Monthly Archives: February 2010

Smoking

That’s a picture of a typical Argentine pack of cigarettes. Pretty strong. The text reads, “Tobacco smoke chokes them and makes them sick,” referring to babies.

I haven’t really seen statistics on labeling like this, but I imagine that it has a tangible effect on smoking. The girl who bought these cigarettes transferred them to another pack without a sick baby on front because it bothered her so much.

The US should really consider stronger labeling. Smoking is a big public health issue and causes a lot of unnecessary medical spending. Let’s put our wasted teen anti-smoking campaign ad money to work on coming up with startling labels. Why not put a phone number to a quit smoking line on there too?

1 Comment

Filed under BA

Claudio

Last semester, I took a class called “Reporting Buenos Aires.” As our final project, we were assigned to prepare a profile in someone living here in the city. I decided to write about the asador (barbeque cook) at a parrilla (grill, pictured) that I frequented. I had been trying to get him to open up all semester (he had been quite reserved) and thought using this project as an excuse I could get him to do that. However, he remained distant and I learned the hard way how tough it can be to write a profile of someone.

Because I managed to scrap together 1000 words, I was fairly proud of the final version, although, coming back to it now, I see lots of room for editing and improvement. Anyway, have a look below – I think it captures his spirit.

*

On Güemes Street in Palermo Viejo, the now gentrified and trendy Buenos Aires neighborhood, a small restaurant spills onto the sidewalk, tempting passers-by with aged, painted wood signs listing almost all the food on the menu. The entrance is adorned with old photos, a gas lantern, a small Argentine flag, and a sign demanding, “Don’t take photos. No sacar fotos.” Two barstools sit outside in front of a small counter next to a stack of traditional wood, cutting board style plates.  Just inside, shoveling a big chunk of coal onto the fire beneath the grill, stands Claudio, the cook and proprietor.

Claudio, 41, who refuses to share his last name, has been running the grill La Leyenda – the legend, in English – for fifteen years. He has grey-speckled black hair that forms loose curls that slightly soften his square, boyish face. His leathery hands are permanently blackened from years in front of the grill serving up steak, sausage, and other traditional Argentine fare.

“I learned to cook as a child, watching my Mother and my grandparents. But to grill, I learned from my Dad,” he wrote. (He refused to sit for an interview and would only answer a questionnaire. When he returned my questions, the pages smelled like smoke and meat.) He has spent his working life in the food business, but has always identified most with the grill. But don’t label him. Once, between bites of a juicy skirt steak sandwich, I asked him what he liked most about being an asador – the common term for a barbeque cook. “I’m not an asador,” he snapped. “I am a gastronomic storekeeper.”

Small, inexpensive neighborhood grills like La Leyenda can be found all over Buenos Aires. There’s nothing special about a place to sit down for a Coke and a choripan – sausage on bread. But most are like fast-food restaurants: bare décor, giant industrial grills, cooks working away from the customers. Claudio flips the script. He puts the grill right by the counter, where he can chat (and frequently does) with the patrons. The interior is filled with old bottles, books, and kitsch. A cord slices the air through the kitchen, holding up pots, pans, and sausages. He currently has no employees aside from his wife and daughter, who come in occasionally to help serve food, chop vegetables, and clean. Frequent visitor Eli Wilkins-Malloy told me, “It feels kind of like his home, it’s very personal…It doesn’t feel like he’s running a business or a restaurant.”

Claudio is operating what you might call a bodegón – a local eatery serving Argentine food to Argentine people. Writer Stephen Metcalf recently visited Buenos Aires and described the importance of the increasingly rare neighborhood restaurants in an article for the New York Times Magazine. He spoke (and ate) with local food critic Pietro Sorba, who said, “Bodegón is the opposite of the culinary culture of Palermo. It is comfort food – no tricks – for people who love to eat. Not for people looking for the fashion thing, or trendy. For my job, I must go to many restaurants. But for me, when I want to eat, I go to a bodegón.”

And La Leyenda is all about the food. Even when he is working with his wife, Claudio is always at the grill, preparing some flank steak for the dinner crowd. His restaurant comes first. A former employee told me, “Claudio’s a good guy who loves his job – nothing more…He really works a lot.” When I asked Claudio what he liked about the city, he answered, “My business, my house, my neighborhood. But I don’t like lots of people.”

Yet he sure knows lots of people. If you stop in for lunch, you might see him greet four or five friends just passing by to say hello – not a surprise for someone who has been in the neighborhood so long and is quite friendly. But, with strangers, he is much more reserved. He refuses to talk about his personal life and my repeated requests to interview his family members were met with strong ‘no’s. And, despite his claim that he is happy all the time, he definitely has bad days. Wilkins-Malloy noted, “He’s very moody…and he doesn’t stray far from small talk.”

