Monday, September 8, 2008

What I've Learned

While visiting Houston last month, I dropped by Brazos Bookstore and picked up a copy of Susan Bourette’s Meat:  A Love Storya book that truly made me appreciate my own lack of street cred.  Bourette, a Canadian journalist, spent four days undercover in a pork processing plant and, disgusted by punitive working conditions and the sheer gruesomeness of the job, vowed to swear off meat.  Her vegetarianism lasted a little over five weeks:  despite her commitment to a nutritionally balanced meatless diet, Bourette developed a protein deficiency and (if her personal anecdotes are to be believed) rushed to the nearest diner, shrieking "Give me meat!"  Bourette's full return to meat, though, which she chronicles in the book, involved rigorous research:  hacking veal at a tony butcher shop in Manhattan, hunting whales with native Inupiat Alaskans, roping cattle on a family Texan ranch, braving carpaccio with New Age raw meat fanatics.  Bourette examines the anthropology, economics, and sexual politics of meat.  This woman has street cred.

My journey as an omnivore, by comparison to Bourette’s, was breezy, boring and journalistically unsound.  Rather than pursuing the hidden truth about meat, I clung to a naïve belief that meat in France was inherently better than its American counterpart.  I didn’t visit any abattoirs, make trips to any farms, or kill any animals.  I didn’t even taste any offal.   I just traipsed from one Parisian restaurant to the next, happily swallowing the delicious meats I found on my plate, so long as their purchase didn’t unduly deplete my bank account.

Despite the fact that I spent my meat-eating phase in an ivory tower, despite the fact that my research was limited to what I put in my mouth and what I read online and in books, I still cannot say that this phase was a mistake or a waste.  If nothing else, I have been able to answer one of the questions I had in mind when I started my experiment:  Why do people eat meat at all?

I get it now.  Meat tastes good; some meat tastes great.  (Now that I’ve tried real bacon, soy-based Lightlife Smart Bacon resembles stiff, slightly overripe bologna.)  Meat is a central component of countless culinary traditions, one of the ties the binds us to the past.  I don’t take that lightly.

But, above all else, eating meat is easy.  If anything shocked me about the experience of eating meat after not having done so for more than a decade, it was the readiness with which I came to do it.  I started out scared to death, but within a few weeks of my first bite of meat, I was gobbling down any animal flesh I was offered.  This is not to say I didn’t still entertain qualms away from the dining room table—I did, and some may say that I went a bit overboard in my hand-wringing.  But if a hand-wringer can, after a little practice, down a burger with gusto, how can she judge anyone who’s never felt compelled to go vegetarian?

The epiphany that eating meat is easy may not sound like much of an epiphany at all.  And, compared to pros like Bourette, I may not be the best candidate to give advice.  But if you'll indulge me, if you'll forgive my callowness and penchant for stating the obvious, I would like to share the very small amount of wisdom I've gained as an omnivorous Tiresias of sorts:

Eating meat is so easy that I wouldn’t be surprised if people assume that it must be difficult not to eat meat.  But I've always found vegetarianism easy and enjoyable.   And if you've ever had the slightest curiosity about what it's like to go without meat, if you’ve ever felt the merest desire to go vegetarian, I urge you to give it a try.  

Maybe you're scared of taking a step out of your dietary comfort zone—I was.  Maybe you'll have to endure browbeating from people you once considered your peers—I did.  And maybe, like Bourette, you'll find that you just can't live without meat, and there’s no shame in that. 

But maybe, like me, you'll find that it's easy and rewarding and thought-provoking to eat differently from how you always have. 

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Animal Liberation

If I have been quieter than usual over the past couple of weeks, I can blame it only partially on the fact that I’ve been traveling.  The other part is that now that I have returned to vegetarianism, the issues surrounding meat seem more complicated than ever.

In my search for clarity, I have finally gotten around to reading Animal Liberation, Peter Singer’s seminal philosophical treatise on the moral indefensibility of humans’ treatment of animals.

I am hardly the first reader to peruse Singer’s arguments—the book has been reissued twice since its original publication in 1975—and many authors and thinkers have responded to the claims in Animal Liberation with more skill and insight than I can hope to achieve. 

I can do little more than echo what many have surely thought after reading Animal Liberation:  this book is moving and troubling.  Its philosophical reasoning is airtight, and its descriptions of factory farms and scientific laboratories are horrifying.  I finished the book wanting everyone I know (and everyone I don’t know) to read it—not because I want to indoctrinate them to be “vegangelists” (as some have cleverly and accurately put it), but because the book raises issues that aren’t often talked about yet that every conscientious person ought to consider.

The trouble is that Animal Liberation is not high on most people’s literary to-do list, and that, taken out of context, Singer’s claims sound laughable or offensive. People do not like to be accused of “speciesism,” to use Singer’s neologism, just as they don’t like to be accused of racism or sexism. People do not like to think of themselves as tyrannical human overlords cruelly exploiting hens for their eggs.  People particularly do not like hearing comparisons between modern-day treatment of animals and Nazi treatment of Jews and minorities during the Holocaust.

When faced with these claims and accusations out of the context of a coolly logical argument, the average omnivore understandably feels estrangement from and anger towards his or her vegetarian accuser.  (I speak from personal experience.  It’s not fun to be harangued for one’s dietary choices.)

So what can be done to bridge the gap between those Singerite vegetarians who wholeheartedly wish to reduce animal suffering and those who choose to eat meat?

Obviously, there are many potential ways to answer this question, but one important move that shouldn’t be underestimated is for animal rights activists to lay off their moral absolutism, self-righteousness and judgment of meat-eaters.  Animal Liberation is far more levelheaded and unemotional than the average anti-meat propaganda, but even Singer is prone to asking readers to

recognize the moral necessity of refusing to buy or eat the flesh or other products of animals who have been reared in modern factory farm conditions.  This is the clearest case of all, the absolute minimum that anyone with the capacity to look beyond considerations of narrow self-interest should be able to accept.

I beg to differ.  Many thoughtful and compassionate people choose to eat meat for a variety of reasons, not all of which are trivial.  I think that anyone can make small dietary changes, short of forsaking all meat—and even short of forsaking all factory farm meat—to reduce animal suffering.  The simplistic view that anyone who eats meat is necessarily selfish accomplishes nothing but division and resentment.

Utilitarianism, the philosophical school to which Singer subscribes, holds that the consequences of an action determine its moral value.  The consequences of educating people about where their food comes from and in listening compassionately and respectfully to their reasons for eating meat cannot be anything but good.

Judging, lecturing and accusing meat-eaters of selfishness, on the other hand, will lead only to more alienation and reluctance to change.  What’s utilitarian about that?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Other Omnivores' Recommendations

Alas, due to constraints of time, budget and metabolism, I was not able to try as many kinds of meat in Paris as I wanted to.  But for the sake of others looking to increase their intake of dietary cholesterol in the City of Lights, I’d like to share some of the restaurants and dishes that were recommended to me but that I wasn’t able to experience firsthand.

