The Argentinian Smokey Medium
The circumstances that landed us in San Luis, Argentina seem completely impossible in a more organized version of the Universe. To think that a chance click from my computer in Georgia and the consequent encounter with a couple running an AirBNB would find us a bed and friends in San Luis, Argentina and two fantastic craft brewery contacts months later seems a bit preordained - or otherwise, too good to be true. But that's the way it happened; and if you asked me how it would turn out while I was sitting in my pajamas on my parents' couch last October, what I'd be doing in December, or if this trip would work out at all I'd stare right back with shrugged shoulders, hands turned up, pinched lips, and wide eyes. I never could have predicted the path and could never have planned it so well. Often you need the very basis of a plan to give you (and those around you) the confidence to step off and set foot on the journey, mission, etc; but most of the plan develops along with the information coming in, and as a result, you find a plan that better suits your current situation. Eventually, after you've seen enough plans fail you come to this realization and still fight it every time. I've gotten to a point where I think that Sara and I are completely out of our minds most of the time; and then there's an experience like San Luis, and we can smile at each other and reassure ourselves that we are not wrong about this.
We walked off the bus beneath less burdensome sunlight and within a strong afternoon breeze. It always takes a minute of acclimatization to turn your legs and quiet your shoulders under the strain of the pack after a long bus ride. This time was no different, but our circumstances were ideal. To re-cap: we were meeting up with the brother of a friend we made in Oaxaca (the AirBNB couple). This was really going to happen. I half believed the car would show, and when it did the riff from 9:21 In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Final Fillmore Concert passed my eardrums and a jolt of pure 220 volt brought me up and smoothed me down into the chords as I realized plans were actually materializing into reality (if you're ever been electrocuted you know what I'm talking about). Pedro, Gonzalo's brother, and his girlfriend, Eli, picked us up in a Peugeot sedan. We made introductions and I sat in the back seat wondering how much of the Spanish Language I was going to have to fake. We actually started exchanging pleasantries in the language of the other and that alone made us all feel comfortable. Back at their house, we met Molly, the dog. What a character. "Basta" chorused through the rooms and Molly seemed to passively acknowledge: so young and full of energy, nothing to help herself. A second later she continued to misbehave but we all smiled and loved her.
The next day, Saturday, marked my baptism into Argentinian religion, and an art I will practice until I die: Asado. In Oaxaca on one of our final evenings I dabbled in it with Gonzalo during a cookout on their rooftop; however, while I witnessed the process from an Argentine-blooded chef, I did not experience the religious ferocity surrounding tradition. The weekend air in Argentina is smoke.
The process, by design, began with archaic inconvenience: visiting the butcher shop, swinging by a fruit and vegetable stand, purchasing the Leña (wood) outside on the street, stocking up on beer (for set-up), cheap wine (for when the beer is gone), and fruitful, tart Malbec (for dinner) at a wine store. Pedro, the Asador (grill master), directed the ritual. Back home we prepared the food and grill. The instruments were minutely detailed but equally anachronistic as the gathering of material. The V-shaped grates of the grill, slightly angled down toward the Asador, redirected the fat drippings, preventing flare-up and collecting an essential ingredient for Au Jus. A hand crank extended and shortened two chains attached to the grate, adjusting the height to control temperature. A separate section designated for developing coals housed a tower of "Lincoln Logged" Leña. Traditionally, the Asador only uses wood and one match for the fire; we cheated a bit and added a few paper towels. We waited patiently, and a cork from a 2017 Malbec fell to the ground alongside empty beer bottles. The fire burned for half an hour and a bed of brasa (coals) slowly built beneath the burning house. The bed became a mound by mid afternoon; a second Malbec cork joined the first. We used a cast iron shovel to transfer the coals and a rod to uniformly arrange them beneath the grate.
The meat followed the coals to the grill, and like the preparation of the heat, it processed in organized, anticipated fashion. The sous chef at an Asado only salts the meat with Parrilla Salt - a medium coarse salt perfect for meat on fire - and hands it to the Asador to place on the grill. The mollejas (organs) are typically the first - we began with chunchulin, which was some kind of intestine that we marinated in lime juice and showered in salt. The chorizo and blood sausage followed to fill the gap until the Costilla (short rib rack). The final lump of beef, Vacio, was similar to a flank steak. The meat sweats struck with ferocity but weren't enough to dissuade further consumption. The coda to the carnivorous symphony, a grilled bell pepper half with an over-easy egg cooked inside, served as a pleasant omnivorous finale.
Throughout the process, our contribution to the Argentinian Smokey Medium (ASM) intensified and morphed from wood, to burning wood, to sound, to cooking meat smoke, to cooked meat smell; and finally that golden haze brought on by righteous gluttony and red wine drunkenness, in the honor of community and culture: where words are exchanged and drift into the cultural consciousness of the Medium; where laughter escapes as well; where infinitely small moments flashing from red, wine stained teeth project a smile for existence. This Smokey Medium exists in other places, and I've seen it the Pit BBQ of the Southern United States and with my family at pig roasts also in the South and the Midwest, but I have yet to see the smoke pervade so deeply and universally as I did in Argentina - specifically San Luis that Saturday, during the first week of 2018. More smoke was my resolution. The night arrived and the bottles of Malbec we purchased from Pedro's giant, Sommalier friend (whose nickname was ironically something like "tiny stick" in Spanish) were emptied and on that night I fell for Argentinian Malbec. I saw in that tradition something beautiful and deeply entangled with its people. They say that on weekends the weather report defines good weather as good "Asado Weather." If the weather depends on it then everything has to.