September 16, 2014
Chivitos for Dinner (with apologies to my vegetarian friends…)
It was a cold, but not unpleasant Monday night. I had been without a car for two months already, so I decided to trek the fifteen minutes to my destination. (The absence of a car is worthy of another tale that illustrates Uruguayan culture, institutional paranoia and governmental bureaucracy, but I prefer to wait until I cease being a full-time pedestrian.)
As I walk out the door I smell the sweet scent of a barbecue nearby. It is a quiet residential street, in a security-minded city, so the only hint of the meat-cooking is the smell. As I walk further along, I pass several eateries, each wafting the savory odors of burning meat, as patrons enjoy their dinner on cozy sidewalk tables, or inside warmer building with open-air grills (parillas).
By the time I reach my host’s apartment I have smelled the heavenly scents over half a dozen times, each one stronger and sweeter, awakening some ancient ancestral meat-lust and accurately foreshadowing the events of the evening.
My host was commemorating the anniversary of the passing of his mother. We learned some Mishnayot (selections from the Talmud). We recited a variety of blessings on distinct types of foods including a cheese-less pizza, kosher wines, seasoned olives, miniatures pickles and a delectable mushroom salad. And then we sat down for the serious business: chivitos.
According to our Asado Master, a man wise and knowledgeable in the lore of food-preparation, the chivito was first developed in the rugged hills of Galicia, Spain, untold years ago. Shepherds, knowing the best cuts of the animals in their care, would take the thinnest slices of meat, grill it lovingly, and eat it with a home-baked roll of fresh bread. The chivito was then imported early last century to Uruguay by a Spaniard who opened up the famous “Chivitos de Oro” locale by the city center. It was such a success that it was soon copied by dozens of establishments and eventually was considered a national dish.
As my readers will know, the parilla is akin to an altar, which can be found in almost every Uruguayan home. Here, the sacrificial animals are burned to anywhere between medium-rare to well done. The high priests, or in our case, the Asado Master, hovers attentively over the remains of the sacrifice, performing his holy work with utmost concentration, or perhaps with a cold beer in his hand. He also takes the opportunity to lightly toast the fresh buns (which are under our kosher supervision for the frozen, unbaked ones – they are really quite good when put on a grill).
But Asado Master was not content with merely the thin slices of excellent meat. He added a sunny-side down egg to each sandwich as well as a combination of grilled vegetables. The invention brought unbidden to my mind the Talmudic saying that there is no joy without meat and wine. I admitted to my fellow worshipers that it was worth staying longer in such a country for such fare. They smiled, nodded and kept on eating.
While the chivito was an impressive display of culinary talent, Asado Master followed it up with a brisket that had been prepared so masterfully that it cut like butter and tasted divine.
There is however, a price and a mixed blessing for participation in an asado. The smoke. At one point the smoke around us was so thick I feared that perhaps we were on the menu. After spending time next to a parilla, it becomes undeniable where one has been and what one has done. The odor is so strong that vegetarians are known to become sick from second-hand parilla smoke. Even after a shower I still feel some remnants of smoke in my eyes and in the pores of my skin.
Nonetheless, it is a price I gladly pay. I am sure that the enjoyment, the camaraderie, along with the Torah learning and the blessings will cause the spirit of our host’s mother to smile, to rise further in the heavenly realms and to solicit God for a healthy year, a happy year, an outstanding year, and perhaps a year with more chivitos for all of us.