Around the Cow in 80 Ways

It started with blood sausage. Natural casings stuffed with blood saturated meat. The slightest knife nick produced a thick stream of sangre, as if the animal was getting killed all over again. It was morbid, it was graphic, it was parilla and it was damn tasty.

Argentina is the world’s uncontested leader in beef consumption. According to the USDA, Argentinians eat over 66 kilograms of cow per person, per year. Let me do a little math for you. That’s over 145 pounds per year. It’s 50% more than the average person from the states, and the average person from the states includes people in Texas. Imagine eating a 16 oz. steak every other day for a year. Even at that rate, you would actually be eating less than the normal Argentinian. You would be labeled a sissy, or possibly worse, a vegetarian.

This is why, at many fancy restaurants in the States, you may see Argentinian beef on the menu. It’s not because the beef is exotic or rare, it’s because these people know their cows, or vacas as they are called in Spanish. But ordering a steak from Buenos Aires at The Keg won’t really illustrate the true culinary experience enjoyed by our southern American cousins. For that, you need a parilla.

After asking several people what the word parilla really means, I have finally established a fairly consistent definition. A parilla is simple and complicated. In the most basic sense, it is a grill used only for cooking meat, but there are some stipulations. First, it has to be big, as in big enough to barbecue at least half of a large domesticated animal at one time. Second, it must use real wood for a heat source; never charcoal, and definitely never gas. Third, it must be tilted from front to back. Tilting allows the parilla master to create different heat zones on the grill. As the grill is tilted closer to the fire, that part of the grill becomes understandably hotter. If it is not understandable, I pity you.

I was taken to my first parilla by several local friends who, upon hearing I had never been, immediately set a date to go. You see, traveling to Argentina and not visiting a parilla is like going to the U.S. and never visiting a ball park or an under-funded public school. And that is how we came to Tony’s in Bariloche, just one of several parillas in town.

Inside Tony’s, the atmosphere was slightly disjointed. White linen table cloths adorned with crystal glassware covered a dozen or so tables that were corralled into the middle of the room by a handful of plasma TVs hanging from the ceiling. Each TV had a different program on, and every one had its volume turned on. On one side of the room sat the parilla, seething smoke under a ventilation hood approximately the size of the Millennium Falcon. In front of the parilla was a long glass fronted display case stuffed with piles of meat, like a disorganized butcher shop. In between grill and beef stood the parilla master; the minister of meat, the cardinal of cow, the pope of protein. My friends decided to put him and me to the ultimate test. The parilla libre.

Parilla libre is a gauntlet of gastronomy and the very definition of gluttony. It includes: an all you can eat parade of cow parts, never ending french fries, salad, empanadas, sauteed vegetables, bread, potato salad, unlimited wine, bottled water and of course, your choice of dessert. Its main advantage for me was that I could try several different types of meat. Its main disadvantage was that I could try several different types of meat.

As the side dishes arrived we tentatively pecked at them, aware that they were merely distractions aimed at thwarting customers from eating too much meat and reducing parilla libre profit margins. Suddenly, a rough slab of wood was placed in the center of the table. Except for a deep grove around the perimeter, there were no defining marks. It was about two feet long and a foot wide; and it was empty. Our table grew quiet as chairs were pulled in, napkins laid across laps and comfortable grips on knives and forks were found. Then it began.

Four massive blood sausages were thumped onto the wood. One broke upon on impact and blood ran into the grooved edges of the board, whose purpose I now understood. The sausages were delicious. Their warm, fatty interiors were how I would imagine meat pudding to be.* Before we had a chance to finish them, entrana was heaped on top. Entrana is basically skirt steak and its thin profile only seemed to compact the powerful flavors. Next was vacio, or flank steak; tender and juicy, followed by tenderloin and heart. It started to rain meat. Kidneys, livers, sirloins were heaped on top of one another, crowned with ribbons of anus. That’s right. Anus. What’s That? Chewy.

Gradually, the entire experience took on a dark tone. I looked at the parilla master, hoisting the grill up by a great chain and crank mechanism that seemed more fit for some medieval torture device than a kitchen appliance. He tossed armloads of hardwood onto raging hot coals until the prodigal sons of Prometheus rose up once again, clambering at clawing at the iron slats of the grill. More meat was added and it sizzled and it spit when it met the searing iron. Throughout the entire process, more meat was being added to what was once a simple wooden centerpiece and was now a blood soaked sacrificial altar from some sadistic dinner game.

My head was lolling from side to side as I chewed, realizing I was becoming less and less human; trapped in a half man half animal state, like a werewolf. The meal had turned into an anatomy lesson and I could no longer look at other people without imagining the different cuts of meat that made up their bodies. How would that guy taste? Would I prefer arms, or legs? Oh, kids would be good.

Eventually, I started to feel sick and desperately wished to abort the result of the last few hours of my life. The parilla master and my friends looked pleased. I was becoming one of them. “Keep eating!” they said. “Try this one! It’s my favorite!” I tried to refuse, but they had me in a cultural head lock. “If you’re one of us, you’ll eat the meat.”

The Spanish names of different meats, the sound of the wood crackling and the blaring TVs, the smell of blood and smoke; it all swirled around me. At some point, a waiter brought out a dancing, singing, mechanical dairy cow and started it up on a loop track. The cow, sights and smells all combined to the form a sort of cultural and historical three-way, bastard love-child of an experience between D-Day, Sodom and Gomorrah and the movie Pee Wee’s Great Adventure. I couldn’t even begin to summon the energy required to question why it was a dancing dairy cow instead of a steer. Hot, red, bloody darkness closed in around me.

I awoke the next morning and looked at the clock. It read 2:36 pm. I remembered very little of coming home. Perhaps it had all been a dream. Stumbling to the bathroom, I looked in the mirror. A streak of blood across my cheek and french fry bits stuck in my beard told me otherwise. Besides, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I felt dazzlingly full. It had happened, and it would happen again. For now, I was one of them. United in meat, knights of the parilla.

I hardly remember this.

*I would have described further the experience of eating the blood sausage, which was by far the most interesting of all the meats. However, after spending about an hour thinking about it, I have decided that there is no possible heterosexual way to positively describe the consumption of a blood engorged sausage. If you can think of a way, let me know.

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~ by Hutch on March 6, 2011.

One Response to “Around the Cow in 80 Ways”

  1. I have mixed feelings about this… I’m sure the meat was wonderful, and cooked to perfection, but that much of it? I just don’t think I could pass that test.

    (This does remind me a bit of a similar experience you had at The Blue Bayou, however)

    That dancing Dairy Cow would go well with Dammer’s Singing Chihuhua, I do think.

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