June 14, 2012
Food-wise, what will you be doing to fete your father this weekend? This time of year, you start seeing ads promoting grills and all the fun toys that go with them—tongs, brushes, mops, novelty aprons—and an internet search for Father’s Day fare will bring up lots of ideas for how to pull together a meal over an open flame, with the paterfamilias gladly taking the food prep reins. But why do we have this idea that grilling is a guy’s thing?
Globally, it seems that this gendered division of cookery is an American phenomenon. Across cultures, women generally do most of the cooking, period. In some parts of the world—such as Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Serbia and Mexico—you will see female street vendors selling grilled food. The cost of starting up a barbecue business is nominal: charcoal, a grate and you’re good to go.
Is it a matter of territory? At the first barbecue I attended this season, the guys were quick to declare the patio a “men only” area, which elicited a fair bit of eye rolling from the wives and girlfriends in the bunch. In my family, women generally have rein over indoor cooking spaces, but when it comes to outdoor cooking, it’s the guys’ turf. (And when men try to help out on indoor cooking projects, arguments over their technique will likely ensue.)
Meghan Casserly offered her observations in a 2010 Forbes article. There’s the element of danger—fire! sharp tools!—and the promise of hanging out with other guys. But she also finds that the tendency for men to grill is a construct of the mid-20th century and the rise of suburban living. In the United States, family dynamics and attitudes toward parenting were changing and there was an increasing expectation for fathers to spend their free time with their families instead of with their buddies at the local bar. Why not hang out in the back yard? Weber sweetened the prospect of outdoor cookery in the early 1950s when the company introduced the first backyard grill—basically, a streamlined and easy-to-clean fire pit.
In the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Makes Us Human, Richard Wrangham points out that in hunter/gatherer societies, the sexes each seek out different types of food: women forage and handle dishes that require the most preparation, while men go out to find foods that are more difficult to come by—namely, meat. Furthermore, they tend to cook on ceremonial occasions or when there are no women around. “The rule,” Wrangham writes, “that domestic cooking is women’s work is astonishingly consistent.” His observations don’t directly link men to the grill, but it makes one wonder if guys are just somehow primed to cook that way.
January 17, 2012
Everything tastes better with bacon, Sara Perry grandly proclaimed on the cover of her 2002 cookbook. Since then, the love of bacon has grown to surreal heights; it’s become a collective obsession. Should you get the urge, it’s easy to order some bacon ice cream, bacon-infused vodka, bacon soap, or even a monstrosity called the bacon explosion, which is essentially a loaf of bacon-wrapped sausage with yet more bacon.
So what, exactly, could be inspiring this cult of bacon-worship? And why won’t it die?
Well, it’s delicious.
Arun Gupta of The Indypendent explained that bacon has six ingredients with umami (savory) flavor. But that’s always been true, and while we’ve been eating bacon for centuries, the kind of mania that exists in America today is a new trend. A Chicago Mercantile Exchange report from September 2010 found a recent surge in pork belly (where bacon comes from) prices, which have climbed steadily since 1998. Earlier this year, the CME retired frozen pork belly futures after 40 years of trading. In the olden days, when bacon was a seasonal treat, buyers could store frozen pork bellies and sell them once demand was high. But in the past decade, our love affair with bacon has become a constant, year-round obsession. We don’t need pork belly frozen and stored, we want the fresh stuff right now and keep it coming. Now, bacon goes on everything, all the time.
It’s also very, very unhealthy.
In the diet-crazed 1980s and 1990s, bacon was mercilessly demonized. It even made the cover of Time Magazine in 1984 as the face of America’s cholesterol problems. Today, we care a bit less about the calorie content of our food and more about its wholesome origins. Three years after Everything Tastes Better With Bacon was published, Corby Kummer hailed a bacon renaissance driven by the production of artisanal bacon, which is “a perfect cherry-wood brown,” and has a “deep, subtle, lightly smoky flavor.” Standard supermarket bacon, by comparison, is “tinny and one-dimensional.” On the other end of the spectrum, you could argue that its popularity stems from the desire to fly in the face of all the trendy rules of food and health. As Jason Sheehan wrote in Seattle Weekly: “The phrase ‘Everything’s Better With Bacon!’ becomes like a challenge: Oh yeah? Watch what I can do…” Bacon is fatty freedom food. Putting bacon on everything (or, uh, wearing it as lingerie) is a statement of hedonism, pure and simple, a defiant stand against any movement that suggests we moderate what we eat.
It’s more American than apple pie.
Oscar Mayer started packaging pre-sliced bacon in 1924, and soon bacon became a staple of the American family breakfast. As Chris Cosentino, founder of Boccalone: Tasty Salted Pig Parts, pointed out: “You look at classic Norman Rockwell pictures of people at a diner, and what are they eating? Bacon and eggs.” Bacon is the iconic food memory of most people’s childhoods—which makes it the ultimate comfort food. The nostalgia for Mom sizzling up some bacon on Sunday morning—even if it didn’t actually happen to you—is a collective American experience. Bacon’s not just a delicious meat product anymore; it’s a shorthand for the fuzzy golden heyday of our past.
The most bizarre bacon products floating around the Internet:
Bacon mints: Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose?
Diet Coke with Bacon: Hold the sugar, add the bacon.
Bacon Kevin Bacon: It was only a matter of time.
Bacon alarm clock: An alarm clock that wakes you with the real aroma of cooking bacon.
Do you have even weirder examples? Leave them in the comments.
