Meat, Maté and the Rise of the Gaucho.

Diana Noyce

Paper presented to SAG 22 November 2018

Beef and its production have played a major role in the culture of the South American countries Argentina, Uruguayan, Paraguay and Brazil from the asado to the history of the gauchos of the pampas. Landowners on the extensive grasslands of the pampas became wealthy from beef production and exports and estancia owners built large houses, and employed the gaucho as animal handlers. The gaucho, who played a key role in the development of the beef industry as well as South America’s culinary traditions was despised and persecuted throughout most of the nineteenth century and deemed racially inferior, but by the end of the nineteenth century the gaucho was promoted to the role of an iconic figure in South American culture. They also liked to drink maté.

Beginning in 1492, the Italian explorer and navigator, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean under the auspices of the catholic monarchs of Spain. When completed, the voyages initiated the permanent European colonization of the Americas.

Columbus’s initial plan was to seek a western sea passage to the East Indies (Indonesia and India), hoping to profit from the lucrative spice trade. Instead, his expeditions led him to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, He gave the name indios (Indians) to the indigenous peoples he encountered.

The permanent European colonisation of the New World resulted in the widespread transfer of plants, animals, human populations, culture, technology, and ideas between the Americas (New World) and the Old World (Europe), and established trade routes that became known as the Columbian Exchange. European traders returned to Europe with maize, potatoes, and tomatoes, to name a few, and became very important crops in Europe by the eighteenth century. A variety of crops and livestock arrived in the Americas such as sheep, but in particular beef cattle and horses. These introduced species may initially have looked ‘out of place’ in the Americas but they became an integral part of the landscape and culture of the Americas. The indigenous Americans soon found the cow to be very beneficial for them. Cattle provided meat, milk, tallow, hides, and a major source of labour. Sheep too provided wool and meat. Horses provided transportation.

As cultures merged, so did man and beast. The gaucho (meaning orphan or homeless), became the nomadic and colourful horseman and cowhand of southern Brazil, Paraguay and the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas (grasslands or plains) of South America. The gaucho flourished from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Gauchos were usually mestizos (persons of mixed European and native American ancestry) but sometimes were white European, black African, or mulatto (of mixed black and white ancestry).[1] Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the British naturalist described the gaucho as generally tall and very handsome wearing a moustache and long black hair curling down their necks. He thought them proud and very polite.[2]

In the mid-eighteenth century, the British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese colonial traders provided a profitable contraband in hides and tallow in the frontier regions of Argentina. The geography, rainfall and largely temperate climate (terroir) of the pampas, produced 777,000 square kilometres high-quality pastures that allowed the cattle to multiply rapidly. As the agriculture established by the Spanish conquistadors declined and pastoralist took over the pampas, the gaucho arose to hunt the large herds of escaped horses and cattle that had roamed freely, bred prodigiously, and remained safe from predators on the extensive pampas. The gaucho was poor, but independent. They survived thanks to their skill as horsemen, gathering the wild cattle and selling them in the cities. The lack of money forced them to eat a lot of meat, the only resource they had in abundance.

Figure 1: A young Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Like the gaucho, Charles Darwin also enjoyed the outdoor life and eating meat. On his epic round-the-world-voyage on HMS Beagle (1831-1836) where Darwin began developing his understanding of the natural world, made several long inland excursions in South America. The Beagle spent three and half years surveying the South American coastline giving Darwin many opportunities to travel with either members of the ship’s crew or with travelling companions from the particular locality. Some of these expeditions were spent galloping around on hired horses, camping in new places every night and hunting game for supper. Like, ‘the savage returning to his wild and native habits,’ wrote Darwin,[4] they hunted guano, agouti, jaguar, llama, fox and the cougar, and Darwin delighted in their flesh. Darwin recalled that he took his bed, a kettle and cooking pot, a plate and basin, and after riding all day, he and his companions cooked for themselves, always bivouacking in the open air.[5] ‘With the sky as my roof and the ground as my table,’ said Darwin, the excursions felt like an extension of his carefree days when a university undergraduate at Cambridge.[6] At university Darwin was often found hunting with like-minded friends. Darwin was fond of shooting and often dined on the ‘kill of the day’ with his companions. Darwin was a happy camper.

