Sunday, November 13, 2011

Carne Asado - the great Italian dish

Our last communal meal in the New Town was the world famous Italian specialty - asado.

This needs explaining in two respects. First, it's happily our last meal in our homey little tent set up in the movie theater on Via Fegina. I love the feeling of community that eating together on long
picnic tables, rubbing elbows - literally - with friends and strangers fosters, but not "needing" to do so is a great sign. It means that everyone in the New Town now has power and water and is in a bit of a better situation to prepare food for themselves and access supplies, so we're trucking all of our donated food over to the Old Town, where meals will be prepared for all of Monterosso. It's really hard, preparing up to 200 meals twice a day that consist of sides, two
courses, dessert, fruit and snacks. Manuel's father and two other cooks from Ristorante
Miky have been there full time, all day, working to prepare the food, and without the need to feed people who can't feed themselves, this frees them up to help us in the Cantina and A Ca'
Du Gigante. The bed and breakfast is coming along nicely, but the basement is a nightmare, and the Cantina we haven't even started,
so we need all the help we can get.

So, our last meal was a long Sunday lunch, and starting pretty early in the morning, you could smell the wafting smell of burning wood and slowly cooking, smoking meat waft across Via Fegina.

"What IS that?" I asked, mouth watering.

"Asado," responded Manuel, as if it was obvious.

Now, as an American with a very good Mexican friend (Hola, Rocio), I'm aware that Carne Asada is a Mexican dish. You can probably make the argument for American Southwestern. South American. Latin American. But Italian? News to me.
However, I did a bit of research and found that Asado (senza the "a" in Italian, and without the need to specify that it's meat) was actually the product of a bit of a circle of immigration. At the end of the 1800's, many Ligurians left Italy and moved to the Americas in search of a better life. Though many Italian Americans today can trace their roots to Calabria or Sicily, immigrants from Genoa and Liguria were by no exaggeration, the first ones on the boat. The thriving Italian American community in New York City was originally based in the Greenwich Village area, and the famous Our Lady of Pompeii church, on the corner of Carmine and Bleeker, is a great example of that. According to Gerald W. McFarland, in his book Inside Greenwich Village: A New York City Neighborhood, 1898-1918, over 90% of the couples registered to marry in the parish in 1893 were from the Genoa region. This number dropped dramatically to 30% in 1908. There are many reasons for this, but one incredibly oversimplified way to put it is that they simply went back home.

Italian immigrants throughout history have represented a strong ethnic presence in South America as well as New York, and those who lived in New York City or Buenos Aires traded recipes as they moved to or from their home countries. A dish exists in Peru called Tallarines Verdes, a creamier version of Ligurian pesto without pine nuts, which aren't readily available in Peru. In many parts of Argentina, foccacia and farinata are widely consumed. So, the Genovese immigrants left their mark, packed up and went back to Liguria, but they brought back some Latin American flair. One of their new favorites? Carne Asado.

Now, in South America, the whole animal is usually cooked, but here - especially in contemporary times - cow head isn't the easiest sell to a group. Pancha is universally delicious, and Asado is now a huge part of Ligurian culture. Also, these hard working immigrants were poor, and the stomach is a cheaper cut of meat as opposed to the whole cow, and fortunately, it's one that really shines when cooked in this manner. Like the tradition
of an American BBQ, making an Asado is more then eating - it's getting together, cooking over an open flame for a few hours, then eating at picnic tables. The slow cooked meat over an open flame is basted with oil using rosemary as a brush, rendering the meat tender, fatty, juicy and the skin salty and crisp.

It seems fitting that our last communal meal in the New Town took place embracing something so incredibly unique about Liguria, something from a long history that was gently twisted, as Ligurians do best, to their own ways, adapting a tradition for their own countryside. As we grilled the meat in the midst of a field of muddy debris, people smiled in the sun and toasted each other, the chefs, and the day. Wherever asado originated, in this way, it is truly Italian.

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