I just finished a wonderful book a line cook friend of mine loaned to me. It’s called Heat and it’s written about a man’s journeys into discovering what it really takes to prepare food, to know food, from the cutlet to the flame, from the history and tradition to the table. He begins the book quite obviously only with a kind of hobbyist’s interest in his book assignment. But as he becomes part of the kitchen culture, and strives to learn and really understand what he is preparing, his journey takes him from his curious outsider-ness and turns his search within, to discover his own capabilities as a chef.
It begins in the kitchen of Mario Batali‘s Babbo New York restaurant. At first, Buford can’t even cube carrots right, and the first portion of the book consists of harrowing and humorous accounts of a succession of humiliations: as he cuts himself, burns himself, and gets in the way of angry chefs in the testosterone, pressure cooker environment of a busy and small high-end kitchen. Then as he moves deeper into ability as line cook, he also explores Mario Batali’s origins as a star and chef, and he ends up drawing inspiration from Mario’s same mentors—and then ends up plunging yet further.
I found the most intimate parts of the book take place at the end, when Buford’s journey takes him finally to a renowned and passionate butcher in Italy. As someone tilted more to vegetarianism than red meat, at first I was somewhat revolted, but increasingly fascinated, by his accounts of learning to butcher and properly prepare various and unimaginable parts of innards and muscles and unseen mysterious pork and beef cuttings. What I found most compelling is when Buford, now capable of some basic butchering skills, buys a whole pig in a New York local farmer’s market and takes it back to his apartment draped over the back of his scooter. Horrified denizens of the city, despite being mostly meat eaters, of course, flash him disapproving looks and scowls. But he takes it back in the elevator to his apartment and slowly butchers it in sections, garnering a total of 450 servings of food at less than 50 cents a plate. That got me thinking: I’ve heard it repeated many times that it is more economical and requires less waste of resources to be a vegetarian. And I think in our modern culture of supermarket items delivered from across the globe to sit packaged and ready to eat on our shelves, this is generally true. But it isn’t always true. Sometimes, in fact, it makes more economical and ethical sense to be a selective omnivore.
Bill Mollison, in his Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, also makes the case for omnivorism: “Only in home gardens is most of the vegetation edible for people; much of the earth is occupied by inedible vegetation. Deer, rabbits, sheep, and herbivorous fish are very useful to us, in that they convert this otherwise unusable herbage to acceptable human food. . . . If we convert all vegetation to edible species, we assume a human priority that is unsustainable, and must destroy other plants and animals to do so. In the urban western world, vegetarianism relies heavily on grains and grain legumes. Even to cook these foods, we need to use up very large quantities of wood and fossil fuels . . . . Omnivorous diets make the best use of complex natural systems; we should eat from what is edible, at any level.”
Basically saying, in other words, that we should eat from what we have available as an economical, local resource.
Buford’s section on butchering also got me to thinking about the fact that while most people in this country eat meat, they have absolutely no connection to the animal which was butchered for them. They couldn’t even visualize where the section of meat they are eating was taking from, nor would they want to. Which leads me to think that everyone should have to kill and butcher at least one animal in secondary school. Then probably we would be a nation of vegetarians. Because if you can’t handle understanding the meat that you are eating is coming from a slice of a once real living animal, and you can’t handle understanding how it was cut and prepared to be packaged and sitting so nicely sterile for you in the supermarket. . . well, then maybe you shouldn’t be eating it, huh?
I admit to being strangely compelled to want to eat some well-cut raw portions of pork after reading the butchering segment. The intimacy with the meat that a butcher and Tuscan meat lover has is far removed from the so-called American meat lover who thinks he loves meat because he eats hamburgers and steak, and yet doesn’t even know what kind of meat a hamburger is, nor what a real steak would taste like (go to Argentina and eat a steak and then maybe you will know).
I think being vegetarian is the healthiest and generally the most ethical food practice in our culture. But I also don’t think that if you are truly conscious and aware of what you are eating that you should have to be revolted by meat. I think the worst form of eating, in any sense, is to have absolutely no connection with where your food comes from.