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Grilling a la grande: the spicy saga of how an authentic Argentine parrilla came to be found in a south Mississippi backyard.

From the time he could chew, my husband, Allan Nation, has loved meat. Raised on a cattle ranch in the Delta and editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, a magazine devoted to livestock producers of quality grass-fed meats, Allan--like most men--would eat meat three times a day if I cooked it for him.

His amor de carne grew more passionate when he tasted the great steaks of Argentina. Subsequently, whenever Argentine guests visited us in Mississippi, he handed them a grilling fork, escorted them to our portable black "apple" backyard grill, and asked them to cook for us.

On a trip to Argentina in 2001, Allan became obsessed with owning an authentic parrilla Argentine grill. Argentines typically spend all day Sunday grilling and sampling sausages, steaks, and vegetables from the parrilla. "Grilling is men's work," Allan explained. "They love all those knives. Women can make the salads."

It wasn't good enough to just have the Argentine beef flown in. (Until we discovered some quality United States producers, we bought grass-fed meat for special occasions from New Zealand and South America, once from a company called "The Flying Cow.") With our friend Pedro as a guide, we shopped in a Buenos Aires Wal-Mart. The parrilla department covered as many aisles as the lawn and garden section back home. Some came with fake brick backings. Others were stand-alone grill works meant to be installed by a skilled brick mason.

Six months after the purchase, Allan e-mailed Pedro. "Where's my parrilla?"

After some checking, Pedro responded, "It's in customs."

Allan e-mailed again six months later. "Where's my parrilla?"

More checking revealed, "It's still in customs."

Apparently, the Argentine customs officers admired our authentic grill so much that they wanted to keep it for themselves. The customs duty to get it out of Argentina would cost more than the grill itself. "No problema," Pedro told Allan. "I'll bring one next time I see you."

Several months later, Pedro arrived in the United States pushing a cart with boxes of grill sections. And how in the world did he get it past the airport checkpoints? "No problema," he explained. "It's overweight luggage."

Finally, we had our grill. In fact, Pedro had brought two--one large, one small--just in case we needed a spare. Eagerly, we tore open the boxes to find four sections of grills, a drip tray, two chains, screws, and a crossbar--all without instructions or even a diagram of how it should be set up. Fortunately, Pedro was experienced in parrillas and quickly assembled these Tinkertoy-style parts into an upright grill, which he balanced on a pair of sawhorses.

Now all we needed was something other than sawhorses to hold the thing up in order to cook on it. We needed something substantial like bricks. Mortar. And a brick mason.

We called our home builder, Billy Raybourn, and invited him over to view our authentic Argentine parrilla grill parts. He acted as if he was impressed.

Together, we walked the property in search of a suitable location for the parrilla, not too far from the kitchen end of the house, but also positioned harmoniously in relation to the barn/wood storage cabin and train shed (that's another story!). The space also needed to be fairly large--big enough for the parrilla and the brick chimney, hearth, and firebox that had to be built around the metal works of the parrilla. To be authentic, we also had to add a quincho--an open-sided roofed structure with seating for 10 or so--to extend over the hearth in order to shade the parrillero, or grillman, and his guests.

As long as we were going for "authentic" (translated as "mega-money"), I suggested we throw in a little practicality and make the quincho large enough to double as a carport for the truck during non-grilling seasons. As another practical concession, we opted for a metal roof to match our house, cabin, and train shed rather than insist on an authentic thatched roof for the quincho.

Okay! A tree was felled. The quincho corners were staked. A foundation was dug. The masons showed up with their trowels, bricks, and wheelbarrows and looked to us for instructions.

We regaled them with photographs from our Argentine travels. We showed them the grill works propped on the sawhorses. And we handed them the only diagram we had of how it should all come together. The diagram--in Spanish--was a snapshot we'd taken in the Argentine Wal-Mart. But we had measurements as a guide. On one estancia, or ranch, we had used my notebook folded over and over on itself to mark off the height, depth, and width of a typical parrilla--four notebooks high by five notebooks wide and four deep.

They were good sports and masters of their mortar, capable of building a workable, Katrina-proof chimney and carport, or quincho, in the correct proportions.

Several components distinguish a parrilla from other grills. First, the grill bars are V-shaped and tilted so that excess fat can run off into a narrow tray that stretches the length of the grill bars. Our parrilla has four sections of grill bars. This allows only one section to be used when cooking for two, and one section can just fit in the dishwasher for cleanup. A crank handle on the outside of the masonry allows the grill bars to be lowered or raised. Some parrillas more elaborate (believe it or not) than ours have a firebox on one side where a fire is built with wood. The coals are then moved to the grilling area when they reach the proper degree of white-hot.

The grill doesn't necessarily need a chimney to work. In fact, after hearing Allan describe Argentine parrillas, one California rancher welded one onto an old truck bed so that he could hook it up to an all-terrain vehicle and haul it around his pastures for picnics in various scenic locations.

The meat itself adds to the authenticity of the experience. Cattle that are 100-percent grass-fed--never having been fed grain--give meats a real beefy taste. All meats should be slowly cooked far enough from the coals so that flame and smoke never touch the meat. Steaks should only be turned once after the top side begins to "shhhhssh" from emerging juices.

Due to the flavorful taste of grass-fed meats, they require little or no seasoning. A few fresh herbs or a sprinkle of sea salt is all the spice necessary so that the flavor of the meat comes through. How much salt you use is a matter of taste and experimentation. One of Arian's grilling mistakes was experimenting with salt rubs during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when we had no electricity and, worse, no water.

He is still working to perfect his grilling techniques. So far, he has decided that the ideal way to produce the best Argentine meal using our parrilla is to fly in Gaspar Tatarian, our Argentine friend who is a restaurateur in New York, and ask him to do the grilling for us.
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Author:Thornton, Carolyn
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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