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!
May 24, 2011
Anyone familiar with Popeye the Sailor—be it the comic strip or the animated cartoons—is also probably familiar with J. Wellington Wimpy, the cowardly mooch with a penchant for plotting schemes for how to get food without paying for it. Notably, Mr. Wimpy has an insatiable appetite for hamburgers, offering his famous catchphrase, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” when he’s trying to score a patty. But he’s certainly not alone in his burger lust. With Memorial Day kicking off the summer vacation season, people all over the United States are firing up grills and getting their fill of the little beef cake sandwiches that have become a part of our national identity. But how did this country come to “own” the hamburger?
First off, let’s get a few things straight and define what a hamburger really is: a perfect marriage between a beef patty and a bun. Sliced bread is for sandwiches and patty melts. Bona-fide burgers require a carbohydrate complement specially engineered to absorb the meat juices of the patty and any toppings thereon. That said, as with many food origin stories, the hamburger’s beginnings are hazy; however, author Josh Ozersky did some serious detective work into tracing how this food came to be in his simply-title book The Hamburger: A History.
The hamburger had its forerunners—such as the Hamburg steak, a hodgepodge of mixed meats similar to our modern-day Salisbury Steak, that provided the poorest of the poor a cheap meal. Furthermore, it did not come from Hamburg, Germany; the earliest references to hamburger-like dishes come from English cookbooks. A number of people claimed to have had the brilliant idea of flattening a chunk of ground beef and slapping it on a bun. And trying to sort through all the “he says/she says” stories to figure out which one is correct is little more than an exercise in futility. Ozersky does, however, credit fry cook Walter Anderson and insurance salesman Billy Ingram for firmly planting hamburgers into the American consciousness.
Together, the pair founded White Castle, the first restaurant chain that mass-produced and sold burgers to the public. Ozersky credits Anderson, who started his first hamburger stand in 1916, with creating the modern-day hamburger and having the idea of replacing sandwich bread with specially-designed buns. But it was Ingram who knew how to market the product. A relentless promoter, he hawked hamburgers as a perfect foodstuff for tea parties, touted that they were good for one’s health and created a restaurant aesthetic—stately, white and regal—that subliminally told customers that burgers were safe and wholesome to consume. (In the wake of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the unsanitary conditions of the meat packing industry, Americans were taking a harder look at their food before they ate it.) Together, the White Castle team elevated burgers from working class junk food to a food for everybody. Other hamburger chains began to spring up and by the 1940s it was a quintessential American meal.
And hamburgers have proven to be a versatile medium—some blogs are entirely devoted to the art and architecture of crafting a burger. The Hamblogger combines burger lust with photojournalism to capture the entire hamburger dining experience, documenting the eateries and their own special spins on the all-beef patty on a bun.
And then there’s the Modernist Cuisine, that lavishly and innovatively illustrated compendium on cooking wherein the authors take a hardcore look at how hamburgers are—and ought to be—prepared. For starters, they dispel the myth that searing meat locks in juices and gives you that desirable crust: all the liquid you want to hold in is escaping into the pan and creating those tantalizing sizzling noises. Their solution is to cook the patty sous vide to cook the meat, and then freeze the burger with liquid nitrogen before deep frying it in oil in order to create a crust. (They say the freeze/fry method prevents the patty from breaking apart during cooking.) Some have tried preparing the high-maintenence burger—it takes roughly 30 hours from start to finish, including making the buns and sauces. And of course the finished product doesn’t look nearly as photogenic as the illustration in the book.
April 22, 2011
It seems Americans suffer from “Easter Bunny syndrome.” We relate to rabbits as cartoon characters, imaginary friends, bedtime story heroes, annual purveyors of sugary treats and, yes, pets. Given their formidable cute factor—those adorable fuzzy ears! that cotton ball tail!—we tend not to think of them as a table offering. And Glenn Close’s kitchen shenanigans in Fatal Attraction only solidified the taboo of eating bunnies. Although a mainstay of European cuisine, restaurant chefs on this side of the pond who dare to place rabbit dishes on the menu get flak from appalled diners. Though perhaps even more appalling is the fact that, unlike other meats, there are no Congressional mandates requiring rabbit meat to be federally inspected before it reaches our plates.
Nevertheless, it’s a meat source that has its advantages. It’s a lean protein that’s low in cholesterol. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer carnivore, rabbits are easy to raise, and since they breed like, well, you know, they provide a steady supply of food. These perks were especially noted during World War II. With rationing in effect, prime meat products such as beef weren’t always readily available whereas rabbit was off-ration and was *ahem* fair game for cooks. In light of the times, one advertisement in Gourmet magazine quipped: “Although it isn’t our usual habit / This year we’re eating the Easter Rabbit.” However, by the 1960s, most home chefs were kicking the rabbit habit.
I grew up with a pet bunny. Beechnut, a light brown Holland lop, gave me 11 years of affection, and I couldn’t have asked for better animal companionship. But after reading about how a German breeder has created giant rabbits that could help alleviate food shortages in Korea and watching an episode of The Perennial Plate on sustainable rabbit farming, I grew curious about how rabbit actually tasted. (Word of warning: the last minute or so of the Perennial Plate’s bunny episode does show a rabbit being slaughtered, so do not click if you are faint of heart.) If I could eat venison after repeated viewings of Bambi, this shouldn’t be much different, right? There are rabbits for pets and there are rabbits for eating. At least that’s what I kept repeating as I planned Sunday dinner.
