Friday, May 21, 2010
Meet your meat, part 3
Lately I have reading and thinking about and cooking meat. I am re-reading Bill Buford's HEAT, an amazingly engaging and thoughtful book about food, cooking, and, well, meat. Just before that I whizzed through a small memoir by a chef who cooks for Italian billionaires on their $8M yacht for a summer. Both these books have strong connections with Italy so I am thinking about food and farming through something of an Italian lens.
It's common that I become reflective about meat in the Spring because that is when lambs are born, and most of those lambs are destined for the freezer. It is the time of year when people stop by the farm and light up at the sight of babies frolicking, only to drop their eyes and murmur some question about the sadness of it all.
It is the time of year when I contemplate what it means to eat and what it means to eat honorably.
Here is what I think is sad: I think it's sad that we've come to - actually been in for a quite a while - a time in our culture when it's rare we even think to purchase animals as the sum of their parts to use as food. Most of us rarely even roast a whole chicken. For us, in North America, our recipes call for ridiculous collections of breasts and thighs. We're used to it - it's how we cook, how we shop. "6-8 skinless, boneless thighs" the magazine says. "2 breasts, bone-in, skin removed."
What happened to buying a chicken, flattening it against your cutting board, and using all of its parts to make dinner? Did folks develop specific preferences for thighs and breasts and then supermarkets began supplying our dinners that way? Or did processors and groceries predict that they could make more money from "specialty cuts" priced as such and these specialty cuts evolved into the way we thought about chicken?
I don't know. But, a while back I volunteered in my son's Humanities class to help replicate the mummification process used by the Egyptians. My son's teacher is a gleefully creative man who looks forward to this process of decay each Spring. It helps to have a few grown-up types around to make sure the teams of 6th graders don't out-gross each other too much.
But, the first day revealed something surprising to me. We had a straightforward task: take a packaged supermarket guinea hen out of its shrinkwrap, rinse it, then pour salt in and over it, and seal it in a ziplock bag. Nothing to it.
Except these kids - these country kids, who live or have been on a farm of some type - were absolutely beside themselves at the thought of touching a raw supermarket hen. I mean, this is about as sanitized a piece of meat you're ever going to come in contact with, and keeping the squeals of both girls and boys down to a dull roar was by far the toughest part of the day.
These are 11 and 12 year olds. What do they think they've been eating? And where have they been while mom or dad has been frying up dinner? How can kids out here on this island of groovy little farms be so totally disconnected from the food they eat?
It's a little discouraging. There may be a food revolution out there, with micro farms like ours popping up across the land and an explosion in the vendors at farmers markets...but most kids still think their hamburger arrives in its bun essentially by magic.
This year, we expanded our non-supermarket food acquisition by purchasing both a quarter-side of beef and an entire pig with a couple other families. The challenge? Well, you have to cook a lot of different things - not just steaks and chops, because cows and pigs are not composed of steaks and chops. And when that delicious bacon is all used up, it's time to make sausage out of the ground.
But, this cow and this pig were raised by hand, in the open air, on pasture. They didn't get sick, because they didn't stand around in what we'll euphemistically call "muck," and they died quickly and well.
And all who went in on this deal agree: The best tasting beef and pork - ever. Ever. Somehow, too, it does feel more...honest. That our meat is all of one animal, rather than the choicest cuts of many combined. It somehow says, this is what nourishes us, all of you, we thank you. We do not pick the chops and turn the rest into dog food. Outside of North America, with the exception of Great Britain and Down Under, this is still the way many people approach their dinner. It is most definitely the way Italians and French, although the results are quite different, buy and cook just about everything. Buy or grow it whole, break it down, treat each piece with respect, and enjoy it.
Small food counts when its fresh green and luscious tomatoes. Definitely. But I think it counts - in every way you can imagine - even more if you eat meat.