December 1, 2011
Unless you’re a fan of steak tartar, cooking meat before you eat it is a matter of course. It’s a culinary custom that human ancestors may have been practicing for millions of years. But is there a reason behind why we’ve been doing it all this time? It could be that prepared animal proteins can provide a body with a “pick-me-up.” In a first-of-its-kind study, Harvard researchers investigated the energy a body gains from consuming cooked meat.
In the study, two groups of mice were given a series of diets of sweet potatoes or beef, served either raw and whole, raw and mashed, cooked and whole, or cooked and mashed. While activity levels—measured by time spent on an exercise wheel—didn’t vary across the different diets, the mice required less cooked food to maintain those activity levels and those on cooked food diets maintained a higher body mass. Mice also exhibited a preference for cooked foods, suggesting that the test subjects themselves were noting a benefit from this particular diet.
Meat and tubers have been food sources for humans for at least 2.5 million years, although without the ability to control fire, food processing consisted of mashing or pounding at the most. But about 1.9 million years ago, human bodies began developing physical traits for long-distance running, and brain and overall body size grew larger—all of which are adaptations that require more energy to support. While earlier theories suggest that the incorporation of meat into the diet was responsible for these changes, this study suggests that cooking the meat allowed our ancestors to gain more energy from their foods, facilitating biological changes. In modern humans, the study notes, raw foodists can experience chronic energy deficiency as well as issues with fertility, and the authors suggests that cooking is necessary for normal biological functions.
November 22, 2011
Thanksgiving is fast approaching and this is when families really begin to talk turkey, usually regarding how the signature main course is going to be prepared. Methods include frying, brining and basic roasting, as well as more extreme measures such as cooking it on your car engine or even in a vat of tar. However you choose to brown your bird, the one fear that always arises is that the meat is going to dry out in the process. Before you find yourself in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, losing this battle and cursing the world, it might help to learn what happens to meat during the cooking process.
The book Culinary Reactions lays out the science in layman’s terms. Animal muscle—the bit we usually like to eat—is surrounded by tough connective tissues that, when cooked, turn into gelatin sacs that help make the meat tender. Trouble arises when the meat’s temperature rises to the point where the water molecules inside the muscle fibers boil and the protective gelatin bags burst. This is when your meat starts to dry out. In some cases, like frying bacon, the loss of moisture to provide crispy doneness is desirable. In a turkey, not so much.
As luck would have it, Culinary Reactions author Simon Quellen Field does offer a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey. But because it calls for cooking at such a low temperature—205 degrees Fahrenheit—extra measures need to be taken to make sure bacteria don’t grow, such as giving the bird a hydrogen peroxide bath and stuffing it with acidic fruits.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to reduce the stress of mounting a major meal. Try to take a cue from writer and Brooklyn butcher Tom Mylan, whose open letter to Thanksgiving cooks advises you to keep calm and try not to over-think things. For those who over-think themselves into a bind, remember there’s always the Butterball hotline to help get you through the poultry portion of your dinner.
November 8, 2011
Fast-food aficionados are all abuzz over the McRib, the sandwich with a sizable cult following enjoying a return engagement at McDonald’s locations through November 14. Seriously, how many foodstuffs do you know of that have their own locator map so that die-hard fans can get their fix? The pork patty itself is something of a technological marvel, with emulsified bits of pork meat molded into the shape of ribs.
The more I pondered the McRib, the more it seemed like a descendant of scrapple. For those not in the know, this traditional breakfast food combines grain with the scraps and trimmings of meat, including organ meat, left over from butchering a hog. The mixture is boiled and allowed to set before being molded into a loaf, sliced up and finally pan-fried until golden brown. Like the McRib, scrapple is a distinctively American pork product and remains a regional favorite.
The dish has its roots in the black blood puddings found in Dutch and German cuisine. Immigrants brought the dish, also known as pawnhoss, to the New World in the 17th century, where it became most closely associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. In this country, blood was omitted from the meat mix and European grains were replaced with American ones, such as buckwheat and cornmeal. Seasonings can vary depending on locality, with Philadelphia scrapple going heavy on the sage, while more Germanic versions favor marjoram and coriander. The dish was a commonsense means of extending leftover meat and avoiding waste, making as much use of an animal as possible. While pragmatic, the flip side is that organ meats can be very high in fat and cholesterol, so regularly incorporating scrapple into your diet might not be the best idea. Nevertheless, it remains popular and has spawned local celebrations, such as Philadelphia’s Scrapplefest and Bridgeville, Delaware’s Apple-Scrapple Festival, which sports events like a scrapple shot-put contest. (And XBox users out there might also recall the scrapple commercial that was worked into the game Whacked!, with a line of dancing pigs being sent down a conveyor belt before being sloshed into tin cans. And I have to admit, the jingle is pretty catchy.)
My first encounter with scrapple was at the L&S Diner in Harrisonburg, Virginia, courtesy of an uncle who treated me for breakfast and didn’t explain what it was I was eating until after my plate was cleared. I took pause, but didn’t dwell on the matter too long because, frankly, the nondescript brown slice of pork-flavored something-or-other tasted great—though it’s difficult for anything that’s fried to be rendered unpalatable. When Snowpocalypse hit the D.C. area last year, this meatloaf of the morning was my comfort food of choice to get me through being stuck indoors for a few days. Former Food and Think blogger Amanda Bensen, on the other hand, seems to have had an unpleasant introduction to the dish, so much so that she turned vegetarian. Though based on her description of being served pork mush, I’m not sure that it was properly prepared. But, like with any regional cuisine, there are dozens of variations that can be had with the dish. Do you enjoy scrapple? If so, tell us in the comments section how you like it served.