Dan, author of the charming and ebullient Kitchen Geeking, lived in Paris in the early ‘00s and recommends meat curries at “a fantastic Indian place just behind Metro Courcelles.”  If my Internet research isn’t faulty, this restaurant just might be Villa Punjab at 15, Rue Léon Jost.  (And while you’re up in the 17th arrondissement, why not take a stroll through the lovely, underrated Parc Monceau?)

Andrew, a friend whose knowledge of Paris’s restaurant scene outstrips that of everyone else I’ve met, recommends Chez l’Ami Jean, whose Basque-tinged cuisine is, he claims, “pretty meat/fish-centric, very rich, and very tasty.” 

My discriminating friend Katherine, who spent this past spring in Paris, recommends ordering risotto St. Jacques (champagne risotto with scallops) whenever the opportunity presents itself.  Never having tried scallops is the one meat-related regret that still gnaws at me, so I urge all Paris inhabitants and visitors to avoid my sorry fate and take Katherine’s advice.

Do you have any other suggestions for un repas carné in Paris that really shouldn’t be missed?  By all means, leave a comment.

Image © James Camp | Dreamstime.com

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Note to Readers

My days as a temporary omnivore in Paris are a thing of the past, but I’m not quite finished with this blog.  I'm eating vegetarian now but am planning to have one last meat-containing meal with Tristan when I get back to New York in September, and, until then, I’ll keep posting here (with a little less frequency than usual).  How does America’s food system look up close to someone who’s been eating in France for a year?  What are the symptoms of meat withdrawal?  How difficult will it be to say no to barbecue-proffering family members I haven’t seen in more than a year?  Stay tuned to find out.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Le Bistrologue Revisited

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  –Ernest Hemingway

Something seemed right about going back to Le Bistrologue for lunch on my last day in Paris.  It was a sunny day; a cool breeze combed through the leaves of the tall trees that line Boulevard Diderot—a reminder that fall was coming, and that I would not be there to see it.  My cousin Nora and I took a table on the sidewalk, consulted the chalkboard menu, talked about our regrets about living in France.  I couldn’t come up with too many. 

I was in a fuck-all sort of a mood.  Leaving France will do that to you.

I ordered a glass of Sancerre.

I ordered foie gras, which came in three trapezoidal taupe tiles speckled disquietingly with yellows and purples that were undetectable on the tongue.  I spread it on toasted baguette, sometimes adding a little fig jam from the side of my plate; I cut off small squares of the pâté with my fork and put them in my mouth and felt them melt away.  “Rich” is a word I throw around a lot when describing food, but Le Bistrologue’s foie gras made me feel like the boy who cried wolf. 

I ordered confit de canard, which had been speared with a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf that looked like flags claiming a virgin continent.  Fat had seeped into the duck leg, reducing its flesh to soft brown flinders that separated from the bone with the merest prodding of a fork.  The skin was crisp in places, soft and quivering in others; the dark meat evoked Thanksgiving turkey to my still unskilled palate.  The confit was served with a heap of caramel-colored fried potato cubes and a sorry-looking green salad.  I saw no need to touch the salad; I couldn’t get enough of the potatoes.

I ordered fondant au chocolat, two moussy slices in a pool of crème anglaise, then I swapped with Nora for her crème brulée:  shiny, deep yellow custard under a sheet of burnt sugar that stuck in my teeth.  

It was a fine French meal. 

I had spent much of my time in Paris complaining:  about the coldness of the locals, about the red tape around every corner, about the soullessness of a city whose heyday is long past.  But when I boarded my plane at Charles de Gaulle the day after my meal at Le Bistrologue, I could already feel the sepia tones trickling across my memories of Paris.  And at the top of the list of memories to be romanticized was this poultry-fat-laden, impeccably Gallic lunch at Le Bistrologue, this meal that I have no intention of trying to recreate but that I will likely take with me for the rest of my life.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Amsterdam: Pannenkoeken Madness

There are many reasons to visit Amsterdam: serene canal views and public parks, historical landmarks like the Anne Frank House, museums housing unrivaled collections of Van Goghs and Rembrandts, infinitely friendly locals.  

But there is a certain image of tourists who come to Amsterdam, and, as a recent weekend trip to the Dutch capital taught me, there is more than a grain of truth in the stereotype.  Many young American and Western European backpackers come to Amsterdam for only one thing:  the pancakes.

It’s not uncommon along certain stretches of the Singel, the city’s main thoroughfare, to  catch the scent of frying batter wafting up from one of many pancake houses.  Easily recognizable by the word “pannenkoeken” written on a window or awning, these restaurants lure visitors with the promise of cheap, unrestricted hotcakes.  Establishments like the famed and always crowded Pancake Bakery, which blares reggae music in a dark, underground main room decked with pancake paraphernalia, count on a steady clientele of pleasure-seeking tourists. 

Diners can choose between the traditional thin plate-sized flapjack and the silver-dollar fatties known as poffertjes.  Toppings range from pungent and savory (cheese, mushrooms or tuna) to aromatic and sweet (apples, raisins or stewed cherries).  Ice cream is almost always on hand for smoothness, and many restaurants also offer a choice between clean-tasting white flour and a headier whole-wheat blend.  Tables at  Amsterdam pancake houses are invariably stocked with a basket of syrup (stroop to locals), powdered sugar, and ready-rolled forks and knives—tools not unfamiliar to experienced pancake eaters.

While locals take a blasé attitude toward the ready availability of pancakes in Amsterdam, many Americans, who have never before indulged in pancakes outside the privacy of their homes, are unable to approach Amsterdam’s ubiquitous pancake scene with moderation.  Those who have only ever experienced the weak, inconsistent American blend known as Bisquick don’t know their own limits when it comes to inordinately sticky Dutch pannenkoeken.  Many pancake house patrons, giddy from the sheer volume of pancakes available to be consumed in the open, dissolve into giggles as easily as the powdered sugar dissolving into maple syrup on their plates. It is also not uncommon in Amsterdam to see Americans staggering around flower markets or stretched out on boats displaying all the obvious signs of a sugar coma: glassy eyes, a slack jaw, disorientation, sleepiness.

Of course, a wise tourist can safely indulge in pancakes without letting them take over a trip to Amsterdam.  The key is to keep in mind the wide variety of cultural experiences that the city has to offer.  And I hear the cannabis is quite good, too. 

