While the US meat industry concerns itself with distancing packages of meat from the animals of which they're made, a group of Latin American chefs recently gathered in São Paulo for a gutsy dinner—literally—to remind diners where animal protein comes from. Like an increasing number of chefs these days, they believe that if we choose to eat meat. there's no better sign of respect than consuming an animal in its entirety. They cooked a whole animal feast not only from nose to tail, but from the head to the balls.
Calling themselves as The Viscerals, the five chef-butchers present at the dinner are part of the group known as Los Estados Unidos de La Carne (The United States of Meat), who promote the craft of butchering, a traditional profession in Latin America, where meat is an intrinsic part of the culture. The group is composed of Brazilian chef Jefferson Rueda (from A Casa do Porco, where the dinner took place), Argentinian Ariel Argomaniz (from the butcher shop AMICS, in Buenos Aires), Peruvian Renzo Garibaldi (from Osso, in Lima), Uruguayan Diego Perez Sosa (who used to be the right hand of the legendary Francis Mallmann), and the famous Italian butcher Dario Cecchini.
They first met last year in Peru at a dinner in honor of Cecchini's 60th anniversary at Garibaldi's Osso. They decided to create a group to discuss the importance of preserving cuts of meat, the handling of animals, improving the way we eat meat, and eating the whole animal.
They took that last part to the extreme at their latest meeting. The tasting menu started with appetizers such as blood sausage with apple pickles, beef intestines filled with farofa (toasted cassava), an empanada stuffed with oxtail and tripe stew, and grilled ox heart and testicles. The fresh meat was skewered and seasoned with pepper: ají panca, a typical Peruvian red pepper, for the heart; and fermented chiles for the testicles.
For the main dishes, the group served ox brain ravioli, kidney with bone marrow and beans, and Cecchini's bistecca Fiorentina (a massive porterhouse steak) with blood sauce. But the main stars of the night were 12 grilled ox heads, displayed in the center of room before getting deboned by the chefs and served to the joy of the diners, which included internationally famous chefs such as Albert Adrià and José Avillez.
To finish the carnivorous feast, the group served a version of the Italian classic sanguinaccio dolce (a pudding made of pig's blood and chocolate), and a crème brulée made with ox tendon and, of course, dulce de leche—a famous delicacy in Latin America.
The dinner preparation had begun three days earlier, when Rueda went to the city of Três Lagoas, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, to oversee the slaughter of the animals himself. Since the local Brazilian authorities don't allow the sale of some types of animal parts, such as the head—in order to prevent mad cow disease and other illnesses—he had to buy them directly from a local business that slaughters more than 80 animals on a daily basis, only for local consumers. This butcher shop also sells a "guts kit" to its clients, which includes liver and kidneys.
According to Cecchini, around 25 percent of a given animal is made of viscera. If we remove the bones, depending on each animal, only a little over a half of it is edible. "We forgot how to eat viscera, something that used to be really traditional in my generation and that of my parents," he says.
In Cecchini's homeland of Tuscany, the panino al lampredotto, a classic sandwich made with the beef intestines and sold as street food, is quite common. "In my family, we always ate all parts of the animal, including intestines, liver, brains. I learned that this is the better way to honor the animal that was killed. Each part of it is also a part of life, whether it is the kidney or a steak," he says.
At one point during dinner, Cecchini left the kitchen and went the dining room, blowing a trumpet to announce the arrival of the bistecca. With gigantic pieces of grilled meat in his hands, he told the story about the first time he tried the steak: "I ate my first bistecca when I was 18—actually, it was my gift for my 18th birthday," he said, taking a huge bite of the steak.
After that, diners were served smaller samples of his bistecca, with a sticky and dense sauce made of meat stock and pig's blood. In Brazil, as in many countries in South America, animal blood can't be sold commercially—you typically need to own an animal and kill it to drain the blood yourself. For the meat feast, the blood came from pigs bought directly from Rueda.
Ariel Argomaniz says that dinners like these are a great way to encourage a cultural exchange among the chefs and the countries where they were born and work. "In Argentina, we usually eat tongue during the end-of-year holidays—always as a vinaigrette or something cold. It's pretty curious to find out that here in Brazil they eat it hot, braised," he says. In Peru, for instance, grilled beef heart is a popular street food—more appreciated than the steak. In Uruguay, eating testicles is normal.
"In Argentina, we regularly eat offal, which we call achuras, as an appetizer for the parrilla [grill]. It is one of the countries with the highest rate of organ meat consumption—around 8.5 kilos per person in one year. In Peru, this rate is around 1.6 kilos per person, to give an idea," Argomaniz points out.
"People need to understand that these parts can be as tasty and healthy as a cut of fine beef," he adds. "When an animal kills another one to feed himself, he doesn't have preferences. And when he feels satiated and goes away, other animal comes to eat what he have left, whatever it is," he continues.
"I like to think that we humans are just a part of this chain," Argomaniz concludes.
According to Rueda, in developing countries such as Brazil, meat has become more affordable. As a consequence, people have stopped buying organ meats, and some eating habits are lost along the way. "Even if they are controversial ingredients for some people because they remind them of death, they have been used in gastronomy since the dawn of time," he adds. "And in the end, that's it: We can't eat meat and avoid death. We have to face it and make it worthwhile for the animal that was killed, as we should do for a vegetable that had the same destiny: Eating it all is the best answer for our eater's ethics."