By KEVIN GRAY
SAN ANTONIO DE ARECO, Argentina -- Sebastian Calaon was hard at
the morning sun rose above the Argentine pampas. He grabbed freshly cut
firewood and set the logs in a pyramid over an open dirt pit. Only one thing was
on his mind: lunch.
In no time, a fire began crackling. Calaon slid a hunk of beef
on a long metal
skewer, and he jammed the skewer into the ground next to the flames. Lunch
would be served in about five hours.
Armed with a sharpened knife, a steel poker and a shovel for the
20-year-old barbecue pit master geared up for what is a week-in, week-out ritual
here: the Argentine barbecue.
NO HATS, NO SAUCE, NO TRAPPINGS
Known here as the asado, it is the ultimate grill thrill -- a
experience combining fire and beef.
There are no fancy chef hats, no marinades, no tangy steak sauces
trappings that typically crowd thousands of picnic tables across the United States
And no gas grills.
``No. None of that,'' Calaon said coolly, shaking his head. ``I've
got everything I
need. Cooking on a log fire is the only way to bring out the flavor of the meat. This
is a slow cooking process.''
If any nation on Earth appreciates a good steak, it is Argentina.
regularly wolf down beef in prodigious amounts. And the asado is at the heart of
the Argentine beef-eating experience, usually a relaxed weekend gathering of
family and friends that rarely requires a special occasion.
COOKING ON THREE GRILLS
Calaon has honed his culinary craft over nine years. He studied
under his father,
watched friends, and experimented a lot before being anointed chief pit master at
the La Cinacina ranch, 75 miles northwest of Buenos Aires.
``I first started cooking for five people, then 15, and later
25. My biggest asado
was a few months ago when I served around 250 people. If someone doesn't like
the meat, I always try to remember why,'' he said.
Calaon displayed his skills at a recent asado. He managed three
grills filled with
favored cuts of meats, many unique to Argentina, where most of the cow is
Shriveled cow intestines resembling jumbo shrimp were neatly arranged
black metal grill. Sizzling chorizo sausages shared a second grill, inches away
from hefty steaks. The fire hissed as juices from the sausages dribbled down the
grill and stoked the flames.
Calaon leaned over to shovel more hot coals onto the fire. He
sprinkled salt over
the sizzling meat, the only spice he would add all day.
THIS ISN'T UNCLE JOE'S BARBECUE
Calaon's prized main course on this day would be a thick hunk
of meat known as
vacio. It is a brisket-like meat enveloped in fat, cooked in open view under a
corrugated steel roof. He kept vigilant watch over the meat, whose sheath of fat
made it perfect for slow, slow cooking.
Squatting to inspect the slab, Calaon dabbed at his reddened eyes
sailed by his face, some clinging to his black beret. Pulling out a bowie knife, he
then poked at the slow-browning meat. His knife easily slid through the tender
beef, and he popped a chunk into his mouth. ``It's ready,'' he said.
First-time asado attendees crowded around as Calaon dished up
the first course
on a cutting board just steps from the grill.
``This certainly isn't Uncle Joe flipping dogs and burgers on
the backyard grill,''
said Lair Kennedy, an Indianapolis native. ``This is serious business.''
Asked if the Argentines had one-upped Americans in the barbecuing
Joe Hostler, a Dallas businessman, conceded easily: ``They're the experts.''