Image © Eric Gevaert | Dreamstime.com

Monday, July 28, 2008

L'Ecailler du Bistrot

One of the few French pop songs I truly like is Vincent Delerm’s Tes parents.”  In it, the singer envisions how his girlfriend’s parents might be and describes a few different familial scenarios, each more horrifying than the last.  The happy ending is that Vincent is willing to put up with a lot—slideshows of vacation photos, slobbering dogs, opera music—to make things to work out with his lady.  Je suis prêt à faire des concessions...manger des huîtres au Reveillon,” he sings (“I’m ready to make some concessions...eat oysters on Christmas Eve”).

My first glance at the dozen raw Belon No. 5 oysters staring glossily up at me from a bed of root-like seaweed last Friday night made me understand why Delerm might think of eating oysters as making a concession.  I was eating one of my last meals in Paris (and, if all goes according to plan, one of my last meals as an omnivore) at L’Ecailler du Bistrot.  I had been tipped that this seafood restaurant on rue Paul Bert served oysters farmed in  Southern Brittany that were not to miss. 

I had never encountered an oyster up close, and the ones in front of me looked like slimy alien mushrooms.  Once I worked up the nerve to disengage one from the grip of its shell and put it into my mouth, its flavor was a shock of pure salinity—nothing I’ve ever eaten has tasted so much like the ocean.  I didn’t think that I really wanted to eat all twelve if each was going to feel like the equivalent of an unintentional swallow of seawater.

I went for a second, though, and a third, and these had a pleasantly sweet dimension that the first had lacked.  By the time I got to the sixth, I had hit my oyster stride and was letting them slide down with pleasure.  With a spritz of lemon, the flavor improved even more, and I began to enjoy the slick pop of unsuctioning each animal from its shell with my miniature fork.  By the time I swallowed the last I was feeling a nice clean buzz, as though I had downed a black espresso or other mild stimulant.

If my dozen Belons got me high, my main dish, homard frites, brought me back to earth.  No meat I’ve eaten has looked so much like the animal it once was as the half-lobster curled pathetically on my plate, its legs limp and easily snapped off, smothered in rich hollandaise sauce.  I thought of a short, charming essay Sam Sifton recently wrote for The New York Times Magazine about how to cook and eat lobster for “a weekend of simple excess.”  The author urges, “Don’t consider the lobster.”

So, as is par for the course for me these days, I stopped considering the lobster.  Unfortunately, actually consuming the lobster took a bit more effort.  The waiter had given me two shiny, cryptic tools—a cracker and a pick—in addition to my fork and knife, but I had no idea how to use them.  I ate the delicious, loosened bits of flesh that were easily extracted with my fork, then I turned my two mystery utensils about in my hands, occasionally grasping a section of the lobster’s red shell with the cracker and poking at the flesh with the pick.  The yellow hollandaise sauce was starting to  smear.

Eventually, the two men on a dinner date next to me could no longer pretend to ignore the increasing volume of the utensils clacking at their neighboring table.  With some kind instruction on their part, I managed to extract and devour all the butter-tasting lobster meat I could find.  Still, the claw remained intact.

I think that the middle-aged couples who made up the majority of L’Ecailler du Bistrot’s clientele were staring at me as the waiter (who maintained a stoic look on his face that made me think that this was not his first intervention between a lobster and a diner) finally cracked open the lobster’s claw for me and told me how to pull out the meat.  I can’t be sure, since I was keeping my eyes on my plate.   It was the most embarrassed I’ve been in a restaurant in recent memory. 

But my sheepishness was worth every bite of the lobster, which lived up to Sifton’s description:  “sweet and buttery, packed with protein, succulent, rich as bosses.”  (The evenly golden frites served in a trough-like plate as an accompaniment to the lobster weren’t bad either.)

While my companion went to the restroom in between the main course and dessert (a rich fondant au chocolat that was twice as good as it had any right to be in a seafood restaurant) an elderly man with a lumpy face at the table adjacent to ours asked me a question mostly in English:  “Was that your first homard?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then you’ll eat it again,” he declared.

“Maybe,” I said, laughing. He told me not to be afraid of dismembering it with my hands. 

I had a fleeting vision of what it might be like to eat lobster without embarrassment in an idyllic American setting, perhaps during a weekend of simple excess at the beach with friends.  Then I had a thought of what it might be like to eat oysters on Christmas Eve, when they’re plump and really in season.  And I wondered what kind of concessions I was willing to make.

Image © E-person | Dreamstime.com

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dear Cojean Letter

Dear Cojean,

I don't want this to be awkward, but I thought I owed it to you to tell you why I haven't been to see you in a while.

First, let me say that I really enjoyed all the time we spent together. You remember those few months when I would leave work every day around 1:30 PM to come to your place just around the corner. I used to bounce through your doors with a smile on my face, looking forward to the sight of your refrigerator cases chockablock with colorful salads—and let's be honest, Cojean, even though you served other things, our relationship was always about the salads.  Do you remember the lentil and bulgur one? Just thinking about that herb dressing still sends shivers up my spine.

But then you changed—or at least your menu did. I'll never understand why you stopped serving the lentil-bulgur salad, and I'm not even going to try. But all the combinations you tried replacing it with—mozzarella, pea and basil; carrot, mushroom and smoked tofu; ratatouille and poached egg—just didn't do it for me.

And when you started serving buckets of bland, watery yogurt with fruit on top for €7? That's when I knew things had to change.

There's no easy way to say this, but I've started seeing another lunchtime takeout restaurant. It's called Lemoni. It reminds me of you sometimes, even though its heritage is Greek, not French. Like you, Lemoni offers creative salads and cold plates, mostly vegetarian, based on organic ingredients. I like its “Bollywood” salad, with curried orzo and lentils; I love its mezze dish, with baba ganoush, gigante beans in tomato sauce, and stuffed grape leaves.

But salads aren't the only thing I like about Lemoni.  Lemoni keeps me on my toes—every day it surprises me with four different entrées. At first I didn’t like the ascetic looks of the “zen” grilled vegetables—zucchini, eggplant, sweet potatoes, potatoes and asparagus with lentils—but it was flavorful enough to turn me into an enthusiast. And while you were always stingy with your gratins, Cojean, Lemoni would give me a creamy, comforting vegetable gratin every day if I asked for it. 

And the yogurt! Lemoni sells real Greek yogurt, the kind I haven’t had in months, thick and creamy, the palest shade of white. It makes me realize that I’ll never be happy with any other yogurt, and especially not yours.

Sure, Lemoni's not as suave as you. It lacks your style, your grace, your marketing. It can be clumsy, too:  using a heavy hand with the salt shaker for its barley-lentil salad, undercooking a few slices of zucchini in its gratins, not adding enough sugar to its homemade rice pudding. I didn’t fall for Lemoni as hard or as quickly as I did for you.

