A chic Miami Beach vixen, black-eyed and golden-skinned, maybe 20 years old and all of a hundred pounds, sits alone at El Rey Del Chivito. Menu in hand, she says something quick and cool to her waitress. The café is three-quarters empty at noon on a blistering Friday, the kind of day when a brutal sun makes your skin crawl. Latin pop music reverberates against whitewashed walls hung with framed soccer jerseys, sepia-drenched stills of Uruguay in the '40s and '50s, newspaper clippings, an advertisement for ice cream tartufos. In the far corner, the day manager rubs his chin over his accounts. Evidently, it's early for El Rey's South American clientele; they'll start filling up the Formica tables in half an hour, kids feeding nickels into the gumball machines while parents pop the caps off beer bottles.
This black-eyed girl looks like the kind of self-disciplinarian who limits her lunches to six almonds and a quarter-head of lettuce. But that plate of steak the cook has just hefted up in the kitchen window with both hands, easily a full pound of flesh glistening and dripping, topped with two eggs fried sunny-side up with yolks the size of yo-yos, the whole business circled by a bristling picket fence of fries draped in pale orange ketchup-and-mayo "golf" sauce is that plate really meant for her? He taps the bell twice.
Girl With Meat. It's a portrait of everything you'll ever need to know about Uruguayan cuisine. This girl's daily intake likely consists of two parts protein, one part fat, one part sugar: a dietary triumvirate so indulgent of appetite, so determinedly, physically carnivorous, it seems almost immoral.
I got interested in Uruguayan cooking through a friend, Veronika Fiore. Veronika's not a particularly loquacious character, but she waxes ecstatic over the parrilladas her extended family puts on. Parrilladas (Uruguayans pronounce it "parrichada") are basically giant meat-eating fests that go all night long. "There's every kind of meat you can imagine," she says, rubbing her stomach. "Steak cooked on the grill a million ways. Chicken, liver, throat glands, brain, tongue, blood sausage, and stuff. Sometimes a whole lamb. Not like your barbecue; I hate all that sticky sweet sauce you Southerners put on everything. Too smoky. Uruguayans leave the meat alone so you can taste it." She smacks her lips. "It's a feast."
"Wow," I say. I'm imagining reddened, masculine faces bent over hot coals, fire licking at the underbelly of a 20-pound slab of cow, great steaming mounds of chorizos and morcillas. Somewhere in the background, somebody is strumming a guitar and passing a gourd of maté, or better yet, tippling wine from a leather pouch. "I sure would love to see that," I hint. "Boy, I'd pay to see something like that."
Veronika grew up in Fort Lauderdale, but when she was about 13, her aunts found out that her paternal grandmother had put a hex on her. Apparently, her grandmother bore Veronika's mother a good deal of ill will. So they packed Veronika's bags and flew her back to Punta del Este, the Uruguayan seaside resort the aunts had come from and where the grandmother still lived. When they got there, they retained the services of an Umbandan priestess to drive her grandmother's evil out of her. There was an extended interval that involved finding exactly the right white bird. When they finally dragged her over to the priestess' place, Veronika screwed shut her eyes so she couldn't see what they were doing to her. She thinks they covered her from head to toe with some kind of blood. "Imagine, here I am this totally American teenager," she told me. "I was scared shitless."
That vignette might give you the idea that Uruguayans are a hoodoo-practicing people, but nothing could be further from the truth. The aunts, upstanding Catholic ladies with university educations, were just hedging their bets, I think. Uruguay is a tiny country, a mere 3.4 million souls, but Uruguayans are in fact the most cultivated and highly schooled of all South Americans if anything, more progressive even than the European stock they descend from. Public education is free for all; Uruguayans instituted women's suffrage, the eight-hour workday, and divorce before the United States, France, and Spain did. The country is often called the "Switzerland of South America." It's turned out an impressive number of artists, poets, and revolutionaries, and lately, it passed two of the toughest bans in South America: on public smoking and the privatization of water. Uruguayan heritage a blend of Spanish and Italian with bits of Basque French, Swiss, Portuguese, and Danish thrown in is a patrimony handed down from generation to generation in their foodways and their fine manners.
