By David Minsky
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Now that Americans are starting to catch on, Uruguayan grass-fed beef is becoming a prized and expensive commodity in the United States. It's a leaner, more flavorful steak. It's turning up on the menus of some of our most acclaimed restaurateurs. Alice Waters at Berkeley's Chez Panisse and Douglas Rodriguez at Coral Gables' Ola use it. It's featured in gourmet markets in major cities; it's added to "healthy" hot dogs (like the ones produced by Applegate Farms).
Beef from Uruguay promises to be the next magic pill. That may go some way toward explaining why that black-eyed girl eating her gigantic steak was so svelte.
False door in time," metaphysical Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges called Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. "You are the Buenos Aires we once had, that slipped away quietly over the years." In spite of the high-rises and casinos lining its beaches, the thriving industries in caviar and leather, its amethyst and topaz mines, there's a sense that progress bypassed Uruguay in its headlong rush to the future. The country's a butterfly trapped in the amber of its own history. The favorite expression of its citizens, who take things slow, is "tranquilo." The bad news is, everything arrives in Uruguay 30 years late, Montevideans like to say. The good news is, when the end of the world comes, it will take 30 years to reach Uruguay.
"Food in Uruguay is inexpensive and abundant," Lily De Los Santos tells me. "And oh, the fruit; it's so sweet!" Lily's a kindly Uruguayan lady who has volunteered to give me a primer on the cuisine of her homeland. We're in the kitchen of the Margate compound she shares with her sisters, Alba and Nelma; a brother-in-law; and whatever grown kids, nephews, or grandchildren happen to be around. As if to punctuate the thought, she sets a porcelain bowl filled with dulce de leche, a caramel-colored milk-and-sugar rush with the density of liquid metal, in front of me. She pours me a Coke, hands me a spoon, and rustles through a box of "black meringue" cookies the family has hauled back from its last trip to Punta del Este. These are double-layered, chocolate-covered mouthfuls whose first ingredient is dulce de leche, followed shortly by azucar. Lily De Los Santos is in her 70s and struggles to control diabetes, but that doesn't stop her from serving her guest three sugars and then another one, if just for the fun of watching me bounce off the walls. In a few minutes, she brews me a cup of yerba maté too, making a potent tea of the bitter leaves of her country's favorite evergreen, the Uruguayan drug of choice.
It may be more than the maté that keeps Uruguayans tranquilo. Cultural critic Eduardo Galeano thinks the Uruguayan character evolved, after years under military dictatorship and right-wing democracy, into a kind of national depression. The years between 1960 and 1985, when so many Uruguayans including Lily and her sisters immigrated to the United States, were rocky ones. A national people's liberation front, the Tupamaros, mounted a valiant if increasingly violent offensive in partnership with the trade unions to hamper the growing powers of the military. The military eventually squashed them. Galeano summed up Uruguayans before their last presidential election when moderate lefty oncologist Tabare Vazquez was voted into office as "so unbelieving that even nihilism was beyond them... this melancholic and subdued people, who at first glance might be Argentineans on valium." Or even more to the point, Argentineans crashing from a major sugar high.
Lily De Los Santos immigrated to the United States from Punta del Este with her sisters in the early '70s, just as this brutal military dictatorship was flexing its muscle. According to Amnesty International, by 1976, the country had more political prisoners than any other nation in the world. She was at the front end of a mass emigration spurred by the economic and political realities of her day, when 10 percent of Uruguayans left their homeland. Lily, Alba, Nelma, and their husbands, all of whom descended from Spanish and/or Italian ancestors, packed their culinary traditions along with clothes and mementos: the rules governing the parrillada; the Sunday ritual of making homemade nochis (derived from Italian gnocchi); the remembered ingredients for a favorite tres leches cake made with heavy cream, sour cream, evaporated, and condensed milks though these days Lily can't eat a bite of it herself. The recipes she has written out for me in spidery black script like Russian salad or tortas fritas are the same foods Uruguayans have eaten for generations.
Lily is a round, dignified woman with shrewd eyes who cultivates her own figs, avocados, papayas, and mangoes in an extensive garden centered around a fish pond and profusions of orchids. Sunlight is diffracted through jars lined up on a windowsill, where she's rooting pineapples. Outside her kitchen door and beyond the covered tile walkway connecting her house to her sisters' is an outdoor parrilla (grill). "We've had almost 70 people here for our grill," she says. "Brothers and sisters, all their children, and friends of the children."
"That means your extended family makes up about one-tenth of all the Uruguayans in Broward County," I say, only half-joking.