Thursday, February 16, 2006

Show Me the Beef!

Beef and Tango. Tango and Beef.

That’s the image lots of norteamericanos have of Argentina. Gauchos grilling huge bifes over the fire. Sultry spike-heeled women curling themselves around Carlos Gardel wannabes. Pretty good marketing angles if you want to attract hungry carnivores and romantic tourists.

Let’s get off the dance floor and head straight to the corrall today.

Without beef, there would be no Argentina. At least not this Argentina. The one with Buenos Aires—once the “Paris of South America” and the estancia elite (the ranchers). The country whose capitals boasts boulevards of historic French mansions and an expansive countryside dotted with grazing cattle.

For a century and a half, a small minority of Argentinians have made themselves wealthy by exporting their range-fed beef Europe and later to Asia. But it took a century for the feds to figure out that taxing emigrating carcasses—along with cereal grains--could put some serious money in the national treasury. How would Evita have earned the undying fidelity of thousands of campesinos (plus magnificent jewels and gowns) if Juan Peron had not discovered the really deep leather-lined pockets for covering the costs of new schools, hospitals, and roads?

Lately the cattle producers have had a beef of their own. Recuperating from a drastic drop in exports in 2001 due to hoof-and-mouth disease, later eradicated, the cattlemen recently have been raking in record profits through exports. Within Argentina, beef’s availability took a dive while prices took a hike. The filet mignon which cost me a mere US$1.50 per pound when I arrived in 2003 is now $2.50. When I can get it. (For comparison purposes, a loaf of bread costs about 30 cents, whole chicken about $1.30 on sale, and of course pay is proportional.)

Price and custom both explain why the average citizen consumes about 100 pounds of beef per year—a lot of it as asado. . . deliciously, slowly grilled in the open air. And why not? But for over a year, the red-meat eaters have been forced to suffer more pollo, pescado, and pasta (fish, chicken, and pasta). The feds needed to act to protect the Argentinian way of life.

So early this year President Kirchner’s administration, already honoring the Peronista tactic of using agricultural taxes to pay “piqueteros” (the semi-professional protestors that cripple Buenos Aires traffic with bridge and highway blockades) finally reacted. In addition t the hefty 20% tax on beef exports, a strict limit on beef exports was imposed. Meanwhile, “K” & Company purported to negotiate price controls. Naturally this did not go over well with the beef industry, an historically aggrieved sector that sends pork to the treasury without nary a government subsidy. (Heck, they can’t even get a high-ranking official to attend their annual barbecue.)

But, wait! Could it be Divine Intervention?

Just this month new cases of hoof-and-mouth disease sprouted in Corrientes, a northern Argentine province abutting rogue-state Paraguay, where cheap, infected cattle abound. While the U.S. frets about human illegal immigrants, folks here worry seriously about sick cows that smuggle their way across the frontier and then try to pass as good Argentine beef. (Could it be that some ranchers, faced with higher taxes and lower profits, bought some of these illicit cattle?)

Suddenly all those carnivorous nations from Europe to Japan slammed closed their markets to Argentine beef from the affected region. With no place to go, that beef stays here. Domestic supply is about to increase again, and the price will fall. I get another cheap lesson in economics, and Roberto and I will be able to buy great beef again at bargain-basement prices.

Of course we’d be better off adhering to a more balanced diet. I can limit those sunset jaunts to el Mercadito, where the young, handsome butcher cheerfully prepares my lovely whole filet mignon. It’s one of the few cuts I actually recognize here (see illustration) although I was more accustomed to ribeye steaks and hamburger. In fact, the first time Roberto handed me the four-pound tapered membrane-wraped cylinder, I flinched: “What am I supposed to do with it?” “Cut it!” Amazing how I can now wield Roberto’s well-honed “knife of the three Presidents” (another story!) to carve “lomo” into luscious thick medallions, juicy tender chateaubriand, yummy beef stroganoff, or even tasty burrito filling! I just love options. Especially the Argentine beef option!

Do I love living here? You bet! Forget the tango--just show me the beef!

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