But Lemoni doesn't take advantage of me the way you used to. Lemoni gives me a full meal—salad, entrée, dessert—in truly generous portions for less than €10. When I think about how I used to pay you upwards of €15 for meals that didn’t always satisfy me, I start to wonder why I didn’t leave you earlier.

You’re a great restaurant, Cojean, and I don't think things are permanently over between us. I won't be able to stay away from your açai smoothies and warm artichoke-parmesan sandwiches forever. Someday, when I'm earning more than a stipend, when the exchange rate is better, I can see something happening between us.

But for now, Lemoni is the right café for me. And I have no doubt in my mind that you'll do fine without me.

Yours,
Laura

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Apologia

I really appreciate the comments people have made on Bitten and other online forums about my writing and my project, and (without stooping to pettiness, I hope) I'd like to respond to some of the interesting criticisms I've seen.

Many took offense at my assertion in my Bitten post that “Taking the life of an animal for food is a morbid, ironic affirmation that we are alive.” I admit that, as Luke put it on Bitten, "that entire paragraph about meat, culture, and tempeh is a bit muddled.” This is in part because, of all the discoveries I've made about meat, this is the one that I find most difficult to articulate. It has much to do with the symbolism of meat, its sacrificial connotations. I find an emotional charge in sharing meat with others that comes from the fact that an animal had to die for our meal - the stakes are higher, as it were, when you're eating steak. Certain vegans replied that they sense a higher bond in sharing a vegetarian meal with other vegetarians, which is certainly valid, but I must admit that tapping into the tradition of eating meat has been more intense and rewarding than I expected. However, this is meant to be an experiential observation, not a moral defense of meat.

I was surprised by the outrage expressed on a forum on the vegan site Post Punk Kitchen, mostly because I think, ideologically, I have more in common with vegans than with meat-eaters. Many objected to what they see as hypocrisy; as mollyjade wrote on Post Punk Kitchen, "The blog is one post after another of 'I ate X, here are all the reasons not to eat X.'" It's a pithy summary, but, in my defense, I've been trying to look at meat from a variety of standpoints - moral, culinary, social, psychological. I prefer to think that the self-contradictions on this blog are a result of the complexity of the issue at hand rather than insincerity on my part.

Over on Bitten, Audrey commented, "Faced 'temporarily' with peer pressure, you've compromised conviction, and animals pay the price." I am sorry that some see this experiment as a compromise or a betrayal. Certain vegetarians see the "exploitation" of animals for food as an absolute wrong, which is their prerogative, even if it's not an opinion I share. I think that more good will come from trying to understand the reasons for which people eat meat than from dismissing them entirely. (And I appreciate the more nuanced view of the Erik Marcus at vegan.com, though I wouldn't call this experiment a "mistake" so much as a learning experience.)

I've been charged with other offenses, too: naïveté, narcissism, elitism, stupidity. Perhaps some of these accusations are not entirely without basis, but be kind, please: I am relatively young (though I don't think this fact automatically invalidates my opinions, as some seem to think), I am practicing my writing, and I am trying to find an appropriate balance between the personal and the political in what I write. In any case, no one is obligated to read this blog if they find it to be drivel.

There are also comments in such a low register that responding seems futile. (Although to the person on Post Punk Kitchen who called me "an arrogant bisque," I will say: I welcome your corny puns, sir, but I'm probably not the only one who wishes you would leave your casual sexism at home.)

But I'm always up for a discussion of ideas, so thank you to everyone who has responded thoughtfully and eloquently. You've given me a lot to think about, and I hope to sort my thoughts out and write more about it here in the near future. And by all means, let's continue the dialogue.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Slope

Back when I thought I'd never not be a vegetarian, people used to ask me, "Well, why don't you eat only organic, free-range, ethically raised meat?" My answer was that to do so would be to start down a slippery slope. If I justified eating certain kinds of meat, it would then be very easy to start justifying eating other kinds of meat, and finally to start eating meat indiscriminately.

I've tried to avoid this fate since I had my first escargot in May. I've tried to be thoughtful when choosing the animals I eat. I've tried to steer clear of conventional meat. I swore to myself I wouldn't go to McDonald's, and I've kept that promise.

Still, in recent weeks, I've felt myself, well, slipping: some kosher-but-not-organic chicken here, some conventional supermarket bacon there, lots of farmed-salmon sushi in lots of places.

I didn't really realize how far I'd fallen until one day last week, when I made a lunchtime trip to the prepared food section of the Galeries Lafayette, home to a seemingly endless number of enticing culinary displays. I wandered past the couscous stand, the soup bar, the caviar kiosk. My stomach growling and my senses overwhelmed, I eventually chose the dim sum stand and took one of every kind of meat-filled dumpling I saw. Well, why not? I asked myself. I'd never had non-vegetarian dim sum before, and these looked delicious.

Reader, they weren't. The rice flour dough was gluey and gummy, the fillings greasy and rubbery. For the first time in my life, I truly appreciated what people mean when they talk about bad Chinese food. Furthermore, I truly appreciated what people mean when they talk about bad meat. The chicken was indistinguishable from the pork, which was indistinguishable from the beef. Each dumpling contained a bit of a carcass from a different factory-farmed animal, and each bit of carcass took flavorlessness to new heights.

In short, the whole meal was a terrible, terrible mistake. And while I know that everyone makes mistakes, I'm having trouble getting past this one.

When I was a vegetarian, the worst that happened when I made a mistake was a stomachache, or a hangover, or a burning feeling of embarrassment that would start to fade after a few days. As a meat-eater, I still make the kind of mistakes that lead to these consequences. But now I also make the kind of mistake that, in one go, contributes to the systematic torture and slaughter of several sentient beings.

I feel as though I'm always reading about conscientious omnivores, locavores who personally ensure that every morsel of meat that crosses their lips comes from a beast that was raised ethically and sustainably. But these people—if their existence isn't just an urban myth—have far more moral strength than I do.

The world of meat is tempting and deceitful, and I am far too clumsy, too flawed, to navigate it without occasionally stumbling. And, because the moral price is so high when I do stumble, I think I'll breathe easier when I back away from the slope and return to even ground.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Good Fortune

Mark Bittman has been so kind as to let me write a post for his blog at nytimes.com.  If you’re not familiar with Bitten, you should change that—it’s a great source of recipes and culinary musings by Mark and other food writers who know what they’re talking about but don’t take themselves too seriously.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Other Omnivores: Leah

This is the second installment in an occasional series exploring others’ alimentary habits and thoughts about food.

Talented violinist and singer Leah Germer, my sophomore-year roommate at Columbia, is one of the most thoughtful vegetarians I know.  As a precocious five-year-old, she decided to give up meat and convinced her parents and sister to do the same.  The Philadelphia native is still a fervent defender of animal rights, but her respect for animals is tempered by a healthy dose of respect for people and their traditions.  A gracious guest, Leah (whose name is pronounced “lay-uh” rather than “lee-uh”) has been known to have the occasional non-vegetarian meal when visiting the homes of people whose culinary backgrounds draw heavily on meat.  “I’ve never had a hamburger or steak, but when I’m confronted with unusual meat, I’ll sometimes make an exception and try it for the purpose of experiencing culture,” she says. 