But the cuisine they've evolved owes its heart and soul to the wild gauchos who ran the pampas for a couple of centuries cows have always outnumbered people there, and today there are three head of cattle for every man, woman, and child in the country. In Uruguay, the cowboy and the aesthete meet over the dinner table.
As it turns out, that cowboy's grass-fed beef is some of the healthiest protein on the planet. Because they're raised on grass, and are almost never finished on grain, Uruguayan cattle are far less likely, as is all grass-fed beef, to carry the E. coli bug that brought us our recent spinach panic (the greens were infected through cattle manure). The bad-spinach scare has even had U.S. food watchdogs demanding a return to grass-finished cattle here at home. And a University of Georgia study found that Uruguayan grass-fed beef has not only low levels of "bad" (saturated) fat but more "good" (polyunsaturated) fat too, including Omega 3 fatty acids. Even better, Uruguayan beef was found to have significantly higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), shown in many studies to counteract weight gain, decrease glucose levels, and kill cancer cells.
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.
The U.S. Census tells us there were 1,023 Uruguayans living in Broward in 2000, another 1,829 in Miami, and just 522 in Palm Beach (although the number of Uruguayans living in South Florida had tripled to 10,971 by 2003). The Uruguayan community is the second smallest group of South Americans, just above Paraguayans, living in Florida, where the South American population approaches 23 percent. But then again, Uruguay is a tiny country, wedged like a stray arrowhead in the distended belly of the continent's eastern coastline. It's also one of South America's most stable economies.
With the rhythm of immigrants everywhere, though, Lily and her family have assimilated in America. The elderly sisters speak perfect English into their cell phones, their kids listen to hip-hop in their loaded SUVs, their grandchildren TiVO their favorite shows and post blogs on MySpace. But culinary customs die hard. What you eat in childhood, you crave in old age. Lily's cousin, who has long since given up the butcher trade he plied in Hoboken, still makes his own blood sausages in Florida. Her nephew, Max, ritually prepares and passes around a silver straw embedded in a maté gourd the way other guys his age might share a joint. And the hand-built brick parrilla in the center of her immaculately tended backyard is a point of pride. Lily and Max demonstrate the pulley for me that lifts and positions the heavy iron grate; they show me how the wood coals are piled in the metal basket alongside, and the brick oven with its fancy chimney. "We designed this ourselves and hired Uruguayan brick masons to build it," Lily says.
"It must really be something," I say, "to see this baby fired up and put to use."
Say the word chivito to any Uruguayan and you'll induce moans of pleasure. Lots of cultures have some version of the meat-and-cheese sandwich Philly cheese steaks dripping with onions and Cheez Whiz; cubanos larded with pork and pickles and melted Swiss squeezed between slices of grilled bread; the ploughman's chunks of chuck and cheddar served in British pubs. But for sheer heft and chutzpah, nothing can top a Uruguayan chivito.
You've got to imagine that whoever invented this gargantuan sandwich must have been kidding. Chivito means "little goat," and one origin story goes that a café owner in Punta del Este came up with the notion because he'd run out of the grilled goat meat a customer wanted and tried to pull a fast one with a mix of ham and beef. Another story is simpler: Eat the whole thing and you'll feel like you've swallowed an entire goat hooves, horns, and all. To make a chivito, you keep piling assorted greasy proteins on top of a soft roll until you finally just run out of ideas. The chivito at El Rey del Chivito ("The King of the Chivito") on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, my favorite, dresses a spongy homemade roll with a layer of thinly pounded steak, tops that with Canadian bacon, tops that with cheese, tops that with two fried eggs, adds sautéed onions, lettuce, and tomato, and sticks a green olive with a toothpick through the top. When you bite into it, gobs of mayonnaise gush out both sides and run down your chin along with steak fat and onion juices if you aim right, dripping down on the plate of fries instead of ruining your shirt. Eating a chivito is a messy, visceral, fattening personal experience. It's one of the few foods I know best eaten solo. Come to think of it, maybe that's why the black-eyed minx at El Rey was indulging her guilty pleasures alone.
