Becoming the Ultimate Carnivore
Entering the world of meat with hungry zeal to become an "ultimate carnivore," my first question was, of course, "How?" I was eager to explore all of the wonders provided by the animals of the globe, as well as to learn as much as I could about their anatomy, lifestyle, lore, and traditions on history's supper plates. The problem was that the subject of meat is so staggeringly vast, I had little clue where to even begin. I needed some sort of plan of attack, a strategy to help me conquer such an exhaustive (though tasty) topic. Naturally, it wouldn't suffice to consume mass quantities of only one kind of dish—nothing but burgers, say—not just since that would be unhealthy (even I have to admit this, as much as I adore a lovingly crafted, fresh-grilled hamburger) but it would get very old, very fast. People who dwell on only one dish are what I call Wimpys, after that Popeye
character's unusual fixation. The saying "I'd gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" remains his sad but amusing legacy. Nor would it be prudent to gorge myself on steaks and chops at all hours of the day and night--again, horrible for the body, but also unnecessarily gluttonous. If anything, I'd fear that such reckless consumption would not just cork up my arteries with plaque and swell my jowls and love handles to late-career-Elvis proportions, but--God forbid--it might even sour me on the idea of eating steak. I shuddered to think about what a terrible fate that would be. No, there could be no gastronomic stagnation; as the old marine corps adage goes, I would have to adapt, improvise, overcome. I wondered, what kind of feat would it take to approach the vaunted realm of ultimate (and shameless) carnivorism?
After days of introspection, a solution arrived: I would eat the meat of thirty-one different animals in thirty-one days. Call it my Month of Meat, featuring a special list of thirty-one flavors. Mind you, this wasn't an arbitrary decision, but one that required careful deliberation, planning, and revision. My first thought was actually to eat a hundred animals in a month. I mean, just think about how many unique animals there are roaming the plains of the earth, soaring through the skies, scaling the mountains, slithering through the swamps, and quietly going about their business in the forests and jungles. I was willing to bet that more than a few of them, if conscientiously prepared, would make for great eating. I salivated at the prospect.
Biodiversity? More like biodiversilicious
There are thousands upon thousands of these creatures, I figured, so how hard would it be to find a mere hundred of them that would be appropriate for the table? Pretty hard, apparently. Once you get down to it and start making a list, many of the more exotic beasts of the world are impossible to acquire in the United States because they are illegal (orangutans, bald eagles, giant pandas, Komodo dragons, etc.), or because no one is selling them with the due approval of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Not that this keeps some people from selling them anyway. According to the Associated Press, in late 2006 New York State food safety inspectors discovered and confiscated an alarming array of illicit meats in the Big Apple, everything from armadillos in Queens, to iguana meat and cow lungs in my home borough of Brooklyn, to something labeled "smoked rodent," as well as plenty of "unidentified red meat and mysterious fish paste." Oddly enough, most of these meats would be perfectly legal to sell if only they'd come from a USDA-inspected facility, although I imagine that iguana and armadillo meat might prove to be something of a marketing challenge. Now, I'm just as intrigued as the next carnivore about how these peculiar animals might taste, but I was understandably wary: there are many things I'd consider purchasing on the black market--I'd enjoy a home theater system that "fell off a truck" as much as the next guy--but I draw the line at illegal mystery meats. Call me old-fashioned.A NOTE ON USDA INSPECTION
A good thing to remember when thinking about the safety and quality of the meat we enjoy is that all meat sold in the United States must be inspected by the USDA, in particular, by a licensed inspector from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The only exemptions here are for hunters, farmers, and their nonpaying guests (if some shady deer killer wants to sell you some of his venison, know that the transaction would be illegal). And how does this inspection process work? Examining meat for quality goes back to August 30, 1890, when the first Meat Inspection Act was approved, but the act only applied to salt pork and bacon being sold for export. The following year, the act was amended to cover the inspection and certification of all live cattle for export. But it wasn't until the public outcry following the publication of Upton Sinclair's seminal meat industry exposé, The Jungle
, in 1905 that domestic meat inspection really took off. Sinclair urged President Theodore Roosevelt (a noted carnivore) to do something about the squalid and dangerous conditions of America's meatpacking facilities, and it didn't take long for good old Teddy to get things done. Both the Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were passed in 1906, and they are the basis of the inspection process that ensures the safety of our meat to this very day. In 1967, the Wholesome Meat Act was added to the existing Federal Meat Inspection Act, establishing the Federal-State Cooperative Inspection Programs. This is important, because the federal government leaves inspection up to the individual state governments; however, each state's inspection program must be "at least equal to" the federal standards. So you don't have to worry about the beef being any more dangerous in Arkansas than in Tennessee or anything—it's all under the same standard.
