Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).
There seems no more important or developed topic at this time of year than the subject of food. People put politics aside, economic concerns are consciously neglected with a sense of relief. Many go about talking of their cookery plans and the unkind prices demanded by get-rich-quick shopkeepers who each year grumble that custom was much superior to the crushed atmosphere of this end of 2018. Or else they claim that Christmas shopping is no longer what it used to be.
Of course, it is not. The changes seem faster and deeper than ever. Food isn’t what it used to be! It might be more accessible to the masses, in the false impression that it is cheaper and better, but may not reflect quality. The homemade goods and craft products are usually a healthy and alternative acquisition, but the really good ones are usually priced out of reach of many.
Things change. For years I was led to believe and repeated the claim with great conviction that Buenos Aires waiters were the best in the world. They could receive the orders from all customers around a celebratory table and report to the kitchen, recreating from memory the list of required dishes. Then that assurance of national and international superior rating began to be replaced by small scribbled notes. And this was followed by an inevitable computer screen installed close to the cash register: the world ranking of the porteño waiter started to tumble. The pole position is not known to have been replaced by any great city in the world. But the sad situation is that this remarkable attraction of our local food service has faded. My prejudiced personal feeling is that, on losing this pleasure in local catering and table service, the quality of food in public places has also declined.
On my return to Argentina, Buenos Aires specifically, in 1994 I told friends that I had been drawn back by the attraction of moderate greed: the not unreasonable search for a juicy steak, the bife de chorizo, which could be found without too much difficulty in most eateries in the big city. The gastronomic relationship between food and culture was in no danger. With time, however, the juiciness of that particularly juicy steak began to slip. First failing, it was over cooked, no longer could the enthusiast of a good steak be sure of receiving the tender red and dripping flesh that previously could be ordered from any kitchen in downtown Buenos Aires. The meat became dryer, the cooks seemed unlearned in the art of producing the perfect piece. Perhaps some diners would argue that the slice that excels could be found in Puerto Madero or somewhere on the city fringes. But it was no longer a product that could confidently be found in any downtown luncheon joint.
Proprietors blamed producers for exporting choice cuts and throwing the lower quality pieces of flesh onto the plates of the office workers in the Centro. I even heard it stated by one waiter that the weakness in the national steak was due to the growth of vegetarianism. As wild excuses go, it was probably one of the best. Of course, the most obvious argument for the decline in the old-fashioned juicy steak was attributed to the medical profession’s warnings against the increase in cholesterol and the dubious advice of diet experts. Perhaps a more honest explanation for the steak’s drop in demand and quality was the increased price of meat generally.
Another opinion offered me in my wandering in search of year-end edibles came in the form of a claim that choice was weakened as more and more people relied on limited lunches based on the tostado triple, or ham-andcheese toasted sandwich, as the standard lunch ingredient of legions of office workers. That class of food seems to me as rather disgusting, usually made of bread that might be two days old and of no dietary quality: the industrialised block-built boiled ham is too salty by far, the slice of ham is economically cut to fall short of covering the triangle of bread, and the cheese tastes as if it had been aged in a fridge or had already felt the heat of a toaster.
The option suggested as healthy – because it is low in fat – is a slice of dry, hardboard variety, breast of chicken, with excessively salted mayonnaise (which is made cheaper by the sodium conservation content). Chicken is now available in great volumes since the province of Entre Ríos has become one of the regions with most exports to China, the Middle East or whatever buyer is interested in cheaper in poultry opportunities. Entre Ríos is one place you will not find a juicy steak. Current supplies off the grill usually compare well with some other variety of cardboard.
It is not easy to find a café or bar with a kitchen that can provide a good miga sandwich containing any mix of cold meats with a limited variety of potato crisps, lettuce, tomato, boiled eggs or olives outside of your neighbourhood bakery or panadería. That kind of fare, so attractive with pre-supper drinks, went out of stock when the bell-shaped bar counter food displays stopped being used to show off freshly prepared sandwiches. Oh, by the way, tomato used in sandwiches, often in the toasted triples, offer an array of pesticides sprayed on the skin. Consumers are advising removal of tomato skins before slicing. If all that is going wrong out there, how can we hope to make a success at home.
And yet, all these items – the pre-cooked chicken, the factory-packed hams, the otherwise tempting pieces of meat, the over-spiced (to no taste advantage) of chorizos, etc. – will be on festive family tables as they are every year. Thousands of people will enjoy finger rolled slices of ham and salami, and see-through slips of factory cheese with olives, delicious-looking mince-meat loaves, turkeys, ducks and geese, and so on and we’ll all look reasonably cheerful and complain that there is always too much to eat at the year-end gatherings. I’ll leave the choice of deserts and puddings to you, and that goes for the wine selection too. Enjoy the holidays, the time off work, the chance to see the remote family members.
We obviously need to be a little positive, of course...