The streets of Mataderos, a neighborhood located in the west of Buenos Aires City, are quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. There are avenues lined solely with butcher’s shops, or something closer to meat preparation zones, where the walls are studded with white tiles; pausing to peer in, you can catch a glimpse of a clear bin bag bulging with meat, sitting by a door, waiting to be shipped into the city.

Not a tourist in sight, the district is populated mainly by an army of men dressed in white, with white leather shoes to match, looking curiously spic and span for people who deal in flesh and blood, or packaged more palatably – sirloin and rib-eye. There’s also an unusually high number of shops dedicated to selling fridges, an industry which must have developed locally to supply the butchers with enough cold storage for the tons of meat that pass through the barrio. Mataderos, with its eerie, backstage perspective on the meat industry, and its refreshingly un-European tone, is worth seeing. It is a fascinating, arguably necessary destination for those seeking a different experience of the city.

Mataderos gets its title from ‘Matadero,’ meaning ‘slaughterhouse’, a name referring to the old National Cattle Ranchers’ Market, where up to 50,000 cattle were sold every week to supply the demands of the Greater Buenos Aires area. Now, it is famous for the ‘Feria’ that takes place on Sundays at “Mercado de Hacienda”, on the corner of Avenida Lisandro de la Torres and Avenida de los Corrales. Stalls sell traditional Gaucho items – ponchos, mates, silverware and empanadas – while Gauchos showcase their skill, galloping along the main street, clad in leather.

Image via Escuela de Estudio Bíblicos Parresía.
Image via Escuela de Estudio Bíblicos Parresía.

Any other day of the week, however, a taste of Mataderos can be had at the local parilla ‘Osky’, a casual establishment where small groups of locals can be seen enjoying a bottle of bloody red wine and choripans on a Monday lunchtime. They serve only what happens to be on the asado that day, alongside handmade empanadas, frites and salads.

Osky is made unique by its location: it is a parilla located next to a butcher’s shop – a prospect which might be uncomfortable for some, disallowing as it does the cognitive dissonance that we engage in when we eat meat: detaching the animal from the product, the pig from the choripan, the chicken from the milanesa – if you are a suprema fan, that is. In Mataderos, the uncomfortable process of slaughter is jammed up against the final, sizzling product.

In this sense, it feels like a more honest, up-front way to eat meat in Buenos Aires, as diners are confronted by the reality of mass scale meat production, and it is not pretty: blood, guts, and the smell of uncooked animal flesh are in abundance for the curious to ogle. Yet, like many parillas, Osky still propounds the myth of fire-cooked meat as a heroic culinary feat: its Facebook page is dominated by the image of a centaur aiming a bow and arrow into the far distance. In Greek mythology, centaurs, half human and half horse, were named after the huntspeople of Thessaly, so ‘Centaur’ (although its original meaning is unclear) could have meant ‘bull killer’.

Osky’s use of the centaur as an emblem of the asado is problematic: it perpetuates the nostalgia for cooking meat over fire as a heroic, almost invariably male act of dominance over the natural world (although, this stereotype is being challenged in some circles). This idolization of meat eating sits entirely at odds with the tone of Mataderos, where the fantasy of asado as a primal, earthy feast is shattered by the whir of slaughterhouse machinery which vibrates through the streets.

Posters anatomising animals into meat are on sale at newsstands around the city.
Posters anatomising animals into meat are on sale at newsstands around the city.

Perhaps, then, Mataderos offers us one explanation as to why Argentine consumers seem far more in touch with the idea of meat as the product of a living animal than many Europeans do. Posters anatomizing cattle and pigs into cuts of beef and pork can be found at most newsstands, and indeed, one butcher’s shop in Mataderos has an image of two cows holding up a sign with the words ‘COMER MAS POLLO‘ (‘eat more chicken’) written in blood. Black in humor, the unsettling image reveals something of how the psychology of meat eating works in Argentina: given the benefit of the doubt, the joke suggests a healthy awareness of the dark underbelly of mass-meat production. Considered critically, it appears like a gleeful attempt to co-opt the imagery of animal rights groups, and use it to promote animal products.