Rockridge Cornucopia: Politics and Food

Sunday, June 9, 2013

We arrived in Buenos Aires on the anniversary of the return to democracy in Argentina. We dropped our bags at the hotel and immediately headed for Plaza de Mayo in the center of the city.

The Plaza was the gathering place every Thursday of mothers, grandmothers, sisters and wives of persons who disappeared during the dark days of Argentina's Dirty War. On that day, the Plaza was alive with young people celebrating with political art, street theater, music and a huge parrilla grilling traditional Argentine sausages. The joy of celebrating democracy and the wafting aroma of the sausages said it all.

Throughout our travels, I'm always struck by how the dual passions of politics and food animate a culture. I find this missing in American in society. Yes, we have the traditional July 4th backyard barbeques, but it's not quite the same as the large community celebrations found in other cultures.

Argentines use the term asado for both a range of barbeque techniques and a social event.

We immediately purchased celebratory T-shirts and joined the festivities. What a wonderful way to start our trip. In more formal events and restaurants, food is prepared by an assigned asador (barbequer) or parrillero (griller). In informal settings, this is customarily done in a collective manner by volunteers. Perhaps this collective process contributes to the political passion.

The meat for an asado is not marinated, the only preparation being the application of salt before and/or during the cooking period. Also, the heat and the distance from the coals are controlled to provide for slow cooking; it usually takes around two hours to cook asado. Furthermore, the cook should try not to let fat from the meat fall on the coals and create smoke that would adversely flavor the meat. The asado is usually placed in a tray to be immediately served. Chimichurri, a sauce of some combinations of chopped parsley, dried oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, onion, paprika and olive oil - or salsa criolla, a sauce of tomato and onion in vinegar - are common accompaniments to an asado.

Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own unique architecture and history. Binding each neighborhood together are the ubiquitous parrillas where neighbors gather to enjoy freshly grilled meats, talk politics and sip mate tea. The typical parrilla menu includes a variety of steaks, short ribs, and various sausages. Parrillas can be small neighborhood places with a few tables out on the sidewalk or very elaborate high-end restaurants catering to large crowds. Small or large, it's all about the beef.

While in Buenos Aires, we spent a morning with a guide to tour a Dirty War detention center in the middle of the city. It is estimated that over 30,000 people disappeared during the period of the war. Today the outer walls of the detention center are covered with political graffiti and murals that tell the story of the people who disappeared. Although democracy has returned to Argentina, every Thursday women still gather at the Plaza de Mayo in memory of those that never returned.

This month's recipe is for chimichurri found at every parrilla. This famous Argentinean sauce is ideal for any grilled food.
1 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon salt
cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Hot pepper sauce to taste

Place all the ingredients into a blender. Blend on medium speed until ingredients form a smooth paste. Chimichurri can also be used as a marinade for chicken or fish. Barry Kaufman is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. He is available for cooking classes and tours of East Bay ethnic markets. Barry's e-mail is