Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Anatomy of an Asado

Monday July 8, 2013

[Note: I partook of the Asado before the start of the Nine Days of the Hebrew month of Av, when Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat meat as part of the mourning ritual commemorating the destruction of the Temple — it should be doubly restricted in Uruguay as it is so enjoyable…]

Anatomy of an Asado

Perhaps one of the most glorious aspects of the Uruguayan culture is the “Asado”. An Asado is the classical local form of barbeque. But there is much more to it than merely grilling meat. There is a form. There is a process. And there is the whole social aspect to the “Asado”.

Appropriate that I should be inspecting a farm on the day of an Asado.

Appropriate that I should be inspecting a farm on the day of an Asado.

I have had the very good fortune of participating in a number of Asados and am starting to understand some of the technical aspects that I will now share with you.

Yes, guys. I'm having you for dinner. BTW, these are free-roaming, naturally fed, happy cows -- delicious. [Apologies to all my vegan/vegetarian friends]

Yes, guys. I’m having you for dinner. BTW, these are free-roaming, naturally fed, happy cows — delicious. [Apologies to all my vegan/vegetarian friends]

First is the Asado station itself, called the parrilla. When searching for a house (a whole other adventure) one of the first items agents will explain is whether the dwelling has a parrilla or not. Many buildings have communal parrillas and is considered a normal and healthy requirement for social development. The parrilla is typically a very large brick fireplace built to contain the classic Asado grill.

Classic Parrillo

Classic Parrilla

Grating for firewood. Embers fall down and are then spread out under the grill.

Grating for firewood. Embers fall down and are then spread out under the grill.

The grill consists of two distinct parts. Usually on one side is a grating constructed to hold burning firewood. The second part is the grill itself, large with a downward slope.

Purists will use firewood. The firewood is burned in its grating and as burning embers crumble off the pile, they are scooped up and spread underneath the grill.

Embers under the grill

Embers under the grill

The grill is laden with meat. Now when I say meat, I don’t mean hot dogs, or hamburgers or heavily processed meat. I mean meat. A lot of meat. Big pieces of meat. For chicken lovers, they put an entire chicken. Several. Big cuts of freshly slaughtered cows are put on the grill. Somehow there is a real tasteable difference between meat that was killed locally and meat that is sitting in a frozen vacuum pack for a transatlantic voyage and then prepared. There is also a distinct way that they cut ribs over here. They leave a lot of meat on, making the experience of eating ribs significantly more rewarding and delicious. I can go on about the preparation, the condiments, the overall feeling of satiety after participating in an Asado. I have reached a new level of appreciation for the Talmudic maxim that there is no festivity without meat and wine.

Food, glorious food!

Food, glorious food!

However, the greatest part of the Asado is the camaraderie. There is something tribal, perhaps prehistoric in sitting around a fire waiting for the kill of the day to be ready for human consumption. There is something civilizing about taking the raw material and over drinks and appetizers turning it into a meal fit for kings. There is something intoxicating about the sweet smell of our food reaching delectable completion and the open hearth warming you on a chilly winter night.

But all is not fun and games. In my position as Chief Rabbi, I have been asked at these occasions to share words of Torah. I cannot merely enjoy the Asado as just another hunter may have. I have to work for my meal. But that is okay. It is a very small price to pay. I would even say it is a great privilege to be asked to bring a little bit more of the divine into what is already a divine combination of food and friendship. I’m looking forward to many, many more.

3 thoughts on “Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Anatomy of an Asado

  1. Dear Rav Spitz,
    I’ve been reading your articles for a while and all I can tell you is that, apart from enjoying your pleasant and elegant way of writing, I can also relate 110% to most of your experiences.
    Even though my upbringing was totally secular and I only got in contact with our beloved Torah and tradition already as an adult, it seems my life story shares so many common aspects and so-called “coincidences” with yours, that it brings me even closer to your experiences and gives me a strange sense of belonging… to a blessed brotherhood which lasts for several millennia by now.
    If you don’t mind, I’d like to share some facts about my personal life.
    I was born in Córdoba, Argentina and lived there until age 12. I studied at an English school (“Blair House School”) and was already proficient in this foreign language as my family left Argentina in 1974 owing to a financial crisis and moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We arrived virtually penniless and restarted from scratch. I had an overwhelming attraction towards machines since my early childhood (my all-time favorite pastimes were constructing machinery with Meccano and building and flying balsa-wood model airplanes), and this lead me naturally to a career in Mechanical Engineering.
    During my early years in Argentina I also learned to appreciate the art of Asado — unfortunately not kosher, as our family had no connection to Judaism at that time and we lived in a small town where we were the only Jews.
    Were it not enough already, we have another common interest, which is… writing!! I always loved reading — poetry, fiction, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, tehcnical books and whatever would get within my reach, however in 2006 I felt a sudden urge to pour out my thoughts, and the natural expression came out as poetry. The result was a small book published in 2011 with the title “A Engenharia da Vida” (“The Engineering of Life”), which someday I intend B”H to re-issue as a multilingual version (Portuguese/ Spanish/ English).
    Sorry for extending myself a bit with some details that could seem irrelevant…
    Regarding the specific topic of the “Asado”, upon reading your text “…There is something intoxicating about the sweet smell of our food reaching delectable completion and the open hearth warming you on a chilly winter night…” I was almost transported to my childhood experience.
    Thank you very much for posting such an interesting and enjoyable article.
    Congratulations!!
    I wish you all the best in your new position in Uruguay.
    Shalom uVracha,
    R. Halevy

    • Dear R. Halevy,

      It is a true pleasure to “meet” a kindred spirit! Thanks for being in touch. I look forward one day to reading your book and perhaps even meeting you in person.

      Warm regards,

      Ben-Tzion

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