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In the same way that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow and Norwegians differentiate many varieties of hangover, Uruguayans have a minutely detailed understanding of exactly how a steer is put together. They know the different flavors, textures, and uses of each cut of meat and what exactly to do with an udder or a testicle to make it edible. My Uruguayan cookbook begins with a diagram of a side of beef divided into 25 cuts, from the hind leg osso buco at one end to the brazuelo foreleg. The big cuts, like asado con vacio and asado pecho cruzado, come from the side of the steer, the tender ribs, sirloin, and tenderloin (lomo) from its back. A Uruguayan favorite, the fatty belly meat called matambre, is skillfully cut from muscles on the surface of the abdomen. To say nothing of the head and internal organs.
"Each piece of meat has its own personality," Sanchez tells me. "Meat with the bone will have a lot of juice. A cut with fat that cooks through it will give it a certain flavor. Sirloin has a tighter grain." Sanchez looks as if he's put away a lot of steak in his time he's a tall, jowly guy with the impressively sized hands of a butcher. Sanchez has an open-pit barbecue outside Zuperpollo, and the process for cooking meat, he says, is exact. "There's only one way to cook a true Uruguayan steak. First, you don't season anything until the right moment. If you want to do it right, you throw it on the grill and don't touch it.When it starts bleeding, you salt it and then turn it. That's it: No other spices, none of this business where you marinate your meat for hours. And you have to have a good fire, with wood charcoal from Paraguay or Argentina."
If Sanchez had recited this recipe 300 years ago on the pampas of Uruguay, he wouldn't have turned a head. Uruguayan culture was created by and because of its food patterns, and those food patterns were originated by the gauchos. Cookbook author Marina Lombardi writes: "Meat became the protagonist of the Uruguayan drama."
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When Spaniard Félix de Azara traveled through Uruguay in the late 1700s, he wrote that the gauchos "don't eat vegetables; they call them 'grass' and mock the Europeans who do, saying we 'eat like horses.' The only thing they can stand to eat is meat, cooked even without salt, and they dine at no fixed hour, devouring only the meat of the ribs and stomach, which they call 'matambre,' and throwing away the rest."
Uruguayans definitely do not "throw away the rest" these days. But they still don't waste a lot of time on greens. My friend Heidi Gelpi says chimichurri sauce counts as a vegetable on the Uruguayan food pyramid. The chapter marked "vegetales" is the shortest one in my cookbook.
"We eat every part of the cow," William Da Rosa tells me when I stop by to see him one Friday night at the 10-year-old Uruguayan Cultural Center in Lake Worth, where he's acting secretary. The gents and the ladies at the center have separated to play cards guys on the right side of the room playing truco, gals on the left also playing cards. In the kitchen, gravelly voiced Juan Scarpa is putting away the night's banquet: breaded steak milanesa, pasta salad, grilled strip steaks, fresh tomatoes with sliced onion.
Da Rosa's deep-set eyes, ringed with dark circles; his carefully barbered flattop; and his compact, square physique make him the picture of a retired narc. In fact, he was shot twice in the stomach by drug dealers while a member of the Toronto police force; he decided not to push his luck. He moved from Toronto, North America's largest Uruguayan community, to West Palm Beach with his wife and two of his four sons three years ago. He lifts his shirt to show me the nasty bullet scar.
I found out about the Uruguayan Cultural Association in Lake Worth when I happened to be passing a strip mall on Tenth Avenue and saw a sign with just one word: "Uruguay." The banquet room, with its little raised stage and Uruguayan flags, is hidden in a courtyard ringed with empty storefronts. Da Rosa tells me that, with its 300 members, it's the largest cultural association for Uruguayans in the country, and it's really the only place for local Uruguayans to socialize. When I show up, they're getting ready to celebrate their Independence Day on August 25. A wiry guy with a dozen silver necklaces and bracelets draped around his neck and wrists is balanced on an unsteady ladder, fiddling with the stage lights.
"This is where we pass down traditions for the young people," Da Rosa says. "The food and music, the art. We have traveling exhibits from Uruguay sometimes, and of course, we do all the celebrations."
When I go back the following Saturday for the Independence Day party, the room is afloat with balloons and kids and blue-and-white-striped flags, the central floor filled with energetic dancers. I meet Da Rosa's wife, Elena, trim and pretty, and their 28-year-old son, Jonathan, in the kitchen, along with their teenaged boy, Anthony. They're dishing up pastries called pasteles and cuernitos that Da Rosa has laboriously rolled up by hand and filled with guava paste; they're pulling milanese steaks out of warming drawers, arranging sweet slices of arrollado a sponge cake furled around dulce de leche and carving up an enormous rectangular pizza. Da Rosa's family, like so many Uruguayans, is mixed Spanish/Italian. Says Jonathan: "You see this mix in the food, where you'll have like pizza and pasta and empanadas or the bread we call faina,made with chick pea flour, all at the same dinner. "