Even on his best days, small talk dominates the conversation: football, Fernet, maybe a dash of politics. He has a deep love for Argentina that fills the walls at La Leyenda. “He seems like an old-school porteño type. He’s been doing things his way for a long time,” said Wilkins-Malloy. Once, I ordered some empanadas – small, savory stuffed pastries common in Argentina. They came off the grill very hot so I picked up a fork and knife to eat. Claudio stopped me. “You don’t eat those with a fork,” he scolded. “We use our hands here.”

His Argentine pride also extends to the people of Buenos Aires. One day, two thin Argentine women in their mid-twenties sat down at a table outside. After taking their order, he silently got my attention. Making sure his wife wasn’t looking, he pulled a magnifying glass from a shelf and peered through it, gesturing towards the women. Waiting only a split second for my reaction, he threw his head back and laughed.

Little trinkets like the magnifying glass hide all through La Leyenda. An avid antique collector, Claudio keeps many of his finds at the restaurant and even uses some of the old kitchen tools. His reservations about letting strangers into his personal life melted away when talking about his antiques – he was eager to share. During my most recent visit, he showed me some of his favorite pieces, including a Quilmes-brand corkscrew that was over 100 years old, from the era when liters of beer came sealed with a cork. His wife told me, “Because of the surge in tourism, a lot of the antiques [in Buenos Aires] aren’t really antique. But he knows where to find the real stuff.”

Claudio’s enthusiasm for the “real” Argentine culture and history is not unique; porteños are known for their pride. It’s his perspective that sets him apart. From his Palermo perch, he has watched the neighborhood become the fashion and design center of the city, worked through economic ebbs and flows, and seen gourmet restaurants and ice cream shops spring up all around him. Yet he remains an historic bulwark standing against the creeping gentrification of the city. He does not cater to tourists with English menus and he does not modernize. He just wants his neighbors to come in, sit down, and relax over a beer. He told me the worst part of his job is dealing with people in a hurry.

A sign above the door of La Leyenda reads, “We open when we show up and we close when we leave. For 25 years and many more.” In our highly scheduled lives, sometimes we want to go somewhere where time doesn’t count for much, if even just for some asado.

3 Comments

Filed under school

Asado

As I’ve written about here in the past, Argentine culture revolves a lot around food and, in particular, beef. The asado (barbeque, sorta) is the quintessential family/friends gathering. Everyone gets together for hours and eats. A lot.

Eli (my housemate) and I fired up our parrilla on Friday and cooked up some delicious food. Chorizo, entraña, asado de tira, morrones, y una ensalada de tomate y cebolla. That’s sausage, skirt steak, ribs, peppers, and a tomato and onion salad. Bam.

Eli and I have agreed that Sundays there will be asado, unless there’s a strong reason not to have one. It’s the default. Get hyped.

Although Eli (right) and I handled the meat, the salad was all Moni (Eli’s girlfriend) and Maggie (Ben’s girlfriend, left). Ben (center) is Eli’s brother who was in town staying with us for about a week. Good people.

And that’s what an asado is all about. Bringing people together. To eat some delicious steak.

Leave a comment

Filed under food

Boxing

Last night I did the hardest workout I’ve ever done. I mean, way beyond anything I even thought was hard (except maybe for the one night at Haze practice running stairs while I was sick). It was a solid hour of pushups, squat jumps, brutal crunches, and soul-crushing shoulder exercises. Today, my entire body aches.

I joined a boxing gym. I will be going three nights a week for 2 hours at a time. Last night I learned how to walk. Wide base for balance, back foot up on the ball – ready to punch with the right hand. I spent 45 minutes walking. I needed the rest after the workout.

My goal: get into the best shape of my life and be able to kick anyone’s ass. You heard it hear first. I’ll see y’all in 4 months.

Leave a comment

Filed under BA

Saturday House Blogging

I’m back in Buenos Aires. The big story of the new semester is that I’ve got an apartment now (that I’m sharing with my good friend, Eli, who also studied here last semester) and I’ve escaped the tyranny of NYU housing and homestays.

To be fair, I liked my homestay, but, in terms of freedom, it was a far cry from my situation now.

I live right next to a grocery store, kiosco, farmacy, bread store, and pastry shop. I will probably be fat when you see me again.

So here’re some pix of the house:

This is the main hallway. To the left (off the photo), there is a small living room with a (surprisingly comfortable) couch, table, and a couple of chairs. A TV with very basic cable (no ESPN…) is there for soccer games.

To the right down the hallway are the two bedrooms. Nothing fancy – bed, table, chair, shelves. They definitely need some personality added.

Up the short staircase is the bathroom and a larger staircase that heads up to the kitchen. It’s a small, but really nice one. The gas stove cooks evenly and quickly. There’s a ton of natural light. Also, the house’s only air conditioner! (As it is currently about 90 degrees, we have fans in our rooms. Thank God.)

Attached to the kitchen is a small patio with…an outdoor shower (?) and a parrilla. Asado time. Definitely gonna throw some parties.

Anyway, plenty of space and it should be really great when the temperature comes down a little bit. It’s really hot and humid right now.

In other news, my bike got stolen. Big bummer. Today I’m off to look for a cheap new one. Later, frisbee.

1 Comment

Filed under BA