Seeing two headless, skinless, yet distinctly rabbit-ish carcasses stretched out on my cutting board ranks as the most Buñuelian kitchen experience I’ve had. Being used to buying my edible animals in bits and pieces, it’s easy to dissociate those parts from a clucking, mooing, oinking whole. But here I was, set to carve up a creature I otherwise looked to for social comfort. When it comes to cutting up a chicken, I generally wing it—and having seen it done plenty of times before, I can go in feeling fairly confident and competent. But for this, I went to YouTube and watched—and re-watched and re-re-wtached—a video on how to cut up a rabbit before reaching for a knife. Even though the animals were already dead, a poor butchering job somehow seemed like I would be adding insult to injury. I wanted to do the best I could, paying careful attention as to where to slice and which vertebrae to crack and twist apart. With the dirty work done, the pieces were browned in olive oil and braised in beer with chili sauce, onions, carrots and red potatoes with a tasty gravy made from the remaining cooking liquid.
And the result? I learned that domestic rabbit tastes like chicken. Furthermore, with the only nearby market that carries them asking $3.99 a pound, it’s an elite meat that tastes like the cheap stuff. Perhaps bunnies fed on grass and greens—like what you would find in the wild—would have a different flavor, but I’m in no rush to cook one again. Most of my cookbooks advised to prepare rabbit as you would chicken, though I think it makes more sense to do the opposite. That said, chocolate bunnies will suit me just fine.
And in spite of sounding incredibly tacky given the above: Easter is a rough time of year for rabbits (please, hold your remarks). Pet rabbits are given as gifts, but recipients may not be willing to assume the responsibility of caring for them, and these animals are frequently abandoned. If you want a rabbit for a pet, please do some background research before you commit and consider checking out your local rescue organization. If you are bent on buying a brand new bunny, please go to a reputable breeder.
For the rest of you looking for rabbits to eat: happy hunting and bon appétit!
March 17, 2011
As delicious as the golden arches’ minty nod to St. Patrick’s Day—the Shamrock Shake—may be (or as delicious as I remember thinking it was the last time I had one, circa 1978), it’s not exactly Irish. Surprisingly, something on the McDonald’s menu is authentically Irish, and green to boot: its beef.
Not green as in artificially colored (like the shake); green as in “good for the environment.” As in grass-fed, which is the standard in Ireland, unlike in the United States and many other countries, where cows are often fattened with grain on massive feed lots. If you’ve ever been to the Emerald Isle, or even seen a picture of it, you know why: the country really is just lousy with chlorophyll. The first time I visited my Irish friend Annette, a farm girl from County Kilkenny, it was January. Just as I was thinking to myself that I’d never seen so much grass in my life, Annette said she wished I could see the country in summer, when it would really be green.
As for the other kind of green, vis-à-vis Mickey D’s and its burgers, some qualifications are in order: This grass-fed Irish beef is available only in Europe, and only in about one in five burgers. Also, opinions differ on whether even grass-fed beef production is sustainable. But most people can agree that grass-fed is at least an improvement over grain-fed—it’s leaner and its production emits less greenhouse gas. This week the worldwide chain reported that it had increased its export of Irish beef to its European outlets by 37 percent, to 110 million Euros. (Ironically, in the United States McDonald’s has taken flak for importing some of its beef from New Zealand—where grass-fed is also the norm—to supplement its domestic meat purchases.)
All of this underscores another trend in the Republic of Ireland: a renewed emphasis on farming following the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” economy, which had transformed the country from the late 1990s to 2008. During the boom, Irish citizens who had once had to emigrate to find employment (I met Annette in 1992 in Germany, where we both found temporary work as hotel maids) could return or stay home. For the first time in recent history, mass immigration was happening in the other direction. When I last visited, in 2000, this transformation was in its early stages. The dirty old town of Dublin I remembered from my first trip was starting to sprout gleaming skyscrapers and trendy cafés.
Since the bubble burst, agriculture has been one of the few bright spots in the wounded economy. Irish agricultural exports grew almost 10 percent in 2010 over the previous year, according to The National, which also cited a government report identifying “the agrifood and fisheries sectors as the country’s most important and largest indigenous industry.” Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority, says agriculture and its associated professions account for 10 percent of employment there. Some Irish workers who had abandoned or rejected farming during the 1990s construction boom have returned to the livelihood that sustained their parents and grandparents.
Blessed with abundant pasture land and little need for irrigation, Ireland is well-positioned to help satisfy growing world food demand, the government believes. The strong market in developed nations for artisanal foods is also a natural fit for Irish dairy producers. Teagasc recently reported that Ireland’s milk was rated as having the lowest (tied with Austria) carbon footprint in the European Union, and its meat had one of the lowest.
I remember my first taste of unpasteurized milk from grass-fed Irish cows on Annette’s family’s farm. The cream rose to the top of the pitcher, and even the milk below it was far creamier and more delicious than any dairy I had ever tasted. Maybe McDonald’s should try using it in its Shamrock Shakes. They already contain another ingredient associated with Ireland: carrageenan.