A day late, here is the first of the memoirs of childhood food by one of the students in Robin Somers' "The Meaning of Food" writing class at the University of Santa Cruz, with Robin's preface.
Beef takes a prime seat in Clio Berhnardson-Massolo's memoir about her childhood trips to Argentina where she stays with grandparents in the old family home. Her scenes, laden with ample servings of traditional meat dishes, illustrate the importance of food to Argentinian culture. As Clio prepares to return to Argentina this holiday, she anticipates major changes. Her grandmother has passed away, the old house has been sold, and Clio has become vegetarian.
Clio, a gifted writer, is a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Cruz, majoring in environmental studies.
"The Meat Capital of the World"
by Clio Bernhardson-Massolo
Entering elementary school in Oakland, California, I first had to get a physical from my pediatrician because I’d been out of the country for a substantial amount of time. Blood was drawn, eyes, ears and mouth checked, and shots administered. Waiting for some test results in the lobby, my mother and I watched the doctor enter, check his chart, and wrinkle his brow. He called over a nurse and murmured something low under his breath, pointing to the chart. My mother began to worry that something was wrong with me, and so asked the doctor if anything was the matter.
“Oh, well, there’s no problem, per se, Mrs. Massolo, it’s just that we’ve never seen an iron level so high in a child as with your daughter,” he said.
My mother sighed with relief, explaining to him, “We’ve just spent a year living in Argentina.”
Meat. Lots of meat. Plates of steaks, piles of sausages, pieces of cow I’d never even heard of before. Maybe there was other food on the table, too, but I can’t remember what it would have been. For the most part we ate meat, and life was good.
At the dinner table, or rather, the row of tables we set up end to end, stretching throughout my grandparent’s entire house, my mother’s family would come together for any occasion or celebration, to eat meat. That house was always full of people visiting for a few minutes or a few days; they came to drink maté and have some cookies in the afternoon, or to stay over the winter holidays. But when it was time to celebrate, the house was always so stretched to the brim with family and people who may as well have been family that my cousins and I often had to squeeze four or five of us on a three-person bench. I could hear animated discussions, yelling, or raucous laughter emanating from any given part of the house, and the tables were busy with food being passed every which way, wine being served, soda being spilled. This was the time for an asado, a barbeque. My uncle, tío Rodolfo, was the cook, his culinary genius inherited from my abuelo Fito. His secret to the perfect steak was salt. Anything else was unnecessary; a little bit of salt was all that was needed to bring out the taste. Argentines don’t use a lot of seasoning, and anything bordering on spicy is considered offensive.
My uncle would begin to set up the grill early in the afternoon while my cousins and I watched, eager to help but more likely to get in the way. To calm us down he would make us each a choripán, half of a thick sausage which we would stick in a strategically hollowed-out section of bread. We would gnaw on these and then be sent on our way to help my grandmother set the tables. Later on, it was the privilege of my older male cousins to walk around with the enormous plates piled high with steaks and sausages, serving everyone, often pointing out the steak with the least fat or the largest sausage.
In order to understand exactly what this feast meant to us as a family and to me growing up, one has to realize that meat, along with red wine and the Tango, is one of Argentina’s greatest passions. This country, rightly dubbed the “meat capital of the world,” prides itself on the quantity and quality of beef. Butcher shops abound among main streets, where one can find the freshest meat; in every restaurant there is a parrilla built for grilling beef. Once, I mistakenly ordered a grill sampler with a friend and we ended up having to leave three-quarters of it behind, they gave us so much. Meat also embodies the history of Argentina from the days when the gauchos, cowboys, herded cattle around the lonely Argentine pampas, guarding and caring for them like their own family.
However, despite the obvious pro-meat influence from my Argentine roots, I always suspected that there was more to being a carnivore than met the eye. I have been an animal lover my entire life, and while I knew as a kid that when I ate a juicy steak it most likely came from an innocent, doe-eyed cow, I gradually began to make connections that led me to realize that the meat industry wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Countless PETA pamphlets later, each of which detailed hundreds of horrifying and obscene acts perpetrated onto livestock, it became a lot more difficult to justify to myself why I was eating meat that had lived its life in a feed lot with no medical attention or room to move, had been repeatedly injected with unsafe hormones, had its throat slit, had been hung upside down and died due to blood loss. It was strange to me that something as harmless and wonderful as a steak—delicious, nutritious, filling, something that allowed me to live—came from such a bloodthirsty practice.
I became a vegetarian. It’s only been about a year, mind you, because had I converted any earlier than that, I would have starved. I’m not much of a cook, and my mother’s not one to cater to individual menus. Therefore, the start of my college career was when I decided it was time to give the cows and other livestock a little break. The point was to remove myself as a consumer on the carnivorous food chain. Sure, the cruelty would continue, but it would do so without my help.
I’m going back to Argentina this December for Christmas, which is always a lively celebration lasting till all hours of the night, but things are sure to be different this time around. Not only will I not be a participant in the asado tradition, but this Christmas will be held in my Uncle’s house, my first time in Argentina since my grandmother died and my grandparents’ house was sold. Both of these factors bring back volumes of memories about my relationship with Argentina and my family, especially my abuela Mary, who clucked and fawned over me as the grandchild from the United States who she rarely got to see. Always an open ear and an open mind, she spent time to make me feel like an individual while the house was swarming with my dozen or so other cousins. She taught me to make incredible ham and cheese, corn, and beef empanadas and tartas, or pies, in the bright kitchen that overlooked the patio, while asking me every question under the sun and listening carefully to the responses.
My grandparents had their house built for them in the 1950s. It was a squat, white, two-story that, like most houses in Argentina, shared its side walls with its neighbors, making it easy for mischievous children to jump from roof to roof and travel all around the block. They began their married life there, raised their children and grandchildren there, hosted decades worth of celebrations there. In that little house in Olavarría, they knitted a web of family and friends with whom they surrounded themselves, becoming a center of security, love and generosity for everyone they knew. In this house I learned the value of family that I lacked in the U.S., where I had little to none.
This Christmas, although we will be short one family member, it is an absence that cannot be overlooked, made glaring by the change in locale. This year we will not erect the spindly silver-tinsel tree that I have known since my youth, and we will not set up the ceramic nativity scene below it. There will be meat on the table, of course, but it almost seems fitting that I will not be enjoying it. Instead, I will turn my eyes toward the salads, the tarta de choclo, or corn pie, and the numerous other dishes I never thought to try. Perhaps this way I will discover an entirely new part of my Argentine heritage.
Balancing my moral principles with a staple of my childhood and upbringing has been more difficult than I’d previously anticipated. I no longer have my comfort food; I can’t look forward to the pot roast my mother is making for dinner when I visit, because in reality, I’ll end up having to make myself pasta (a poor substitute). Meals seem to lack completion without the meat portion. Still, I know that at this point in my life, it’s the right thing for me to do, and I can handle leaving the beef out of my burrito, even if that means that all I have left is the woefully underwhelming rice, beans, and cheese. Someday I’m sure I will go back to my meat-eating upbringing, hopefully in the aftermath of some much needed legislation that enforces animal rights and prohibits cruelty in slaughterhouses and ranches. When that day comes, I will hop on the next flight to Buenos Aires, call up my family, and rejoice in a juicy, tender steak the size of my thigh (medium rare), and life will be good.
• • • • • • • • • • •
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Meat is an inefficient way to eat. An acre of land
can yield 20,000 pounds of potatoes, but that same acre would only
graze enough cows to get 165 pounds of meat." — Alexandra Paul
And who can deny that?
More essays to come: thanks for visiting, and thanks, Robin, for the great idea to share your students' work.