Government-employed USDA inspectors, either veterinarians or laypersons with significant meat industry experience and know-how, have a strict set of guidelines for ensuring the wholesomeness of the meat that eventually becomes our dinner. They review the plans of the slaughterhouse or processing plant (floor plans, water supply, waste disposal, lighting, etc.), make sure the place follows stringent standards of sanitation, monitor the health of the live animals for signs of illness or disease, and examine the internal organs of each slaughtered animal for indications of contamination or anything else that might make it unfit for you and me, going by the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. This happens every single day
at these facilities, from a pre-op inspection before it opens through the entire workday, and again, it's mandatory, at least for "any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats," according to the Federal Meat Inspection Act. (Poultry has a similar set of requirements, per the 1968 Wholesome Poultry Products Act.) For all nonmandated animals--rabbits, armadillos, iguanas, buffalo--the facility has to pay for government inspection if they want to sell their meaty wares, which is why they're generally more expensive than beef, pork, lamb, or goat (I've always wondered how "goat" made it in there).
If anything seems amiss, the inspectors have full authority to shut the plant down entirely until standards are restored. And when everything's going well, they'll mark their USDA stamp of approval on each animal's carcass in blue food-quality dye. If you're worried that the steak you see in the grocery store doesn't bear that mark, don't be; it's on the outside of the carcass, so most individual cuts won't carry it. And for processed foods, the meat's "identity" also needs to be confirmed to avoid misleading or false labeling--to be labeled "beef stew" for instance, the product must contain a minimum 25 percent actual beef. All in all, it's an extremely rigorous process, one that I, as a carnivore, have a good deal of faith in. I may have my suspicions about certain aspects of the U.S. government, but I'm pretty confident that the USDA is doing everything in its power to make sure we're not being poisoned by tainted beef. Case in point: your chances of eating beef contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow disease"? One in ten billion
. Those are pretty good odds, I have to say, especially when you consider that your chances of winning the Powerball jackpot are about one in eighty million. So you're more than a hundred times more likely to strike it super rich on the lotto than run afoul of a mad cow burger. And think back to the fall of 2006—it wasn't the meat that everyone was scared of, but spinach and lettuce tainted with E. coli bacteria. Don't think for one minute that going vegetarian is any better, food safety-wise, than being a carnivore.
One way I could get around some of these pesky "legal food" issues would be to go jet-setting around the globe in pursuit of warthogs and elephants and ring-tailed lemur meat, but sadly, my budget limited my culinary adventures to the continental United States. So I'd have to stay here in the good old U.S. of A. and make do, but that still left me with plenty of interesting prospects. At the end of the day, I'd changed the number from a hundred to fifty, and ultimately to thirty-one different meats that I could reliably find either in specialty butcher shops or from a reputable online retailer. I felt this number had a kind of mathematical beauty to it, too; ostensibly, I'd be eating a different animal each day during this little test, which I thought added a certain mystique to the whole ultimate carnivore idea. Who knows: perhaps an animal a day would keep the doctor away.
