INTERNATIONAL - Four blocks from the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires, a construction worker organizes lunch for his 25-person crew.
Rather than fetching sandwiches from a nearby store, he’s cooking up two huge slabs of beef and sausages inside the three-foot-high bucket of a mechanical digger that serves as a makeshift barbecue.
“It’s a luxury we aren’t ready to give up," says Carlos, one of the workers, who will pay 135 pesos ($3.80) for the meal served without salad or even a plate. "Without our end-of-the-week asado, we couldn’t survive."
Argentines are prepared to sacrifice a lot amid the longest recession in 17 years -- from buying stale bread to forgoing name-brand pasta. But they’re not about to skimp on beef.
In the sixth-largest ranching nation, grilled beef is so ingrained in culinary and social habits that consumption is proving resilient to belt-tightening. Argentines wolfed down their famed grilled cuts at an annualized rate of 57.7 kilograms (127 pounds) per person in the first 10 months, up slightly from the last two years, according to data compiled by industry group CICCRA. A dip in September proved short lived with consumption bouncing back in October.
The data show Argentina is still much more carnivorous than much richer nations on a per capita basis. To be sure, that may not be surprising considering how tender and flavorsome the country’s grass-fed beef is.
But it’s coming as the economy is predicted to shrink 2 percent this year, inflation is running at about 40 percent, unemployment is nudging 10 percent and the peso is down almost 50 percent, the most among emerging currencies. It’s little surprise then that consumer confidence is the lowest since President Mauricio Macri took office in late 2015.
Other staples are getting hit hard.
Bread consumption was down 40 percent in September from August, according to a organization representing 300 bakeries, partly because of a surge in costs as Macri winds back energy subsidies. Some bakeries have stopped giving away bread at the end of the day and instead are selling it at a 50 percent discount.
“This crisis is the worst I have seen in my 76 years," Daniel Insua, an adviser and former president of the Western Bakeries Association, said by telephone. "A lot of our members are going back to wood ovens as it’s cheaper than using natural gas."
Premium gasoline consumption has also slumped as people switch to cheaper regular fuel, while shoppers are going down market in products such as pasta, rice and sodas. But there’s little to show they’re seeking out cheaper proteins.
"Some, mainly pensioners, are buying less beef, but they keep buying," said Delfina Porcel, a butcher and grocer in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Constitucion. "Most of them have stopped buying tomatoes or lettuce rather than beef."