Zuperpollo on Miami's Coral Way sells a chivito zuper on a French baguette that's even bigger and heavier than the one at El Rey. Its version adds red peppers and mushrooms, and you have to unhinge your jaw like a serpent to get your mouth around it. But the true specialties of the house at Zuperpollo are items Uruguayan owner Jorge Sanchez concocted during the 20 years he's run this restaurant, like the vazio relleno (stuffed flank steak). He invented it to celebrate his head cook's birthday. "I wanted to make something different, not just what the guy had to cook every day," Sanchez says. "So I took a flank steak and cut it open and stuffed the 'glove' with bacon and cheese and parsley. Then I cooked it over a fire, and after it was cooked, I cut it into inch-thick slices, so you could see what was inside, and then finished it in the oven. Everybody loved it, so we put it on the menu."
Uruguayans do not skip lunch. Zuperpollo is packed at 1 p.m., and everybody's eating steaks dressed with big green scoops of fresh chimichurri garlic, oregano, parsley, and olive oil. Sanchez's vazio relleno is right in the spirit of Uruguayan cuisine. And so are the grill offerings on his menu: a mixed parrillada of steak, chicken, sweetbreads, chorizo, blood sausage, and short ribs. Or the flap steak, the top sirloin, the skirt steak, the rolled meat stuffed with vegetables called matambre a la parrilla. Or any of those topped with some combination of bacon, fried eggs, spinach, ham, or cheese.
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."
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. "
I lob him the burning question: How is Uruguayan food different from Argentinean?
"The grilling process is different, the way we lay out the grill and the type of wood we use," he says. "And the way the meat is cut. In Uruguay, the typical cut contains the ribs. And we use all the parts intestine, the nape of the cow's head, sausage made from all the little pieces and leftovers, and blood sausage. We eat the tongue."
I'm getting the idea that there are thousands of Uruguayans in South Florida quietly living the life or at least eating the food of their ancestors. And, judging from the dancers filling the Cultural Center, none of them are fat. "It makes me hungry just hearing it," I say.
Jonathan gets a faraway look in his eye. "Yeah," he says. "We do a parrillada every weekend more or less at my place. It's a lot of fun."
"No kidding?" I say. "I would totally love to experience that."
There's a sort of ritualistic rhythm to the way Uruguayan meats are cooked and served: chorizo and blood sausage first, followed by organ meats, and finally the fine steaks.
Specific preparation rules govern the offal. Chunchulines, the small intestines, are cut in rings and pre-soaked in milk. They might cook slowly on the grill as long as four hours basted every now and again with saltwater. Young bull testicles, criadillas, are sliced in half and cooked over low heat, as are the ubres, or udders (I later discover these are difficult to locate on the shelves at Publix or anywhere else). Tripa gorda is treated like the small intestine. Chotos, a true Uruguayan development, are a braid of the lamb's large and small intestines, and for the higado a la tella, they cut the liver in pieces, season it with bay leaf, onion and garlic, and cook it slowly inside a membrane. Then there are the chorizos; the salchicha; the molleja, or sweetbreads; and the morcillas, or blood sausages, made sweet with raisins, nuts, and orange peels or salty with spices and onions.
I've been to President Supermarket in Lake Worth, and I've been to the meat counter at Sedano's in West Palm Beach. Nobody at either place speaks English. I'm trying to find out if they get any meat direct from Uruguay.
"Meat? Yes, we have," the butcher says.
"From Uruguay? Where does it come from? Uruguay?"
"Yes," he says, nodding and pointing to the hulking sides of beef in his case. "Meat."
A customer takes pity on me, translates my question, and the guy behind the counter freezes like I'm an immigration hound and he's just been busted. "No, no," he says. "No from Uruguay. Only America." I get a similar response from Kevin Hernandez, who owns the International Supermarket in Margate.