On the subject of taboo meats, several of my friends were eager to ask if I'd be eating dogs and cats, a common practice in certain areas of the Far East. In fact, the Chinese have been cooking and eating dogs since the Confucian era, if not earlier, and the dish is still consumed regularly, although its popularity has dwindled or died in the more cosmopolitan parts of the country. Neither dogs nor cats are legal eats in this country and hence ineligible for my Month of Meat list, for which I'm grateful. I can't say that I'd look forward to the prospect of chowing down on Sauteed Snoopy or Pan-Seared Garfield. Not that I wouldn't, but I'd have to do so under particular circumstances. If, for instance, I happened to be traveling in one of the aforementioned parts of the world in which puppies and kitties are a delicacy and I was offered one or both of these meats by a gracious host who took pride in cooking and serving it to me, then yes, absolutely, I'd eat dog and cat meat. I'd just try not to think about my family's golden retriever as I forked a chunk of canine into my mouth. The same applies to horsemeat, which is also illegal in the United States, though that law applies only to domestic consumption; we export tons of the stuff every year, mostly to Europe, despite a fervent antihorsemeat lobbying effort. (*) An acquaintance of mine who traveled extensively in Eastern European countries like Slovenia had an opportunity to try some horse and told me it was surprisingly delicious, similar to beef but sweeter. He was quick to recommend the foal carpaccio. But some taboos exist for a reason; I don't care how adventurous I'd like to be in the world of meat, I absolutely refuse to even discuss the possibility of eating human flesh. I'm the Shameless Carnivore, not the Shameless Cannibal.
By the final tally, my list looked something like this:
…and a partridge in a pear tree.
The list would eventually be subject to change for a number of reasons. It turns out that lamb and sheep are the same animal, as are pig and boar (one is domestic, the other wild), although each of these is distinctly different as far as the palate goes. I'd sample them all anyway, and more. Of course, there would be a few twists and turns during my gastrological adventures, too.
With The List in hand, I made my way down to Greenwich Village, home of Ottomanelli & Sons Butchers. As much as I thought it a nice idea to take advantage of the expertise of as many New York City butchers as possible (believe you me, there are a lot
of them), in the end I decided it was important to find one really great shop to use as a go-to for my meaty needs. This was important for a couple of reasons: First, if you happen to find a wonderful, family-owned-and-operated business that you trust and respect, you should do your best to support it and make sure it doesn't fall prey to the Great American Big Box Menace. It's not easy for the little guy to keep up a shop these days, as the purveyors of low-priced quantity and convenience (if not low quality) seem to be running them out of town at every opportunity. This has resulted in the tragic, steady decline of classic butcher shops in this country. If anything, it's worth patronizing an independent house of butchery if only to ensure that there will be
independent houses of butchery in America's future. Their legacy is in our hands.
Second, it was vital that I establish a solid working relationship with my new butcher. Much the way a fine tailor grows to know how best to clothe his or her patrons in style and comfort, the better a well-trained meat man or woman knows what you're looking for and how you like it, the more satisfied you'll be when you ultimately chow down. If you have access to a top-shelf house of butchery and you actually care about the meat you eat, you'd be a fool not to patronize that butcher exclusively. I could write sonnets about great butchers—not only are they proud, consistent purveyors of high-quality products (most of them would rather fall on their cleavers than sell even one ounce of tainted or subpar meat), they are also important repositories of culinary knowledge and expertise, the likes of which can only be developed after years of hard work, experience, and love. (Yes, love. If my butcher isn't as passionately in love with beautiful steaks, lamb chops, or pork tenderloins as I am—in the epicurean sense, of course, not the erotic sense--I immediately call his expertise into question and start looking for exit signs.) Not only should any decent butcher be able to give you a lovely piece of meat and trim it to your preferred specifications, he should easily be able to rattle off how much you need according to how many people you'll be feeding, as well as to offer possible recipes, tips on preparation, cooking times, internal temperature, and so forth. Try getting this sort of detailed attention from the pimply-faced teen behind the counter at your local grocery store—you know, the one whose chief concern is more likely saving up for a new Xbox or finding a way to go home with that cute new goth chick working register seven than learning the fine and ancient craft of butchery.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Shameless Carnivore by Scott Gold. Copyright © 2008 by Scott Gold. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.