October 8, 2014
It started with an email (it always starts with an email). It was an invitation to a double birthday party for two of our companions. I ignored the picture of the immodest woman on the email and responded that I would participate.
The address was a mystery. I asked some friends if they knew at whose house the event was being hosted. Nobody knew. It was an unfamiliar address in an upscale area. As I am still carless (!), I got a ride with other guests, who also did not know the identity of the secret host.
Though nobody had drunk yet, we still had some confusion finding the building, but eventually we were successful. The doorman buzzed us in before our hands touched the gate. The unfamiliar man directed us to the elevator and the top floor without our having to introduce ourselves.
Now it must be a zoning law or something that every single building in Uruguay must have a communal place to make an Asado. This is typically either somewhere on the ground floor or on the roof. So I was not surprised to be heading up to the 11th floor. It was not surprising to step out of the elevator and take another short step up to what I assumed was the entrance to the roof. However, what greeted us on the other side of the door was indeed unexpected.
Uruguayans can be possessed at times of a single-mindedness that is indeed breathtaking. Take for example their fixation with drinking matte and their walking around in the street with the matte cup in hand and the thermos tucked under their armpit, while they shop, stroll, work, protest or do any other civilized activity. It is so common that there are even warnings on the buses advising riders specifically not to drink matte on the bus, as when the bus stops short the matte cup and metal straw can become deadly projectiles.
The roof of this building had been converted into a luxurious apartment with only one purpose in mind: Asado. The entire apartment was constructed for the hosting, preparation, serving and enjoyment of Asado. The mysterious owner was revealed as the generous uncle of one of the birthday boys who had set up this kosher parilla palace.
Half of the apartment was a long dinning room, with a long table and perhaps thirty chairs filling the white marble hall. The entire side was tall glass doors overlooking the golf club and the beach. The other side was elegant closets of white wood. At the end was a big screen TV that filled the wall, which was on, but everyone ignored (though I was a bit curious to see Tommy Lee Jones in what must have been a sequel of The Fugitive).
The other half of the roof was designed for the ultimate preparation of the Asado. Asado Master was there, as always. Tending the hot embers, preparing the meat. He moved with the fluidity and grace of a martial arts grand master. He wielded his massive butcher knife with skill and confidence, cutting into the innocent fowl and beef with loud thwacks upon the kitchen counter. Inch thick slabs of steak pilled up on the white counter.
But to call the counter merely a counter is to call the Taj Mahal merely a house. This was the Rolls-Royce of kitchen counters. It was as large as a dinning room table, with a silvery sink. It was at the perfect height, well lit, with its own hood overhead, independent of the massive, highly efficient hood over the blazing parilla. Where in our previous gathering I feared we would succumb to smoke inhalation, here, though we were just inches from the fire, we could barely smell any smoke – the only smell was of the tender meat cooking over fresh wooden embers.
We started the evening with 18 year-old Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Asado Master expertly balanced his Glenlivet with his butcher’s knife while at the same time greeting newcomers. As he raised his hand to greet someone, the large foot-long blade raised high, for a second I saw images of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho wielding his murderous blade on his showering victim. However, the embrace left both friends unscathed.
Toasted slices of baguette were placed on the counter. They were followed by slices of grilled chorizos. Though I was standing by the serving dishes, before I had a chance to blink, the platters were emptied by fast-moving Uruguayan hands – twice. The third time, a sensitive soul, noting my ineptitude in catching the savory delight instructed me in how to take a slice of bread and then when the meat comes out, to fold the bread over the hot chorizo. Third time is a charm, and with proper coaching and positioning myself in front of the oncoming platter, with bread in hand I managed to snatch the precious chorizo. As I sunk my teeth into the simple yet delectable combination I understood to the depths of my being the Talmudic dictum that there is no joy without bread and wine. My taste buds sang with pleasure and my stomach looked forward to more.
Now an expert in chorizo-snatching, I caught a few more, even faster than some of the veteran Uruguayan hands.
Then followed a kebab that one fellow swallowed almost whole. I feared the sharp tip of the wooden stake would impale the back of his throat, but I guess he knew what he was doing.
On the other side of the roof was a comfortable porch with an excellent view of the beautiful Punta Carretas Shopping Center, a refurbished former prison that has now become the center of a thriving neighborhood.
Finally, we were called for the main event. Asado Master ordered us to line up with plates and take our selection directly from the grill. We dutifully lined up, plates and utensils in hand. One companion of Rumanian origin suggested that due to my Rabbinic status, I should be allowed to advance to the front of the line (note that he was in the back of the line and had nothing to lose…). Our other companions promptly ignored him and took turns selecting their godly portions from the hot grill.
There were the large juicy steaks. There were the classic Asados – the ribs cut in that unique South American way. There were chickens and parts of chickens. Back in the dinning room there was a salad bar and Asado Master’s world-renown sauce that completes to perfection anything that comes off the grill.
We sat down in friendship and warmth and then one of the birthday boys broke out the wines, which went over wonderfully. I was asked to share some words of Torah. I discussed the biblical origins of birthday celebrations (Pharaoh, from the Joseph narrative) and the enjoinder to enjoy the permitted things in God’s world.
But now I have a fear. I have a fear for Asado Master. Here he was performing in all his glory. The perfect locale, equipment, tools, ingredients, assistance and company. Will he ever be able to perform his magic in more humble accommodations? How can one who has done his art at the height of achievement then descend to repeat the same actions in more mundane settings? Now that his soul has touched that perfection of Asado preparation, how can he try again, knowing that he is doomed to some imperfection? I truly fear for his destiny. Perhaps we just need remember that we are all human. Few in their lives live to reach the pinnacle of their art. We must ever struggle on for that elusive goal, getting solace from the memory of glory that has passed.