler platter", though I wish it did. It continued on to the house of a family friend. They were having an asada, barbecue. Typically, when there is a large gathering of people, it’s “the more the merrier". I’m not talking more people, more meat. Does this country eat anything else, I thought to myself. Again I was exposed to several of the same cuts of meat from the restaurant, in addition to lengua, tongue.
“Can I just eat the salad?” I asked my mother.
My grandparent’s friends must not have thought highly of me and my lack of enthusiasm for the delicacies they were preparing.
You would think my adventure ended there. It didn’t. Christmas morning, I woke up excited to see what presents I received. I heard the hustle and bustle of women cooking in the kitchen. My grandfather had a friend who was a butcher – no surprise. I was told he “commissioned” a pig for Christmas dinner.
“What does that mean?” I asked. My sister told me it meant that grandpa’s friend got us a fresh pig.
“Ya, fresh, like they killed it for us.” My sister answered.
Will this nightmare never end, I thought. I want to go back home, to suburbia where you get pig at the supermarket like everybody else. No commissioning, no killing. I had just about had it. I walked into the kitchen to see my mom and grandmother cutting up vegetables for dinner
“Can I have some cereal?” I asked.
My mom turned around to look at me and revealed what was sitting on the kitchen counter.
“What’s that?” I said in horror.
“Our Christmas pig,” my mom answered.
“Ew!” I said, “I’m not eating that.”
Sitting on the counter, on a big metal sheet for cooking was the pig. It was lying on its back with its middle opened, full of fresh herbs and diced vegetables.
This is it, I thought. I don’t know how much more of this country I can take. Luckily we were going home soon after Christmas.
That evening my parents, sister, grandparents and I sat around a small table eating our Christmas dinner. Everyone was enjoying the pig that had been cooked over an open flame in the backyard, while I relished my plate of spaghetti with butter.
“Can I have some more soda?” I asked my mother. Having pop was a novelty and I wanted more.
After she said yes, I walked to the back room of my grandmother’s house. My grandfather built the house in the 1920’s, there was no rhyme or reason to its layout. To get to the the backroom, you had to go through the kitchen, the backyard and around some stairs. Although connected to the rest of the house, its sole purpose was storage. It had a second refrigerator where extra soda was kept.
In the dark of the night, I gleefully walked to get my soda, pondering the thought of going home soon. I opened the refrigerator door to find the pig’s head (fully cooked) sitting on a plate staring at me. I think it was smiling at me.