The United States imports about 300,000 metric tons of meat from Uruguay annually, give or take the vagaries of the market so where's the beef? Most of it, sadly, is used in manufacturing canned goods, in organic dog kibble, and, surprisingly, mixed into fast-food burgers. But we should take a page from our southern neighbors: Uruguayans stay relatively healthy in spite of the fact that their meat and animal-fat consumption is through the roof: 24 percent of their diet (they consume 110 kg of beef annually per person, compared to 44 kg per person in the United States). Their rates of heart disease and obesity are no worse than North Americans'. And Uruguayan life expectancy is the highest in South America 75.9 years.
By Labor Day, despite the hundreds of broad and subtle hints I've dropped from Lake Worth to South Miami, my mailbox is still not groaning under the weight of invitations to an authentic Uruguayan barbecue. "With the Uruguayan parrillada, everything is done between family or between friends," my cookbook sniffs. Really? OK, fine.
I briefly imagine building a rock fire pit in my backyard with the help of my Mexican neighbors, who'd be totally up for it, but the forecast is for rain. My new cobalt-blue Weber One-Touch Gold delivered by UPS is still in pieces in its box.
I borrow a rusty grill. Then I call up my Guatemalan friend Sandra, a confirmed vegetarian, and bribe her so as to avoid further misunderstandings to serve as translator. At President Supermarket, we buy chorizos the size of thumbs and plump, black blood sausages, a T-bone steak that's USDA-stamped but not graded, with a nice strip of fat around it. We find a package of frozen tripa gorda. I pick up two ten-pound bags of wood charcoal from Argentina, potatoes and peas for Lily De Los Santos' Russian salad recipe and a bottle of oil to fry the tortas fritas. I'll use parsley, oregano, and garlic from my garden for the chimichurri sauce. Then we head for La Reina Supermercado, hoping to scare up the royalty of the Uruguayan grill, the fatty belly meat called matambre.
La Reina, with its butchery the size of a football field, has the matambre. We also find chunchulines, the small (lamb? the package doesn't say) intestine that I'll be slicing and soaking in milk, and the mollejas, or sweetbreads. And to our giddy horror, we spot a package of criadillas, three bull's balls the shape of beanbags, nestled in La Reina's freezer section. We marvel over their size. We're suddenly bent over with laughter. I'm ready to roll.
My mini solo parrillada which, once I described the menu, I could induce not a single friend or relation to attend turned out to be quite a party. It was indeed an all-day event, only there were no plump aunties bustling around cutting up carrots for the Russian salad or jolly cousins keeping an eye on the fire. If you plan to try this at home, there are a few things you might want to consider:
Do you have the right stuff to clean and prep a small intestine (chunchulines), which happens to be a foolproof conveyance for the breeding and distribution of the little bacterium we gringos refer to as salmonella?
Can you spare the half gallon of Stoli's you'll need to disinfect your kitchen afterward, when you discover you have no bleach?
Will you be disappointed when said intestines, placed on your dinky, overheated grill, incinerate instantly to dust, like a War of the Worlds character blasted with an alien ray gun?
Are you aware that a fatty piece of meat (matambre) placed over hot coals will create what you might conservatively call a "bonfire"?
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As for the bull's balls (criadillas), everything you've heard about their aphrodisiac powers is absolutely false.
"There's a big difference between a real Uruguayan brick parrilla and your grill," Lily's nephew Max told me later. "A parrilla is open in front so you can shovel the embers in and move them around to determine how certain meats should cook, because obviously some will grill faster than others. And you can physically adjust the height of the grate to control temperature. One of the reasons the parrilla is so big is because you're cooking a lot of different things at once. When you grill anything, it's all in the technique."
OK, so my technique needed fine-tuning. But by the time I'd put my T-bone on the grill (it was late evening by then), the coals had finally succumbed, throwing off a manageable heat. I cooked it right (Jorge Sanchez's baritone reverberating in my head), didn't move it until it "bled," then salted it and turned it. That huge steak had cost me $4.95, and it was tender, pure meat poetry when I slathered it with garlicky homemade chimichurri.
I'd walked through fire and come out the other side an honorary if soot-smeared Uruguayan.