The alabaster-skinned beauty is currently finishing up a semester in Berlin, where she enjoys eating banana ice cream, frequenting biergartens, and getting to know the locals. 

Below are Leah’s responses to the “Other Omnivores” questionnaire.

Name:  Leah Germer

Age:  21

Profession:  student

Favorite vegetarian food:  Indian food (is that specific enough?), like Palak Paneer (spiced spinach with Indian cheese), Vegetable Curry, Malai Kofta (dumplings in cream sauce)

Favorite non-vegetarian food:  tuna fish

Food you will never give up:  cheese

Favorite food memory:  Homemade mozzarella cheese I had in Sicily.  It changed flavor four times in my mouth. Also the bear in a mushroom cream sauce that I tasted in Romania, which literally melted in my mouth. 

Biggest food worry:  I'm not sure what kind of "worry" you mean. I worry that things like bananas will disappear from supermarkets because of the energy costs of overseas transport.  That all those international goodies at Zabar’s that make us foodies feel so cosmopolitan are actually a factor in pollution and the deterioration of the environment, as well as the global food crisis. That the vast variety of foods we enjoy every day is costing us, and the planet, a lot.

Would you eat meat grown in a laboratory?  This requires more  thought...leaning toward yes, though.

Favorite Anti-Vegetarian Society of Meat Eaters slogan [Disclosure:  I accidentally didn’t include the link to the AVSME site when I sent my questions to Leah, so she provided an answer based her own experience]:  This isn't exactly anti-vegetarian, but it does display the confusion among carnivores about what we're about: "So, like, I don't get it...if there were a cake, but in the shape of a cow...would you eat it?", or, someone once said something to me to the tune of, "Well, I don't waste my time worrying about the rights of chickens, I worry about the rights of people."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tout burgers, tout le temps

Sometimes it feels as though The New York Times dining section is speaking directly to me, and it's a wonderful feeling.  Take yesterday's "In Paris, Burgers Turn Chic," which rocketed to the top of nytimes.com's "Most Emailed" list almost as quickly as last week's chocolate chip cookie recipe.  This week’s article, and its hauntingly gorgeous accompanying slideshow, left me with just one question:  Which of these haute cuisine burgers should I pursue?  The $56 bacon burger at Le Dali?  The wagyu patty with blackberry ketchup at Black Calvados?  The foie gras-topped sliders at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon?  I do know one thing:  It will not be the shrimp and squid burger at Le Relais du Parc.  I'm obviously not a burger connoisseur, but I have enough of a sense of common decency to know that some things are just wrong.

On Diner's Journal, commenter Kevin responds, "I'd like to see the trend where the Food section stops writing about hamburgers all the time!"  Not I, Kevin.  Not I.

Pertinent Quote from My Inbox

Courtesy of Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day email newsletter:

“Profits, like sausages... are esteemed most by those who know least about what goes into them.” (Alvin Toffler, futurist and author)

Image © George Bailey | Dreamstime.com

Monday, July 14, 2008

Here a "meuh," there a "meuh," everywhere a "meuh meuh"

The part of Saturday’s post about the noises that pigs make reminded me of the time last year when my French grammar professor, having gone off on a considerable tangent, taught my class the onomatopoeic words for sounds that French farm animals make.  A little Googling turned up this very useful list of animal sounds in various languages.  My favorite French ones, in increasing order of how amusing I find them, are below.  Happy Bastille Day.

Cow:  meuh”

Chicken:  cotcotcodet”

Rooster:  cocorico”

Chick:  piou piou”

Turkey:  glou glou”

Duck:  coin coin”

Pig:  groin groin”

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pork Week's Blind Spot

This week was Pork Week at Salon.com, and it marks either one of the most brilliant editorial decisions ever made or the beginning of the end for Salon—only time will tell.

The four articles and one video in the series are a frequently self-congratulatory celebration of pork from pastured, organic, preferably acorn-fed animals.  There’s a personal essay about making bacon—as in, starting from the entire stomach of a pig—and what it’s like to “hold an animal’s insides in your hands, big and fresh and smelling of nothing but flesh and fat.”    There are Q&As with celebrity chefs who slam wan pork chops and hail bloody offal.  There’s hand-wringing about the proletarianization of bacon. 

There’s a short video profiling Veritas Farm in New York, where two former Wall Street workers now breed heritage pigs whose meat they sell for $10.50 per pound.  One of the owners, Paul Alward, describes the typical industry method of raising pigs:

Usually, commercially, the mother would be locked into a crate and the babies couldn’t have access.  And the first thing they do when a pig farrows is take the piglets and pull their teeth and dock their tails with a pair of pliers and you clip their back teeth out, cut their tails off, dock their tails, and give them an iron shot...the main reason to dock tails commercially is for cannibalism, and they start chewing each other, and becomes a problem.

Veritas pigs, by contrast, seem to be deliriously happy, if the video is to be believed.  They wander around the farm, their floppy ears falling over their eyes.   They lounge on piles of hay as their owners scratch their bellies.  They roll around in patches of mud, emitting satisfying baritone grunts.  I defy anyone to listen to those grunts without wanting to  go kidnap a Veritas pig and keep it as a companion for the rest of its days, just to be able to listen to the noises it makes (and to rub its ears).

It’s no wonder, given how appealing these creatures are, that the journalists narrating the video devote only one sentence—something about killing the pigs “as humanely as possible”—to the topic of slaughter.  And this is the irony of Pork Week, and of the movement that places such extraordinary value on the provenance of meat:  everyone talks about the welfare of pigs and the glory of getting in touch with innards, but few people talk about the killing. 

But I wonder:  Would it be so easy to laud free-range pork if more people witnessed the slaughter of pigs, “humane” as it might be?  I support the work of farmers who take great strides to ensure their animals’ well-being, and it is glaringly obvious that the pigs at Veritas are infinitely better off than the miserable pigs on factory farms.  But it seems to me that, as much interest as locavores take in the origin and quality of their meat, they are willfully ignoring one crucial part of the process.

On a side note, my favorite new piece of information gleaned from Pork Week is that notorious vegetarian-hater Anthony Bourdain (who has also called vegetarians “the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit”) has dubbed “bacon the ‘gateway protein’ for its astounding ability to lure vegetarians back into the carnivorous fold.”   That sounds like a challenge to me, so I bought a package of bacon at Monoprix last night.  I doubt that eating it will make me want to keep eating pork for the rest of my life, but, in case I falter, just show me some of the footage of Veritas pigs frolicking in the mud.  That ought to bring me back to my senses.

