Take the “Asado Unplugged Challenge” June 12, 2013

I recently finished reading an excellent essay by New York Times columnist Pico Iyer entitled, “The Joy of Quiet”. The article details the ways in which our technological, plugged-in culture has started to lose touch with the simple joys of being alone and engaged in a quiet activity. Iyer touches on the problems associated with our modern-day attachment to devices: the constant staring at electronic screens when gathering with others, addictions to internet and social media, the yearning for costly “black out hotels” with no wi-fi signal to get a small respite from connectivity.

But the paragraph that struck me the most was:

“Maybe that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two journalist friends of mine observe an ‘Internet sabbath’ every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation…”

Perhaps this is what I love most about asado culture: an unwavering commitment to the meal and its participants, free of technological distraction. Asado is, by its very nature, a very “low-tech” activity—a fire is started, wood burns to coals, coals cook meat, meat is carved and served by hand for each guest to enjoy. One doesn’t need electricity, batteries, or an internet signal to partake in the experience. The result is a celebration of food, fire, and a true human connection to those gathered around us. At the same time, there is a profound cognitive dissonance at work as participants partake in an activity that is centuries old, but feels increasingly rare and uncomfortable.

And so, I invite all of my readers to participate in the “Asado Unplugged Challenge”.

The goal of the AUC is to have readers set aside their electronic devices and dedicate their full attention to the asado. Whether you’re an asador doing the cooking or a guest who’s been invited to share a meal with others, follow these rules at your next barbecue and see if you come away with a new and different experience than you might not ordinarily have had with your smartphone or tablet at your side.

1. Turn off all electronic devices and leave them in the house. Ask your guests to do the same by leaving devices in the car. If devices are off and stored away, there is less temptation to sneak a peek at texts, social media updates, or take phone calls during the meal. The AUC only works if everyone is committed to the same level of unplugging.

2. If you’re hosting the asado, give guests advance notice of the time and location of the event, then leave it up to them to show up. Remember the age before cell phones when you had to pick and time and place to meet people and expected them to show up? That’s the idea here. If someone can’t make it, then they don’t show up. Receiving a call or text won’t change that fact. If you think they’re needed, provide detailed directions to the venue because you won’t be receiving calls to give people directions.

3. Tell people ahead of time what to bring, if anything. Many guests don’t like coming empty-handed so tell people ahead of time what to bring. That way, you don’t get interrupted with last-minute questions asking if they can bring items to the meal. Better yet, just supply everything needed for the meal and tell the guests to bring themselves.

4. For asadors, pay extra special attention to your lighting of the fire, tending the coals, and grilling the meat. I have found that starting a fire and watching it burn is a spell-binding experience. The element of fire is captivating. It is a return to our ancestral cooking roots and if you pay attention to the experience from start to finish, you’re likely to be overcome by a sense of distraction-free peace. More importantly, paying full attention to your grilling responsibilities ensures perfectly cooked meat, which always enhances you and your guests’ satisfaction with the meal.

5. If you’re not cooking, spend time talking with others and giving them your undivided attention. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Use your deviceless time with others to catch up with them. Ask about their families, careers, hobbies, etc. Go stand by the asador and ask him (or her) what they are cooking, how the asado process works, or what cuts of meat will be served. Whatever you do or whomever you talk to, give them your undivided attention to let them know you’re listening and willing to participate in the asado experience together.

6. Focus on the food and drink. When not conversing, savor the bounty being presented before you. Taste the meat followed by a sip of wine. Do they pair well together? Reflect on each bite and give it meaning beyond just putting food in your body. Ask others what their favorite dish was or how you might put your own spin on some of the food being served. Offer a toast giving thanks to the host, the asador, and/or the company of all who attended.

7. Before returning to your devices and turning them back on, reflect on the totality of the experience. How was the AUC different than barbecues you’ve normally attended? Did you learn anything from the experience? Did you remember the experience, the conversations, and the food better than you might have if you had checked your phone a dozen times throughout the meal? If you did enjoy being unplugged during the asado, tell others about the Asado Unplugged Challenge. Offer to host your own barbecue with the same set of rules and encourage others to pass along the idea.

I’m not suggesting the rules presented here will become the norm for all your dinner parties, but it’s worth experimenting. Some may scoff at the idea and some may choose not to attend given the strict rules, but that’s their loss. It is not intended to be a statement of “anti-technology” beliefs; the true aim with the Asado Unplugged Challenge is to pay unwavering respect to the asado. In the process, you just might find that you’ve returned to the lost art of truly connecting with friends and family over a great meal.


CC Image by blakespot on Flickr