Leading a largely poor, nomadic life, the horse constituted most of what the gaucho owned in the world. To the gaucho, ‘a man without a horse was a man without legs.’[3] Being at one with their horse they slept in the open with their steed. Living a life on horseback required a unique style of clothing. A gaucho wore a poncho, generally brightly coloured which was a square of cloth with a hole for the head that doubled as a saddle blanket and as sleeping gear. Sheepskin was also used as a saddle blanket as well as a soft under blanket when sleeping. They wore broad-brimmed hats, or a beret, long-sleeved cotton shirts, a neckerchief and loose baggy pants, called bombachas, gathered at the ankles and covering the tops of high leather boots. The boots were made from the hide of the hock joint of a horse’s hind leg that was put on fresh and left to dry on the legs. He wore spurs on his boots and had a long-bladed facón (knife) secured with a wide leather belt festooned with silver coins known as a rastra, girding his waist. The gaucho generally did not carry a gun unless enlisted by an army, but instead carried a lasso and bolas. Their apparel has changed somewhat from the traditional dress, manufactured leather boots have replaced the horses hide boots, and now gauchos generally wear jeans instead of the traditional bombachas, but many similarities remain.

Figure 2: The South American Gaucho with all his possessions – a horse, bolas, lasso and facón (knife).

It was on these inland excursions that Darwin savoured the flesh-eating cuisine of the gauchos. Darwin’s approach to the discovery of a new dish and the way it was cooked was with the same sense of excitement as when he discovered a new specimen to add to his extensive natural history collection. In the East Falklands Darwin took rides out from Port Louis with some gauchos who made a living from hunting. What intrigued Darwin was how the gauchos cooked their meat. With no native tree cover, most of the Falkland Islands are covered by grasses, ferns, and dwarf shrubs. As there was very little brushwood for making a fire, the gauchos made ‘as hot a fire as coals’, using the bones of a bullock lately killed but with all the flesh picked off by the vultures. After killing a beast, the meat was then roasted in the traditional way in its skin. Darwin was served carne con cuero – meat with the skin. Darwin enjoyed the dish so much he stated, ‘I am sure if any worthy alderman was to taste it; carne con cuero would soon be celebrated in London.’[7]

Figure 3: Maté made with the leaves of the South American yerba shrub.

The meal was completed with the smoking of a cigarette and the passing around of maté, an herbal tea-like drink. The hot tea was originally cultivated by an indigenous group, the Guaranis. It is consumed in a specially made gourd (maté) filled with herbs and hot water and drunk through a bombilla—a metallic straw. The herbal infusion, rich in mateine (an analog of caffeine) and nutrients, is made from the leaves of the yerba maté, a South

American small tree or shrub, and a species of holly. It tastes a lot like a combination of vegetables, herbs, and grass. It is similar to that of some varieties of green tea. Meat and maté were the mainstays of the gaucho’s diet and the brewing and consumption of this herb was a several times a day ritual. However, according to Darwin, when travelling, the gaucho ate only twice a day, at night and just before daylight. By this means one fire served the day.[8] A diet of meat and maté was very agreeable to Darwin, he claimed it ‘energised him’. He also said the gaucho’s diet allowed them, ‘like other carnivores, to go a long time without food and could withstand much exposure’ [to the elements].[9]

Although Darwin was ever curious about the taste of the regional delights of South America, he was at times struck with horror. In September 1833, when Darwin travelled with the gauchos in northern Patagonia (Argentina), he was served a favoured dish of the region. In savouring the very white flesh, which to Darwin tasted remarkably like veal, his delight turned to disgust when it was revealed to be the flesh of a puma (cougar) foetus. [10] Darwin also drew the line at drinking the warm steaming blood of a recently slaughtered beast.

Another much loved dish of the gauchos was beef tongue. Sometimes the gauchos killed a cow for their tongues only, and perhaps a steak or two, taken from the breast. The carcass was then left to rot. The tongue and steaks were cooked asado, that is, the meat was slowly roasted over a pit of fire, recounted Darwin. [11] On the mainland, the gauchos favoured cooking asado with the wood of the quebracho tree because it emitted little smoke. Smoke tends to adversely flavour the meat. Chinchulines, the animal’s intestine, was also much desired by the gauchos. Thus, Darwin witnessed the emergence of a culinary culture that endures today, the asado and the parrilla (mixed grill).

It was the Spanish conquistadors thatspread their passion for the asado

method of cooking to the peoples of South America. A passion that took root almost immediately, thanks also to the huge herd of beef cattle that grazed on the vast pampa plains. As undisputed masters of these plains and meat being the gaucho’s main source of nourishment, it is no wonder they became so good at cooking it and not by chance that the gauchos were the first asadores.

Figure 4: Gaucho throwing bolas.

