A Buenos Aires Memory

In the summer of 2006, I was planning a trip to Buenos Aires and Brazil. I sort of knew this then, but I certainly see this now: my life was quite adrift, not in a tragic or irrevocable sense, but enough to annoy me. I am an academic, and I have a fair bit of free time. I had no family; no reason in the world not to go to foreign places, explore the parts of the world I was interested in. This trip was simply one (and, again, though I did not know this then, one of the last) in a series. A graduate student I knew was Argentinean and had arranged for me to give a paper to the university there—so I had a meager cover.

But first, Buenos Aires, in what was the beginning of winter there: I had about 10 days there, a place to stay, good contacts—I would, by the episodic standards of my usual travel, really get to know this place, I thought. As I say, my personal life was in a desultory state. I was not young, and in my romantic life, I was not happy. Dating a woman I was very ambivalent about, but more addicted to the mere companionship than I should have been, I hoped that going away would give me a kind of strength to do what I knew had to be done. At the same time, I was not so confident. I knew I was not yet unhappy enough. A bad place to be.

BA was gray but weirdly interesting. A massive, sprawling city, sort of like an unending Queens, with certain areas like a stage set of Europe in the ’60s, a Monte Carlo of your mind sort of atmosphere. I am a dedicated walker, and was happy to tramp around, of course. But on my first day, with Romina, my graduate student contact and guide, I had an experience that completely colored my time there. We were walking around her neighborhood. It was late morning, around 11-ish. I was in that state of semi-dreaminess you are in after a long trip. BA is surreal in a particularly subtle way because it is so reminiscent of places you have been to before. At a certain point we walked past a restaurant on a small street curving out to the Avenue and Romina cried out, “Oh, let’s go in there, they have a very good lomo (a cut of beef).”

This was at the height of Argentina’s economic depression. The restaurant was almost entirely empty and there was an eerie stillness. The interior of the restaurant was done in the classic European look—white table cloths, gleaming heavy silver, middle-aged laconic waiters, usually with moustaches, lurking along the walls, all in black pants and white coats. Heavy chandeliers, elaborate woodwork along the walls. We sat down. I did not take Romina’s suggestion but instead, amazed at the price, ordered a filet mignon. We had, of course, a perfectly “ordinary” local red wine as well.

The very first bite of this steak simply sent me reeling. A wild burst of flavor poured down my throat and jolted me out of my dreary jetlagged state. I had never had anything like this. It was so tender, almost like a crème brûlée, yet undeniably meaty, strong; very fresh and very good. I came alive like a watered plant. I praised the steak extravagantly, and poured the wine. Romina laughed and agreed. At the same time, she told me, this was not so unusual. I could get a good filet in dozens of places in BA, she said. A glance around the restaurant told me she had to be right. There was nothing terribly special about the place. It was no cheap cafeteria, just a typical family restaurant—you could see this in a moment. There must be hundreds like this everywhere here.

That week or so in BA was an interesting one. I am a good tourist, and I walked around the waterfront where the Italian working class once lived, and the stately Recoleta cemetery; I saw the interesting museum, took a side trip to Uruguay, and even managed to find genuine tango places with the help of Romina and a cab driver (I loved the music but the found the dancing tedious). However, what really went on in BA was this: every day I walked until around 11:30, essentially waiting for the time when I could go into a restaurant and order lunch. What followed was always the same: a quiet place, a middle aged waiter with doleful eyes, some potatoes or vegetables, some wine. And then the steak. And it never disappointed, never varied. Like a vampire, I simply lived for this fix, this high. I ate this steak and felt, as one does when one takes a mild drug, enhanced, joyous, at peace with the day because you felt you have already had a great time—given that, whatever else lies before you can be faced with equanimity. My pleasure was obvious, and just slightly contagious. The waiters always smiled with a little extra bit of pleasure at seeing a visitor so (rightly) overwhelmed by what Argentina has to offer at its best. And I, adrift in my life, looking for fortitude and strength, found this ritual simply irresistible. It was a tonic. Private, yet celebratory, it was a perfect meeting—my need and Argentina’s beef.

I went on to Brazil—colorful, anarchic: much more fun, of course. But that time in BA with its carefully calibrated lunch time escape is indelibly etched in my memory. And I knew that by having this quiet but remarkably potent meal every day, I was feeding myself in more than one way, getting myself ready for what lay ahead. 

Contributor

Steven Ross

STEVEN ROSS is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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