Raw meat waits to be cooked at El Desnivel in Buenos Aires. Despite the proliferation… (Carolina Assik, Bloomberg…)
I've been a vegetarian for most of my life, which means that over the years I've been subjected to plenty of unsolicited opinions about my health and my decision to stop eating meat.
There were epic battles with my grandmother, who grew up on a hog farm in Minnesota and believes eating animals is part of human nature. "It has to do with teeth," is her cryptic explanation.
My other grandmother, a New Yorker with a New Age streak, insists that I need beef, chicken and fish even more than most people because of my blood type.
But nobody had ever brought up the idea of taking meat pills.
Not until Buenos Aires.
I was sitting in the back of a taxi, chatting with the driver. He told me he was concerned that his daughter spends too much time on her iPad. I told him I had come to Argentina for vacation and to do some reporting.
"You know the first thing every tourist wants to do is eat steak," he said.
He started listing the city's best steakhouses. After five, I couldn't take it any more.
"I'm actually a vegetarian," I blurted out.
His smile was replaced by a look of grave concern.
"But your body needs meat. You could die without it."
I told him that, actually, I felt quite healthy. But he shook his head and, before he let me out, made me vow to consider taking "meat pills" to get some much-needed nutrients.
I promised I would investigate.
A Google search that night revealed what meat pills are: Little capsules stuffed with organ meats — mostly brains and liver. Um, no, gracias.
Although Argentina has a reputation as the beef capital of the world, I hadn't thought twice about traveling there as a vegetarian.
After all, in college I had survived five months in the Himalayas, where yak stew is a specialty and rejecting a host's offer of food is considered rude. I traveled for months in Southeast Asia, learning which dishes to avoid and how to say, "No fish sauce, please," in four languages. I even learned "no MSG" while I was at it.
Eating meat-free in Buenos Aires turned out to be quite easy. Thick-crusted pizza and homemade pasta are the culinary legacy of generations of Italian immigrants. Settlers from Spain brought empanadas, which typically are filled with beef or chicken but also can be made with veggies and cheese.
The city's trendier neighborhoods offer even more options.
At an all-organic, straight-from-California café in an area (not coincidentally) known as Palermo Hollywood, I ate a grilled eggplant and carrot salad with tahini dressing. A vegetarian spot nearby offered spinach smoothies, quinoa burgers and all the tofu you could handle.
And while there still seems to be a steakhouse on nearly every block, there are signs that Argentina's romance with red meat may be cooling: The country recently ceded its title as the world's top per-capita consumer of beef to neighboring Uruguay.
The shift has been driven partly by the rising cost of beef, with many cattle ranchers opting instead to farm more lucrative commodities like soybeans. But it may also be related to the rise of a small vegetarian movement in Argentina.
Anne DeLessio-Parson, an American academic whose masters thesis is about vegetarianism in Argentina, says the movement is growing. But in a recent New York Times letter to the editor, she wrote that in Argentina, "those who do become vegetarian face sharp criticism and concern — often driven by the ill-founded belief that beef is necessary for good health."
Indeed, my diet seemed to cause many people in Buenos Aires great anxiety.
During an interview at a graduation ceremony for students in a job training program, the man I was talking to offered me some chorizo that had been cooking nearby on an open grill. Admittedly, the sausage smelled great. But ever-true to my principles, I declined. When he found out why, he acted as though he would cry: "But a beautiful girl like you needs meat!"
Others were less dramatic.
A social worker who was helping me with a story joked that he would think about becoming a vegetarian — but only in the next life.
My grandmother (the one who grew up on the hog farm) was with me the first week of my trip. In all those years of arguing, neither of us succeeded in bringing the other around on vegetarianism, but we have agreed to disagree.
One afternoon, while walking in Puerto Madero along a picturesque river lined with upscale restaurants, we were stopped by a man promoting a steakhouse.
He handed us some menus and made the hard sell. I broke it to him quickly, prepared for his scorn.
"Sorry, I'm a vegetarian."
His face lit up. "Me too!"