As the gaucho did not carry a gun, what also intrigued Darwin was the technique with which the gaucho brought down an animal to be slaughtered, a practice he never mastered. A bola (plural: bolas or bolases; from Spanish bola, ‘ball’, also known as boleadoras), is a type of throwing weapon made of two or three iron or stone weights shaped like a ball on the ends of interconnected cords, used to capture animals by entangling their legs. Bolas of three weights are usually designed with two shorter cords with heavier weights, and one longer cord with a light weight. The heavier weights fly at the front parallel to each other, hit either side of the legs, and the lighter weight goes around, wrapping up the legs. Bolas were most famously used by the gauchos, but have been found in excavations of Pre-Columbian settlements, especially in Patagonia (present day Argentina), where indigenous peoples (particularly the Tehuelche) used them to catch up to a 91 kilogram guanaco (llama-like mammals), rhea (an animal similar to the ostrich) and ñandú (birds). The Mapuche and the Inca army used them in battle. Researchers have also found bolas in North America at the Calico Early Man Site.[12][13]

The gauchos found that the bolas were very effective when thrown from a horse. Once the animal was brought down with the bolas, the animal was lassoed, then the gaucho dismounted his horse, retrieved a facón or large knife tucked into the rear of his rastra or chiripa girding the waist, then cut the animals throat, bloodletting the animal. The facón was not only a killing instrument but typically the only eating instrument that a gaucho carried.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the pastoral economy of the pampas or grasslands of Argentina and Uruguay were transformed to a more intensive use of the land. After liberation from Spain in 1816 and the annihilation through introduced diseases and the genocide of the indigenous population who roamed the plains, landowners began to employ immigrants (chiefly Italians) to cultivate their estancias (ranches), sowing alfalfa for fodder, corn (maize), and finer pastures. They fenced their lands, built fine houses and imported purebred sheep and cattle such as angus, Hereford and shorthorn from Great Britain replacing the scrub herds the gauchos once hunted.[14] The once free-spirited and reputedly unruly gauchos were now hired as skilled animal handlers. The nomadic life of the gaucho declined over time and many began living in mud huts with a straw roof and raised families, however, marriage was rare. Some gauchos, though, became large landowners themselves with considerable herds of cattle.

Naturalist William Hudson, recounted in his autobiography Far Away and Long Ago the flesh-eating diet of the gauchos at the end of the nineteenth century. To paraphrase Hudson, there was no attempt at cultivation, he stated, and no vegetables were eaten except onions and garlic, which were bought at the general stores (pulperias) along with bread, rice, maté tea, oil, vinegar, raisins, cinnamon, pepper and cumin seeds to add flavour to the monotonous diet of cow’s flesh, mutton and pig. The only game eaten was the rhea and the hard-shelled armadillo. Having no guns with which to shoot, wild duck, plover, and other such birds were rarely or never tasted by the gaucho.[15]

Despite the gaucho’s reputation as a skilled animal handler, for much of the nineteenth century the gaucho was despised and persecuted and considered racially inferior. They were considered drunks, gamblers and thieves, as well as bloodthirsty, with much bloodshed said Darwin, resulting ‘by the habit of constantly wearing a knife [facón]’.[16] Even the guitar strumming music of the gaucho was described in derogatory terms. Moreover, as the country began to modernise, the gaucho’s way of life was seen, according to Argentine musicologist Melanie Plesch, as an obstacle to progress.[17] However, it was during the Wars of Independence (1810-1816) (from the Spanish Conquistadors) that he began gaining noble status in the minds of the colonist by joining the liberation armies. Being brave, a good horseman and a land-living expert, the gaucho proved to be a valuable soldier. He came to represent bravery, honour and freedom of the rural man.[18] He gained further recognition and status with the publication of José Hernández’s epic poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro(1872). The poem, said Plesch, supplied a historical link to the gauchos’ contribution to the national development of Argentina for the major role he played in Argentina’s independence from Spain. His reputation accelerated even further towards the end of the century, reaching its peak during the 1910s. [19]

This acceleration coincided in part with the establishment in 1875 of The Rural Exhibition, an annual agricultural and livestock show held to this day in the Palermo section of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The event, organised by The Argentine Rural Society, both the Exhibition and the Society are known locally as La Rural. It was established as a farming show, with breeders arriving from all over the country to exhibit their livestock, particularly cattle. It gave the gaucho an opportunity to demonstrate his skill with a horse and cattle handling. It is a major social event and is accompanied by balls and other events. Thus, ultimately, says Plesch, the gaucho was pronounced quintessentially all things Argentinean and used as a source for the construction of a distinctive Argentine high culture, including the visual arts, literature and music.[20]