Image © Morozova Tatiana | Dreamstime.com

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Mmm, Hair...


I didn’t think that the list of body parts I’d be consuming would include hair, but it seems I was mistaken.  I’ve become addicted to a Lebanese candy known as sha’er banat (“girl’s hair”), a box of which has been sitting on a table within arm’s length of my work computer.  It looks like a haystack (much more than any of the cookies that Americans call haystacks), and it tastes like sugar, slightly burned around the edges, with a hint of pistachio.  Its texture is somewhere between what I would imagine a unicorn mane to be like and the contents of a magnetic sketchpad.  It puts regular cotton candy to shame, and I’ve never been happier to have coworkers who make frequent trips to the Middle East. 

Monday, July 7, 2008

Chicken-Craving Heart of Darkness

When people used to tell me that chicken was their favorite kind of meat, I always inwardly rolled my eyes.  There’s nothing sexy or enigmatic about chicken.  It always seemed so boringly inoffensive to me, so conventional.  I chalked up others’ love for chicken to their predilection for blandness, their lack of gastronomic adventurousness, their underdeveloped palate.

My own first personal encounters with chicken didn’t do much to change my opinion.  Early in my meat-eating days, before my taste buds had really adjusted to the flavor of meat, I ordered a couple of unimpressive chicken Caesar salads.  Their cold strips nestled on beds of lettuce exuded only the faintest savor of meatiness.  Why, I asked myself, would anyone want to eat this Meat Lite?  I continued with my prosciutto and my boudin, convinced that chicken was a waste of my time.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my roommate took me to a sandwich stand a stone’s throw from the ivy-covered walls of the Cimetière de Montparnasse, on the rue d’Odessa side of Café de la Place.  There, we ordered poulet-avocat-tomate sandwiches from a kind-faced man named Joseph, and he set to work with ingredients arranged beautifully in baskets around him.  With a serrated knife, he thinly sliced half of a crimson plum tomato and a quarter of a ripe avocado.  He pulled some of the soft inner mie from a flour-covered pain pavé and stuffed the crust with the tomato and avocado, a big handful of arugula, some dried cranberries, and slices of moist grilled chicken breast.  After adding a slug of olive oil, he pressed the blade of his knife against the ingredients to tuck them in snugly and wrapped the loaf in white paper.

It was the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted.  I'm still thinking about it.  I wish I could eat it every day. 

Luckily for French chickens, I can’t—Café de la Place is 18 Métro stops away from my apartment and 12 from my office, which makes Joseph’s stand a weekend-only destination for me.  But my persistent desire for the sandwich disquiets me.  I was not supposed to like meat so much as to want to eat it all the time.  I particularly did not intend to fall in love with chicken, the meat of the people.  Yet here I am, constantly craving that juicy white meat with glistening brown skin against a backdrop of chewy bread, cool and creamy avocado, grassy arugula, sweet and tart cranberries.  I try to believe that the sandwich would be just as good without the chicken, but, excellent as the other ingredients may be, it’s not true:  The chicken is the very soul of the sandwich, and it is delectable.

So I extend a sincere apology to the chicken-lovers out there whom I prematurely judged:  It would seem that, at heart, I am one of you.  What remains to be seen is whether my craving for the chicken sandwich will outlive my trial period of eating meat.

Friday, July 4, 2008

God Bless American Beef?

I began this project operating under the assumption that European meat was bound to be better than the American kind, but at least a few fellow expatriates beg to differ. My coworker Chris, who hails from Florida but hasn't been in the States for over a year, gets a starry look in his eyes when he starts talking about American beef. "It's juicy, it smells good...it's just so damn good, I don't know why," he says.

I know why, and it puts a damper on my desire to try U.S. beef: American beef tastes distinctive because it comes from corn-fed animals. At the risk of mentioning Michael Pollan far, far too often (although, if we're to be honest, it's probably already too late), the part of The Omnivore's Dilemma that's stuck with me the most is the fact that cows are not built to digest corn. In fact, eating corn makes cows sick, so cattlemen who feed their animals corn also must pump them full of antibiotics to fight digestive trouble. Corn makes young cows grow quickly, and it gives meat a nice marbled texture, but it's certainly not in the best interest of the cow or the consumer.

Still, Americans love their corn-fed beef. A 2002 study showed that consumers are willing to pay 30% more for corn-fed than for grass-fed beef (never mind that corn-fed beef is cheaper to produce, lower in heart-healthy omega-3s, and worse for the environment). My mother tells me that my grandfather, an Oklahoma-raised meat-loving trucker, wanted all his life to try Argentinean grass-fed steak and then was terribly disappointed when he finally did, so attached was he to the flavor of corn-fed beef.

But I can't complain about the taste of the decidedly non-American meat I've eaten. I had a lovely filet de boeuf at critical darling Le Severo earlier this week (and my companion, who just finished a year at culinary school here, proclaimed it the best steak frites he’s had in Paris). I was perfectly satisfied with the meat’s texture: crisp and caramelized on the outside, tender and juicy within. It was tender because filet comes from a part of the body that doesn't get much exercise, not because the cow had gorged on grains. It was also pricey (a well spent 30€), but that's because filet is rare—there's only one psoas muscle per cow. American cattlemen have tried to reproduce the texture and flavor of filet de boeuf in different cuts of meat on the cheap by feeding their cows corn. As a result, Americans have come to see sweet, tender meat as an everyday commodity rather than the luxury that it is.

Lest this post make it sound like I'm knocking an American tradition on the Fourth of July, let me be clear: I love America, and I love eating in America. Far more than stuck-up, self-impressed France, America welcomes and celebrates different food traditions and allows them to develop and intermingle. America also allows for freedom of dietary expression, with more options for vegetarians, vegans, and others who choose to omit certain foods for religious or ethical reasons. What's great about eating in America—much like what's great about living in America—is the diversity and liberty of the experience. I find it hard to believe that a taste of ethically and environmentally questionable corn-fed beef could make me appreciate American alimentary life any more than I already do.

So I wish a very happy birthday to America. But I also hope that, in its 233rd year, the land of the free and the home of the brave might find the bravery to try weaning itself off of corn-fed beef.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Other Omnivores: Tristan

Today I introduce a new feature founded as much on a lack of eventfulness in my own alimentary life—there are only so many new kinds of meat one can try—as on my immoderate preoccupation with what and how people eat.  “Other Omnivores” will take a look at other people’s thoughts about food and at their eating habits and preferences.   My fascination with eating is pretty equal-opportunity, and I’d like to interview eaters of all kinds:  self-described foodies and ingredient illiterates, practiced chefs and kitchen dilettantes, strict vegetarians and unabashed meat-lovers.   Everyone eats, and, as far as I’m concerned, everyone’s personal food preferences are equally valid—so let’s examine some of them.

