First You Settle the Pampas: Food in Colonial Argentina and Today

argentina-meat-3What was cooking in colonial Argentina? What do cooks still cook there today?

Answer: lots of dishes, but especially meat.

Years ago, when I lived in Fram, Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer, going to Encarnacion, Argentina was the delight of the month — as long as I went on a day when restaurants featured meat on the menu. So important was the export of meat that local people often could not buy meat on certain days because of the huge demand for exported beef in countries of the northern hemisphere.

Fabada Asturiana, Spanish Food
Fabada Asturiana, Spanish Food

Up until 1776, a string of governors and viceroys (literally vice-kings) beginning with Francisco Pizarro ruled Argentina. As part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, Argentina and Buenos Aires did not immediately develop into the wealthy urban center that was Lima, the capitol. In 1776, the Spanish Bourbon kings decided to create a separate viceroyalty to handle the growing economic and strategic defense problems of its eastern holdings in South America. The Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata included present-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The original Indian inhabitants of the region contributed squash, corn, chiles, sweet potatoes, manioc, beans, pineapple, papaya, quinoa, guava, avocado, tomato, cocoa, turkey, peanuts, and potatoes. The Spanish brought with them wheat, olive oil, pork, mutton, salt pork, sausage, rice, cabbage, banana, and peas. But most importantly of all, the Spanish brought cattle and horses.

When the first Spanish officials made their way into the Pampas, that vast unsettled area just west of Buenos Aires, they found great wild herds of horses and cattle, descendents of animals that escaped the Spanish settlers in the Andean areas. This situation led to the creation of enormous estancias, or ranches, owned by wealthy Spanish landlords, followed later by wealthy Creoles. Mythical gauchos, or mixed-breed cowboys, provided the labor for the cattle ranchers by cutting the hides of the cattle and making tallow from the fat, both items in high demand in the world at the time. The gauchos‘ gastronomic legacy included the asado or barbecue of grilled meat and little else. Skewered onto iron rods forged in the shape of a crude cross, the gutted animal carcasses slanted toward the fire and cooked for several hours until done. The angle of the meat near the fire kept the juices from the affecting the heat of the coals. So prevalent was the availability of meat that one wit quipped that the only cooking utensil needed in a poor household was an iron rod for roasting meat. And a teapot for brewing yerba maté, the caffeine-rich native tea drunk by nearly everyone.

Luis Argerich)
Grilling Meat Gaucho-Style (Photo credit: Luis Argerich)

The hardy gauchos embodied the extreme class differences imposed by traditional Spanish social structure elevated Spaniards born in Spain above the Creoles, or people of Spanish blood born in the New World. Then came the humbler Spaniards and Creoles not of noble blood, followed by freed Blacks and Indians, with slaves clinging to the lower rungs of the social order. At the top of the social ladder was the Spanish Viceroy and his wealthy entourage.

Dining in the early days was an adventure as the Spaniards and their Indian allies penetrated into the interior of Tierra Firme seeking gold and other wealth. Hunger was often their companion until the Spanish learned to incorporate Indian foods into their diet. As the social niceties of civilization increased along with the population of women in the area, food took on a more glamorous role. Ostentatious displays of jewelry and ornate silver sets appeared at grand banquets in the European style, with centerpieces often designed using live animals like squirrels or massive displays of fruit. The arrival of a new viceroy or archbishop were occasions for grand celebrations, but everyday celebrations of saints’ days, name days, weddings, christenings, and the like also required magnificent parties and banquets. Spanish noblemen who came to the New World took their cues from Emperor Charles V when it came to parties. Charles’s extravagance was so well known that the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada made a point in his Colloques satiriques (1553) to reprimand such excesses and recommended instead the frugality and simplicity of the Spanish past. As was the custom of the day, it was unusual for people in the late 16th century to record in their diaries much information about food other than the occasional spectacular grand banquet.

argentina-meat-4[Continued on December 4, 2008.]

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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