However, in the last one hundred years, South American has undergone political, social and economic upheaval on a grand scale. Although beyond the scope of this paper, suffice to say, that in particular, Argentina has endured many military coups, economic depression, corruption, including in the beef production industry, massacres and genocide as well as the country’s 1982 defeat by the United Kingdom in the Falklands War. In tandem with this, Argentina became known internationally for its excellent beef, a result of cattle bred on the wide grasslands of the pampas. But things changed considerably in the past couple of decades. The economy was restructured with a focus on grain exports. According to environmentalist Gustavo Marino, Argentina has lost 60 percent of its grasslands due to the expansion of intensive agriculture (such as soy and rice production), commercial forestry, and the urbanisation of the most valuable portions of land, that is, the areas not prone to flooding.[21] Significantly, about 90% of cattle breeding is nowadays geared to the domestic market in Argentina and animal production is now done with more intensive methods. Cows are kept in closed pens or feedlots which has immense environmental consequences, says journalist Leonardo Rossi.[22] Corollary, the traditional gaucho way of life is also dwindling in the Argentine countryside. However, the practices of Argentina’s gauchos in caring for cattle, stated journalist Fabiana Frayassinet, have joined together with modern agricultural technology in a unique alliance between stockbreeders and environmentalists aimed at preserving biodiversity in the pampas, boosting productivity, and enhancing the flavour of the beef. Beef production in Argentina is increasing, albeit mainly for the local market.[23]

Yet, if the gaucho culture and way of life is dwindling in the countryside, it is kept alive in the city through the weekly Sunday cowboy market at Mataderos, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It always draws a crowd and patrons can enjoy the dancing, music, singing, poetry and the horsemanship of the gauchos as well as the traditional mixed grill (a la parrilla).

Likewise, these days, many gauchos have discovered the exciting industry of tourism. Local and international tourists relish in the chance to stay at an estancia, as this author has done, and interact with a real-life gaucho. The modern gaucho has learnt to become an excellent host and entertainer, performing duties such as cooking asado or parrilla, playing music, guiding horseback rides and talking about their culture and traditions. Between entertaining tourists, however, gauchos still muster cattle, shear sheep and brand horses, but has exchanged the horse for a 4×4 pick-up truck or what we call in Australia a ute, and changed the bombachas for denim jeans. Despite, or in spite of the aforementioned upheavals the Argentines have endured, the gaucho has remained a symbol of nationalism.

Similarly, the Argentines and Uruguay’s people continue the traditional and social event of having or attending a barbeque (Asado or parrilla) and drinking maté. During weekends and holidays, it’s a common practice to eat with friends and family. Time is spent chatting, listening to music and drinking as the meat is slowly cooking. 

Meat and maté are deeply rooted in the culinary culture of both Argentina and Uruguay and its people are famously enthusiastic beef consumers. In 2017 the annual beef and veal consumption in Uruguay globally ranked first with 43.2 kilograms per capita, followed by Argentina at 41.2 kilograms per capita. [24] Although Argentine cuisine in particular, has been heavily influenced by Italian and Spanish cuisines and though it is a country of many immigrants particularly from Europe who brought their own culinary traditions;[25] and while beef is omnipresent and often served in huge quantities; it is parrilla, a mixed grill of simply seasoned and prepared combination of sausages, including black pudding (a blood sausage originating in Great Britain and Ireland), meats of various kinds, sweetbreads and other organs, and steak that holds the honour of being the country’s national dish.

Figure 5: Gauchos, the asadores cooking a la parrilla (mixed grill).

Cooking can be done either al asador or a la parrilla. A fire is made on the ground or in a fire pit and surrounded by metal crosses that can hold the entire carcass of an animal splayed open to receive the heat from the fire. In the second case a fire is made and after the charcoal has formed, a grill or a metal plate is placed over it with the assortment of meat and sausages placed on top. The meat is slow cooked; usually taking around two hours. That way the meat remains tender, juicy and tasteful. While the meat is cooking guest can enjoy empanadas—small pastries of meat, cheese, sweet corn, and a hundred other fillings—as starters to the meal. Generally, the meats are accompanied by salads and red wine (generally Malbec wine). Following the traditions of the gaucho, just one man, the asador, is appointed the fundamental task of cooking the meat. Women make the salads. To complete the meal, some chimichurri, Argentina’s national sauce, made with chopped parsley, dried oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, onion and paprika with olive oil is a flavoursome addition as is salsa criollo made with red bell pepper, tomato, onion and olive oil.

