Meat wars

Food - Bee Wilson on how Argentina is getting all beefed up

In Argentina, beef is money. Or so it seemed, watching (from the comfort of a British home) the televised coverage of the riots and looting in Buenos Aires that culminated in the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua on 21 December. Wild-eyed Portenos ran out of unmanned shops, carrying under each arm great haunches and ribs of stolen meat, as guiltily as if its marbled red flesh were gold. With the economy in free fall, and the country's loathed political classes vacillating once again, these city cowboys were holding on to the one sure thing they knew: beef.

Given the centrality of the meat industry to Argentina's wealth, beef has always seemed the country's safest currency. The Argentinian railways were first nationalised using £150m of beef debt from the British, accumulated during the Second World War. If Colombia has its drug barons, Argentina has its beef barons (and when times get really tough, a black market in beef has been known to spring up). But the importance of beef to the national psyche is emotional as much as financial, a throwback to the gauchos of the 17th and 18th centuries who roamed the pampas, and who were allowed to kill cows and eat all the red meat they liked, cooked over primitive barbecues, so long as they left the cowhide for the owners. The modern Argentinian bife or steak, grilled in great macho slabs, is a tribute to this gaucho heritage. According to the new Time Out Guide to Buenos Aires, "so thick is a true bife de chorizo that it can be cooked deep brown on the outside, but remain so bloodthirstily rare inside that you can almost feel a pulse".

An American postwar observer, Bernard Collier, once wrote this description of the Argentinian addiction to grilled red meat: "An Argentine must have fresh beef. Without fresh beef he feels weak, angry, anxious and hungry, all the time without satisfaction. Give him lamb and he can't stand the taste; chicken, fish and pork he rejects as baby food. You walk along a downtown street at one o'clock in the afternoon and watch the pipe fitters, the cable splicers, the sewer workers, the diggers and the pavers pop out of holes in the street to check on the doneness of a two-pound bife, which is sizzling over a wood or charcoal fire on a grill fashioned out of a tar bucket and iron reinforcing rods. By two o'clock on a hot summer afternoon there will be workmen in blue shirts and leather sandals lolling in the shade of buildings or construction fences all over town. In the winter they will be hunched over the little fires. They will be sleepy with their big steak and most of a good bottle of red wine and half a loaf of crusty bread inside. At three o'clock, they will return to their jobs refreshed and strong again. When they get home at night they want another steak for supper."

Over the past ten years, however, different kinds of food, notably Italian, Middle Eastern and Asian, have challenged the supremacy of the steak in Buenos Aires. You can eat seared tuna at Azul Profundo (Baez 292) and tofu, the polar opposite of bife, at Morizono (Paraguay 3521). These changes, moreover, have been closely related to the transformations in Argentinian politics. The Carlos Menem years, when the economy was briefly stabilised at the cost of increasing social division, were known as the era of "pizza and champagne", indicating the tackiness and foreignness of a new yuppie prosperity that did not appear to benefit the majority of Argentinian workers. Menem's successor, de la Rua, promised stability after corruption and excess, campaigning under the slogan "They say I'm boring". In the end, however, de la Rua proved worse than Menem. Long before 21 December, he was damned by his son's association with the capital's so-called "sushi set", a fashionable group who prefer salmon nigiri to an honest hunk of local bife in a parilla.

Not for the first time, many Argentinians are left yearning for the days of Peron and Evita, when beef was still king. Unlike the feeble de la Rua, Evita loved to eat fried eggs with corned beef and bife with papas fritas, and reacted badly to the foreign food she was sometimes obliged to sample on ambassadorial visits abroad, finding Japanese food in particular quite disgusting. She was the saint of Argentina's food workers, who petitioned the Pope for her canonisation in 1952. Her nationalist husband preached the politics of patriotic meat-eating, begging his country to eat the beef on its plate to avoid waste. Peronist politicians still claim the political power to reinject beef into Argentina's economy. But it should be remembered that such is the enduring volatility of Argentinian politics, even Peron didn't enjoy success for long. When he felt his power waning in old age, he described himself, sadly, as a "vegetarian lion". For a Porteno, this is like saying you are as good as dead.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?