Monday, October 22, 2007

"In Search of Perfection"

I saw a new-to-me show on Food Network yesterday. It's called "In Search of Perfection", hosted by a guy called Heston Blumenthal (one of those "what were his parents thinking??" kind of names). It's British, and the food he plays with on the show is very British. Yesterday the episode was all about steak and salad.

It was interesting, no doubt about that. I watched the whole show avidly, which I rarely do. But the reason it grabbed me right off the bat was because I was highly annoyed by the way he totally bought into the American standard - and even admitted it was an American standard! - of "quality" beef being beef with a lot of intramuscular fat (marbling).

It's time people stopped thinking that is a good thing. Marbling does a couple of things: it does keep the meat juicier if one has a tendency to cook meat beyond medium (which is a sin in and of itself, but that's another post). It also provides a bit more umami flavour to the meat. But on the other hand, it makes the meat taste less like, well, meat.

The sad thing is, most people don't know what meat tastes like. I had the good fortune to be raised on moose meat, which is typically grass, pond-weed, and willow-fed. The meat is dense and meaty and no, it doesn't "melt in your mouth". It hangs out in there for a while, communing with your taste buds, saying "I am MEAT. I will make you big and strong!" You have to chew it. It is satisfying in a way that well-marbled meat isn't. Well-marbled meat makes you want more. Grass-fed meat makes you feel like you've eaten.

Taste aesthetics aside, there's a health issue too. Marbled meat comes from cows that have been "finished" on grain. That is to say, for the last few weeks or months of their lives, they are fed a diet of grain so that they gain fat quickly. This is the fat that is deposited intramuscularly, creating the marbling. This is always a short-term project since cows do not stay healthy for very long on this kind of diet - in human terms, this would be like taking a healthy, active young man and removing all the vegetables from his diet and feeding him solely on on twinkies for a few weeks. He'd be putting on some intramuscular fat too, but we wouldn't call THAT a good thing and he probably wouldn't feel so good, either. Nobody pretends that intramuscular fat is actually *good* for cows, but what's mystifying is how people can think that it's ok for them to eat it.

In fact, grain-finishing significantly alters the omega6:omega3 profile of the fat in beef, skewing it radically in the direction of the omega6s which are already too high in most North American diets. I would be willing to bet significant amounts of money that THIS is the reason some research shows that red meat is unhealthy, and probably a large part of the reason that cardiovascular disease has been on the rise since about 1950 (approximately when cows began to be fed grain). Red meat now comes from unhealthy animals, it only makes sense that it would make *us* unhealthy too.

Ok, so anyway, back to the show. I got annoyed at Heston's choice of meats. He "tested" various steaks from various cattle producers by cooking them like normal people would. Then he went on to actually prepare his choice in an entirely different fashion, which I think would actually have been better with a meat with little intramuscular fat. (He took a forerib roast, blow-torched the outside, then roasted it at 50C for 24 hours, let it stand, carved it into steaks, then seared the steaks off, let them rest 10 minutes, and served them.)

It was a fine little experiment. But, Heston, who in their right mind ties up their oven for bloody 24 hours cooking a damn steak?!?!?!? That's ridiculous. I am all for slow-cooking, I think it's a great idea and usually produces wonderful results. But 24 hours of continuous oven use is just silly. Most of us only have one oven, and what if we want something baked to go with our steaks? Oops, we're SOL. Not to mention that sort of thing even done once or twice a month would make me very reluctant to open the hydro bill.

Also, the blow torch? coughpenisextensioncough. And there is growing research that shows that charring meat creates carcinogenic compounds. (Not that I am opposed to a little char here and there, but he charred that meat *twice* with pretty excessive heat.)

Then I got to thinking about the show's title. In search of perfection. It's an argument I have regularly with Stirling, and my usual response to HIS perfectionist tendencies is a saying I heard at work from someone (I forget who, I'm pretty sure it was an IBMer so if anyone knows please tell me so I can attribute it properly): Perfection is the enemy of excellence. Meaning, if you shoot for perfect, you usually go over budget, over time, or lose sight of what you were trying to do in the first place.

And boy has Heston lost sight of what food is. Yes, it needs to taste good. I am sure his steak tasted lovely. But was it excellent food? Hell no. Food's primary purpose is to keep people alive. And while there are people who actually TRY to sacrifice some years of their lives in exchange for absolutely the tastiest things around, the vast majority of us would like tasty foods that do good things for our bodies. And frankly the last thing TV-viewing audiences need is some food "perfectionist" telling them to buy grain-finished beef.

(I think Heston is also one of those chefs who frequently utilizes sous-vide techniques that involve slow-cooking foods immersed in water, sealed in plastic bags. That just gives me the willies.)

I would REALLY like to see a TV show about real food. Food the way food was meant to be. Meat from animals raised on the diet they evolved to eat. Vegetables grown in real soil, on real farms, not monocropped things that look like vegetables grown in some hydroponic solution that has the correct balance of NKP but no real soil nutrients. Food that feeds our bodies, food that we don't feel guilty about, food that satisfies our taste buds and our nutritional needs, food that connects us to our community and the land we live on, food that contributes to the well-being of the planet, our farmers, our local economies and ourselves. But something tells me that the Food Network would have a hard time selling ads to run during a show like that.


Blogger Susan said...

That show sounds like a total wack-job... as in, masturbatory. 24 hours to cook a steak? Holy bejeezus! In my opinion, "perfect" steak is one that takes fewer than ten minutes on a perfectly primed grill, the fewer accessories the better.

2:24 PM  

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