Similarly, drinking maté together with friends remains an important social ritual. It is also drunk by individuals throughout the day. Hot but not boiling water is poured into the gourd, drunk, then the maté is refilled. The maté (gourd) is mostly full of leaves, so each refill only makes a small drink, but many refills are possible before the yerba is spent. The hot water though used to make maté comes in a very modern thermos. Drinking maté with friends from a shared hollow gourd and a shared metal straw or (a bombilla in Spanish) remains today an extremely common social practice in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, southern Chile, eastern Bolivia and Brazil, as well as Middle Eastern countries, Syria and Lebanon. Lovers can be seen in parks sitting on a picnic blanket or a park bench and sharing the same maté.

In conclusion, although meat production has changed, meat products have been dominant in the country since the 16th century and to this day Argentina is regarded as a major beef, pork and poultry producing and consuming country. The gaucho, despite the many social, political and economic upheavals, has remained a folk hero similar to the cowboy in North America. Gauchos became greatly admired and renowned in legends, folklore and literature and became an important part of their regional cultural tradition. To this day, the gaucho is a national symbol in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and a national holiday is held on 6 December.


[1] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Gaucho: South American History. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/gaucho. Accessed October, 2018.

[2] Keynes. ed. Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, p156.

[3] William Henry Hudson, (1918) Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, p23.

[4] Keynes. ed. Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, 445.

[5] Burkhardt, ed. Charles Darwin: The Beagle Letters,341.

[6] Keynes. ed. Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary,445.

[7] Ibid, 229-230.

[8] Ibid, 168.

[9] Ibid, 189.

[10] Ibid.

[11] FitzRoy, Narrative, 280.

[12] Bolas. Available at: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Bolas. Accessed October, 2018.

[13] River Plate is the estuary formed by the confluence of the Uruguay and the Paraná rivers. The Calico Early Man Site is an archaeological site in an ancient Pleistocene lake located near Barstow in San Bernardino County in the central Mojave Desert of southern California.

[14] Argentina was created as a new country in 1820. The scrub cattle or Corriente can be traced back to the first cattle brought to the new world by the Spanish as early as 1493. These cattle were hardy breeds chosen specially to withstand the ocean crossing and adapt to their new land. 

[15] Hudson, 66. The plover, being a ground nesting bird, could be caught by throwing a net.

[16] Keynes, 205.

[17] Melanie Plesch (2013)’ Demonizing and redeeming the gaucho: social conflict, xenophobia and the invention of Argentine national music’, Patterns of Prejudice, 47:4-5, pp. 337- 338:

[18] Argentine Cowboy: ‘The Gaucho from Argentina’. Available at:

https://www.argentina-excepcion.com › … › Gauchos of Argentina. Accessed October, 2018.

[19] Plesch, pp337-338.

[20] Plesch, pp337-338.

[21] Fabiana Frayssinet. (2015) ‘Unique Alliance Between Gauchos and Environmentalist Protects Argentina’s Pampas’. Inter Press Services (IPS). Available at  http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/unique-alliance-between-gauchos-and-environmentalists-protects-argentinas-pampas/ Accessed October, 2018.

[22] Leonardo Rossi. (2015) ‘From dream to nightmare.’ Development and Cooperation .Available at: https://www.dandc.eu/en/article/cattle-industry-argentina-changing-rapidly-not-better. Accessed October, 2018.

[23] Frayssinet, op.cit.

[24] Meat Consumption. OECD data. Available at: https://data.oecd.org/agroutput/meat-consumption.htm. Accessed October, 2018.

[25] Between 1853 and 1955, Argentina was the second country in the world with the most immigrants with 6.6 million, only second to the United States with 27 million, and ahead of other immigratory receptor countries such as Canada, Brazil and Australia.

Bibliography

Burkhardt,Frederick.(ed) Charles Darwin: The Beagle’ Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hudson, William Henry. Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1918.

FitzRoy, R. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N. (London: Henry Colburn, 1839). Volume 11. Available at http://darwinonline.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F10.2&viewtype=text&pageseq=1; accessed February, 2010.

Keynes, R.D. (ed) Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Plesch, Melanie. ‘Demonizing and redeeming the gaucho: social conflict, xenophobia and the invention of Argentine national music’, Patterns of Prejudice, 47:4-5, 337-358, https://doi.org/10.1080/0031322X.2013.845425

Published online: 05 Nov 2013, accessed September, 2018.

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