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.
October 18, 2011
The adoption of the automobile as our primary mode of transportation has impacted how we eat, notably with the proliferation of quick-service roadside restaurants replete with convenience foods. We usually think of fried and grilled fare when it comes to eating on the go, but another breed of convenience food is a direct result of the rise of car culture: road-kill cuisine. Although the concept is a source of class-conscious condescension—just search the internet for jokes on this theme—some see the roadside-cum-deli aisle as an acceptable, if not preferable, alternative to supermarket meats.
One such person is 44-year-old taxidermist Jonathan McGowan of Dorset, England. He’s been noshing on scavenged meat for decades. Living near a chicken production site prompted McGowan to seriously consider the source of his meats, especially after seeing farm-raised animals living in inhumane conditions. ”I used to cut up dead animals to see their insides,” McGowan told the Daily Mail, “and when I did, all I could see was fresh, organic meat, better than the kind I had seen in the supermarkets. So I never saw a problem with cooking and eating it.” His food-sourcing methods have resulted in kitchen creations such as owl curry and badger stew. And he’s not alone. Road-kill cuisine has inspired regional cook-off competitions and even cookbooks.
With the Humane Society of the United States estimating that approximately one million animals are killed by traffic daily, the idea of “waste not, want not” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Even PETA, renowned for its anti-animal-eating stance, has said the consumption of road kill “is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket.”
But is it safe? Unlike the average Joe, hunters and people like McGowan know their way around dead animals and are trained to spot the red flags that signify meat isn’t safe to eat. And while farm-raised meats undergo federally mandated health inspections,what you find by the side of the road may expose you to pathogens such as E. coli or tularemia, a bacterial infection common in rabbits and other rodents. Furthermore, a collision with a car can cause an animal such extensive internal damage—which might not be readily apparent—that it is unsuitable for consumption.
First off, if you hit an animal, call the local authorities. Regulations on what you are allowed to lift from the roadside vary from state to state, and if an animal is still living after a collision, it should be tended to as humanely as possible. And while you might be hard pressed to find formal instruction on how to handle road kill you bring home, you might try a hunter education course to get a sense of how to handle animals killed in the wild, be it by bullet or bumper. Those of you who prefer supermarket meat can satisfy yourselves with a round of road-kill bingo during your next car ride.
September 26, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked for stories about food and independence: your decisions about what, how or where you eat; the first meal you cooked; or about how you eat to the beat of a different drummer. Debra Kelly and her husband have taken food independence to an extreme: They have lived on 23 remote acres in California since 1978, experimenting with solar energy and eating organic, home-grown food. And sometimes fighting for it.
Confronting a Nemesis
By Debra Kelly
I live on a remote mountaintop. A four-wheel-drive kind of place. Living here requires independent thinking and action. In this place are deep canyons and heavy forests of redwood, oak, pine and madrone, crisscrossed with old logging trails and overgrown with brush. Our homestead is a solitary retreat. It is modest and handmade. We travel along eight miles of pitted, potholed and curvy dirt road—like a stream bed in some parts—until we reach pavement. In this setting, independent people and food grow and thrive.
Living far from a town makes you self-reliant. We planted a garden and fruit trees to supplement our diet. We were well on our way to a nice harvest of veggies, and our fruit trees were still young and fragile, when we noticed ominous signs on the ground. A presence pressing in on us. It ravaged and stalked our homestead in the middle of the night. It peeled the limbs off our young fruit trees, like you would peel a banana. It tore a path of destruction through our place like a rototiller without a driver. It was wily and fast afoot. It has tusks it could use if it were challenged. Although this independent food is prized by famous chefs around the globe, it was my nemesis. It was the wild pig.
Wild pigs began roaming the mountains in increasing numbers. One pair was so bold that they dared saunter up on our deck at night! Our St. Bernard lay silent as a lamb as they approached him. I heard a noise and looked out the window to see one pig at his head and one pig at his tail. He was afraid. I stoically said to my husband, “the pigs gotta go.”
We hatched a plan. We knew their habits. The problem was that their hearing was so acute. They could hear our footfalls inside the cabin, which would send them running into the darkness and safety of the woods. How then would we be able to shoot them? They would hear us get out of bed, climb down the ladder from the loft, get the gun and open the door. SIMPLE. We decided to shoot them without leaving our bed!
Yes, it was a master plan by masterminds….
Our bed was a mattress on the floor of a loft. It faced a picture window flanked by two smaller opening windows. We would leave one window open, just to slide the barrel of the gun out of it, as we lay on our bellies, ever watchful. My role would be to hold a powerful flashlight and turn it on the pigs below. My husband would finish them off. We’d have a luau and a boatload of meat for a season! We pledged to stay awake. It would be a piece of cake.
Midnight passed—no pigs. One in the morning passed—no pigs. I yawned and said, “this will be the only night they fail to come.” More time passed and we fall fast asleep. Then it happened. I awoke abruptly to the sound of a snort and a rustling below. I carefully, gently, shook my husband awake. He rolled into position and gave me the signal to turn on the flashlight. So I did. All hell broke loose, in an instant. Instead of the light piercing the darkness below, it bounced off the picture window glass, reflecting back at us, our own image. In a split second, my husband let loose both barrels, out of the window to the ground below. A short squeal resulted and they thundered off into the forest. At that moment, with the sound of the blast reverberating off the walls and ceiling of our small cabin, my heart pounded like a Ginger Baker drum solo. We looked outside to find no blood, and no pigs anywhere. Our master plan thwarted. We missed. The food got away!