I begin with my high-school friend Tristan.  It is time to give credit where credit is due:  I would never have dabbled in omnivorousness if he hadn’t given me the idea.  Tristan, who had become a vegetarian at the age of five after eating some bad cheese-filled chicken nuggets, decided abruptly this spring to start eating meat.  The former homecoming king comes from a family of vegetarians, but he says that the choice not to eat meat will be more powerful and meaningful if he makes it as an adult after trying meat for a year or so.  Tristan opened my eyes to the possibility of looking at meat from a different angle, and for this I thank him.

Tristan developed his knowledge of French food and wine waiting tables at Tersiguel’s, one of suburban Maryland’s finest and best-loved restaurants.  Having recently obtained degrees in English and music, he currently resides in New York, where he works at Opera News, lives in an apartment above Teany, and enjoys eating frogs’ legs, oxtail and Kobe beef hamburgers.

Following are Tristan’s responses to the “Other Omnivores” questionnaire.

Name: Tristan Kraft

Age: 22

Profession: assistant editor

Favorite vegetarian food: Morningstar Farms' Grillers

Favorite non-vegetarian food: close tie between pan seared scallops and steak with fries and hollandaise

Food you will never give up: eggs

Favorite food memory: baked ziti on my first trip home from college

Biggest food worry: mad cow disease

Would you eat meat grown in a laboratory? sure, with fries and hollandaise

Favorite Anti-Vegetarian Society of Meat Eaters slogan: obviously "wwjdfb"

Monday, June 30, 2008

The En Route En-Cas

As I try frantically to take advantage of Europe's geographical compactness during my last few weeks here, I've been doing a lot of traveling.  My time spent in transit has included encounters with plane and train food—which has made me realize how much better travel snacks are in Europe than in the U.S.

On my flight to Berlin I was reminded of my all-time favorite complimentary airline snack, the Lufthansa cheese sandwich.  Served in a wax paper sleeve, the sandwich consists of a pillowy roll spread with butter (or maybe margarine, but who cares?) and cradling thick slices of hard white cheese—maybe comté; I’ve never asked.  I've heard horror stories about Lufthansa sandwiches served frozen solid, but the sandwiches I've had have always been pleasantly cool and dry, the bread having lost a bit of moistness in the refrigerator.  The Lufthansa sandwich (which also comes in turkey), served with a miniature chocolate bar and a cup of coffee or tea, is perfectly-portioned and palatable any time of day—I’ve never regretted eating one.  I’m generally wary of brand loyalty, but if I were to base my choice of airline solely on the free food it serves, I would go with Lufthansa every time.

I had another travel food experience this past weekend when I took the Thalys from Gare du Nord to Brussels for a day trip.  I'm not in the habit of traveling first class, but an upgrade cost only €1.50 each way when I was booking my ticket, so I decided to take the plunge.  The en-cas served on the morning train—completely unnecessary, as the ride lasts only an hour and fifteen minutes—well exceeded my business-class standards for travel food.  My little tray held a bowl of peach slices (undoubtedly canned) with fresh blueberries and a sprinkle of something leafy that might have been thyme; a sandwich of egg, tomato, and caramelized onions on a sunflower seed roll that fit in the palm of my hand; and a slice of a tart made with indeterminate stone fruit on cold, moist puff pastry.  

Outside of context, these snacks would be unimpressive at best,  unacceptable at worst.  They're mass produced, previously refrigerated or frozen, and not terribly flavorful.  They're a way for airlines and rail companies to justify slightly higher ticket prices, and a way for passengers to pass the time.  I know this, but I'm still thrilled. 

All my life, the paragon of travel food, as far as I could tell, was the Southwest Airlines snack box containing preservatives, additives, and empty calories in various guises:  cheese crackers, jelled fruit snacks, chocolate sandwich cookies.  I’ve never been the type to turn down food that is offered to me, so in spite of my better judgment, I always ate the travel snacks, and it always made me feel rotten.  If the snack box falls victim to airlines’ attempts to cut costs, I say good riddance.

I have never seen anything resembling a snack box in Europe on a plane, on a train, or elsewhere.  The American concept of "snack" hasn't really caught on in Europe.  A European travel snack is miniature meal, made out of things that, as Michael Pollan would say, your grandmother would recognize as food:  bread, cheese, fruit.  And—as an indication of how pathetically America’s food system has lowered my expectations—a  snack made out of real food feels like a revelation.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

London: Not a Wasteland

Even though the rest of us have long recognized that England is not a culinary wasteland, the French seem to hold on rather desperately to outmoded stereotypes.  “In London, in England, what do they have?  They have nothing.  I mean, a gastronomic heritage.  No, but anyway, apart from pudding, biscuits, there’s not much, you know?” said Gilles Ajuelos, chef of Paris’s acclaimed La Bastide Odéon, told me late last year without a trace of irony.

With all due respect to Chef Ajuelos, there is actually quite a bit apart from pudding and biscuits in London.  I hopped on the Eurostar this past weekend, and, in addition to excellent Spanish, Swedish, and German food (London’s international restaurant scene is far better than Paris’s), I enjoyed a couple of excellent traditional English meals. 

The first was at Chimes, an English restaurant, pub and (unexpectedly) wine bar in Pimlico.  The weather was behaving decidedly non-Englishly on Sunday afternoon, so my companion and I avoided the slightly glum interior and enjoyed the sunlight at a table on the sidewalk.  We skipped the wine and instead started with a pitcher one of Chimes’s five tap ciders, which proved dangerously drinkable.  For lunch, we ordered a stew of cod and haddock that appeared, on first glance, gray and gluey. A few cheerless croutons strewn on top did not raise my hopes.  However, the stew, whose broth had been enlivened by the addition of cider and cheddar, was rich and flavorful, and the steamed potatoes, zucchini and red cabbage served alongside provided a nice light counterpoint.

My second English meal, in a much more downscale setting, was at the Covent Garden location of a U.K. chain called The West Cornwall Pasty Company (and please do click on that link; their overwrought pirate-themed website is worth seeing).  My Londoner friend Ralf, a pasty enthusiast and veritable fount of trivia, told me that pasties were first created for tin miners, who, to avoid inadvertently consuming arsenic on their lunch break, ate the meat-and-potato interior of the pasty and threw away the crust.  Not the most propitious recipe origin, perhaps, but The West Cornwall Pasty Company has done its best to outstrip its working-class heritage.  Though the upstairs seating area has a fittingly dark and gloomy ambiance, the pasty menu includes such untraditional fillings as curried chicken and cheese-tomato-basil.  I went for a steak and stilton “oggy,” as they’re sometimes called, and was discouraged by its Hot Pocket-esque appearance.  But the pastry was flaky, the beef tender, the cheese savory but not too strong.  Its solidity was perfect after an afternoon of overindulging in cider, but I still wasn’t able to finish the whole thing. (Ralf happily took over the job for me.)

