An Open Letter to Michael Pollan

Dear Mr. Pollan,

Grilling at Feria de Mataderos, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’ve only just finished reading the first chapter of your new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Tranformation. Your description of the grilling process is so like the asado my family and I experienced while living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I just had to write and tell you. In fact, much of what is happening to grilling in the US is happening in Argentina as well. The difference? They could still stop the massive takeover of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Especially if the Argentine people understand what is happening to the meat industry in their own country. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about an Argentine asado.

Starting the coals before the grill is set up… it can take hours to get good coals.

Argentines start their cooking fires with the best quality hard wood available. In fact, the asador, much like the pit man of the South, might choose different types of wood to obtain optimal results for the different cuts of meat he grills that day. And yes, the asador is almost always a man.

The wood is often placed in a stand, not unlike a stand we might find in a typical American fireplace. Once lit, the wood burns hot and as it begins to glow white hot, the asador taps against the metal frame to send hot coals to the base of the grill. These coals are pushed and pulled to their proper place under the main grill. The proper place all depends on the cuts of meat being grilled that day but never, never, never will you see coals in flames under the grill. Argentines like their meat cooked long and slow. It is an amazing event to slice into a piece of meat that may have spent an hour or more on the grill and find its center running pink.

An outdoor grill in Iguazu, Argentina

We haven’t enjoyed beef in the same way since returning to the US. And before reading your first chapter, I thought that the Argentine method of slowly cooking meat over wood coals was an art that had never been discovered in the United States. I’m tempted to take a field trip to North Carolina to learn more though I will admit the idea of eating CAFO meat makes the decision not to go a little easier.

We’ve eaten grilled meats in huge restaurants called parillas (the double ll pronounced like the sh in the sound we make to hush a crying child, sh, sh, sh). We’ve eaten at the Argentine equivalent of a sports club where members reserve a grill and picnic area and cook to their hearts’ content. We’ve eaten the most delicious steaks for Thanksgiving dinner on the backyard bbq of friends. We’ve had grilled meats in chain restaurants and tiny little holes in the wall. And we ate a glorious meal in the quincha of an estancia (not unlike a ranch) hundreds of kilometers from Buenos Aires. All of these meals had something in common – great beef.

Grilling in la quincha (note our hostess as the asador)

When you ask an Argentine why their beef is so good, you hear that it’s because it is grass fed, raised on an estancia, slaughtered with care, and butchered in a manner completely unlike any found in the United States. In fact, there is one place in the US where you can order Argentine cuts of beef.

I want you to visit Argentina and try their grilled beef before it is too late.

An asador in nearby Uruguay.

You see, Argentines are falling prey to the CAFO. Currently, the meat raised in CAFO’s is reserved for those who can’t tell the difference – mainly Americans overseas willing to pay premium prices for Argentine beef but with palates that can’t discern a difference because they’ve never tried the real thing. But big business is worming it’s way in and is fighting to make CAFO beef the norm in this South American country. Companies like Monsanto have already managed to change the face of the estancia. A lot of ranch land has been given to the plow. Not to raise food crops for people but to grow corn and soy to feed both the biofuels industry and the CAFO feed lots.

It’s unlikely that a few estadounidenses can make a difference in Argentina, but it would never hurt for a well-known American writer to speak out on the matter. I can imagine the New York Times would be much more likely to print an opinion piece from you than from an stay-at-home military wife even though her bio includes a love of cooking, travel, photography and a penchant to write about all three. Please think about it.

In the meantime, you have a big fan who shares your work whenever she can! I hope you continue to write about food and share your adventures of discovery. I can’t wait to read the rest of your book!

un beso argentino,

Angie

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4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Michael Pollan

  1. Angie,
    My dad drive here a few weeks ago and brought some Colorado antelope, and deer, and elk. I really pity the people who don’t understand where their food comes from. Letting some stranger “raise” one’s food is like buddy breathing above water…all day long, or drinking someone else’s saliva, in that the choices they make affect you, also. I think slaughter house and feedlot tours, as well as factory farm and small farm tours should be an annual event for school kids from 6th grade until HS graduation. If the big operations have nothing to hide…

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    • It’s horrible how many people don’t understand where their food comes from… not only that, they don’t care to know. They think if they don’t know, it won’t hurt them. Yes, elementary school is the age to learn about our food and our food systems but the way we treat our animals is so horrific it would be considered child abuse to allow kids to see what happens. That should be a big clue that something is very wrong.

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  2. Really great post. I’m reading Cooked now, and am in “water”, so finished the “fire” section you talk about. So agree about the meat situation. We live in Vermont and we have switched to all local sources…wish it wasn’t such a luxury to do so in this country. The part about kids you mention above–I can see the conflict already arising w/my son–about why we eat meat, and the fact he loves animals so much and wouldn’t hurt a fly, literally, even an ant! I don’t want him to now about these things now, He’s only 8….it would be way too disturbing…but definitely in the future. I wish I knew more back then.

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    • Talking to kids about eating animals can be a tough one. My kids are both teenagers and they’ve known for a long time where their meat comes from. We have made the drive through Central CA many times and you can’t miss the huge feedlots and that alone has sparked many a conversation. We stopped eating feedlot beef after our tours in Germany – the Red Cross refuses to take our blood because the years we spent in Europe overlap with incidences of Mad Cow. Yet Americans eat beef every day that was never tested for Mad Cow and very likely, we have infected populations. Each time we move, our meat consumption changes, based very much on what we can afford to buy locally – humanely raised chicken was very expensive in DC but we could afford to buy pork from a local farm so we ate more pork. We’ve learned to flavor meals with a little meat and eat only big cuts of meat occasionally. And my kids like to say, the animals we eat had only one bad day – the day the died.

      Good luck finding a way to talk about eating animals with your son. If he’s anything like mine, talking about the honesty of farming, a real farm, and how animals are a part of the cycle of healthy farming but how too many animals are detrimental to the cycle might help.

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