English cuisine is modest and homely, not sexy or showy like its French counterpart.  But behind its humble exterior lie character and comfortableness.  In short, English food isn’t pretty, but it’s got a pleasant personality, especially after a couple of beers.

And no, I’m not going to draw the obvious parallel between English food and English people.  There's no need to hold on to outmoded stereotypes.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Side Effects

Meat and cheese:  Is there any combination more straightforwardly indulgent—or more treacherous?

I tried the cholesterol-laden pair twice last week and lived to regret it both times.  The first time was at Le Bistrot du Boursier, which, according to Gridskipper, has some of the best tartiflette in town.  I’d wanted to try the dish of potatoes, bacon and onions smothered with melted Reblochon cheese ever since I’d first heard of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. The potato medallions were pleasantly waxy, the diced onions soft and nearly caramelized, the cheese intensely scented but mildly flavored.  The real point of interest, though, was the cubed smoked bacon—tangy, chewy, sweet.  I couldn’t help seeking it out with my fork.

The tartiflette was delicious, and I finished it, but almost immediately began to feel as though the fat in my bloodstream was congealing and sinking to the bottom of my arteries.  I crossed two arrondissements on foot to try to walk it off, but the heaviness and drowsiness lingered.  I was too full and sleepy to be of much use once I got home, but the tartiflette wouldn’t let me sleep—I woke in the middle of the night, my stomach still slightly queasily full.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but a couple of night later, at Joe Allen in the Marais, I glanced at the American menu and decided it was time for my first hamburger—or, more precisely, a bacon cheeseburger.  I wasn’t all that impressed by the bland ground beef, whose texture I found boring, but the marriage of bacon and cheese kept me eating until the burger was gone.  And, as with the tartiflette, I soon felt as though I had been hit with a sledgehammer.

I have the kind of constitution that has always allowed me to eat more in a single sitting than is advisable, but too much meat affects me differently.  I can’t say I’ve noticed many general physical changes since I started eating meat—I haven’t gained or lost weight, as far as I can tell, and I feel neither more vigorous nor as though I am being slowly poisoned.  But in the short term, meat does things to my body to which I am unaccustomed.  After my first steak dinner, I felt a sort of tingly sensation that I can only attribute to having more iron in my system than I’m used to.  Meat can make me so full that I cannot fathom eating dessert—an entirely unfamiliar sensation.  But nothing punishes me so brutally as the combination of meat and cheese.  The unbearable heaviness that lasts for hours, the sluggishness, the insomnia…I had expected the omnivorous life to keep me up at night for moral reasons, not corporeal ones.

I’m not ready to go kosher, but the unholy combination of meat and cheese has made me reflect a bit about the way I’m used to eating.  I’m used to cleaning my plate without adverse affect, but, health concerns aside, one shouldn’t be able clean one’s plate without adverse affect.  It’s easy to forget while living in the overnourished Western world, but food is precious, and it’s powerful.  If what it takes for me to learn that lesson is an encounter with animal protein’s unpleasant side effects, so be it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

One Reason I Won't Keep Eating Meat When I Go Home

The USDA won’t let beef producers voluntarily screen their cattle for mad cow disease. How I wish I had worn my t-shirt today…

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Berlin, the Land of White Meat

Before I left for Germany, a handful of people told me, “Berlin is a good place to go if you’re eating meat now.”  They were right. 

To be fair, Berlin is a good place to go for a lot of things. 

It’s a good place to go for laid-back bars and biergartens serving cheap, excellent beer.  My favorite was 25.  Its German name, fünf und zwanzig, is nearly impossible for native Anglophones to wrap their tongues around.  But after a couple of €3 Staropramens and a bit of time spent playing on one of the wooden swings hanging from the tall trees on the edge of the Spree River, the pronunciation problem won’t really matter anymore.

It’s a good place to go for thrift shops and markets with infinitely kitschy and weird merchandise.  Oderberger Strasse is packed with boutiques selling Soviet-era clothes, furnishings, and tchotchkes with more entertainment value than practical value.  For items you might actually want to buy, head to the flea market on Boxhagener Platz, whose piles of new and used household items, accoutrements, and works of art contain the occasional treasure.

It’s also a good place to go for culinary treats that have nothing to do with meat.  Whole-wheat waffles topped with caramelized walnuts and cherries at a cozy coffee shop called Kauf Dich Glücklich stand out in my mind, as does fondant-coated marzipan cake (one of dozens of varieties of pastries) at the cafe at the Opera House on the Unter den Linden.

But it’s true that the main culinary attraction for a temporary omnivore spending a weekend in Berlin is the meat, and I wanted to try a couple of German classics before I left. 

First on the agenda was schnitzel, which I ordered at a restaurant called Schwarzwald.  Alongside potatoes sautéed with chewy diced bacon and a salad of translucent cucumber ribbons, I received two sizable cutlets of thin, breaded pork.  The meat was juicy and white, with a uniform texture and an anodyne flavor.  The other omnivore at the table, an American who’d spent the past semester in Berlin, swapped me some of her flatbread for a taste of my entrée and proclaimed it good schnitzel.

My second taste of meat in Berlin was weisswürst, the Bavarian fresh white sausage that is traditionally poached in hot water and then peeled before eating.   I was lucky enough to try the sausage in the context of a homemade Bavarian feast prepared by a real, live, very friendly German person named Sören.   The spread included a salty cheese spread called obatzda, whole-grain bread with pumpkin seeds, and pretzels.  The sausages were moist and without much strong flavor of their own, but they tasted heavenly with a dollop of sweet mustard.  Their skins, once removed, resembled castoff pantyhose, which was understandably disquieting.  But the sausage meat itself was mild, tender, and inoffensive.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experiences, inoffensive seems like a good word to describe German meat in general.  Whether pounded and breaded or ground and stuffed into casings, German meat has been thoroughly disguised.  Its color—white—is a clear indication that the people making it are interested not in preserving the visceral, bloody quality of meat, but in showing their culinary prowess by forming a finished product that resembles a piece of flesh as little as possible.

I tend to think of camouflaged meat as a product of fast food and of the industrialized food system—think chicken nuggets and ground meat patties of all kinds.  I also tend to think of camouflaged meat as an unqualified bad thing, a sign that diners are ignoring the true source of their food.  But Berlin was a good reminder that the practice of hiding meat’s provenance behind acquiescent textures and bland flavors is not a purely modern-day phenomenon—and not a purely detrimental phenomenon, either.  Germans have been disguising meat for generations.  And you know what?  It tastes pretty good.