by Emily Peterson
When I was a kid, before I realized culinary school was an option, or that I'd end up a chef and a culinary instructor myself, before I even gave too much thought to food beyond that I enjoyed it, my aunt showed my brother and I "The Secret Life of Plants."
Now out of print, this documentary featured an original score by Stevie Wonder and the science behind plants and their feelings. At one point, a head of cabbage is hooked up to some diodes and its reaction is measured as it watches another cabbage get sliced into coleslaw. A Japanese woman teaches a cactus to talk. Strange things were happening in the '70s. (Skip to minute 42:30 for the demonstration but the entire film is priceless.)
Screening this video, if I remember correctly, was intended to instill in us empathy for other living creatures with the end goal inspiring us to consider a vegan lifestyle. In retrospect, this makes no sense at all. If anything, I now feel sorry for the dino kale in my fridge.
But we are all adults here and if one wants to pursue a vegan lifestyle, by all means, have at it! I am a social libertarian in the most fundamental way: do no harm to others, do what makes you happy.
What crosses my line into the MYOB zone is asking me why I eat meat. "Defend for me if would you, the virtues of eating poor helpless animals." [Adjusts monocle.] Let's set aside that our canine teeth indicate we humans have evolved to eat meat. Also, were it not for human intervention and cultivation, pigs as we know them (Piglet, Wilbur, Babe) would have fallen off the evolutionary landscape eons ago, as we don't use them for any secondary purpose like wool or milk. Beyond that, why anyone choose to or to not eat meat is their own business.
Let's say, on the other hand, that whatever it is that compels you, you have made peace with your carnivore tendencies and you are embracing all of the wonderful things that come along with it.
Might I suggest two strategies to ensure that all of the meat you consume be delicious and satisfying to both mouth and soul?
Know Thy Meat
If you can identify the person who has cared for the animal you are enjoying on the grill, chances are very strong, nearly certain, that that animal was raised in a manner keeping with good practice. If you are curious, ask. Antibiotics bother you? The person handing you the package across the table at the farmers' market is the person who may have administered them and will explain to you their philosophy on prudent use and saving a cow from, say, a toothache.
Ask the butcher at the meat counter, better yet, seek out an actual butcher shop and make friends with the people running the place. Near to me (a vast suburban wasteland of Buffalo Wild Wings & neon diners punctuated with occasional honest food outlets) a butcher has just opened and not a hipster throwback version. It is an outlet of a family business farther west in New Jersey that decided to open a retail space and provide an underserved community with the animals they raise and slaughter themselves. There's nothing off-putting about the place and when you ask where the pigs/cows/chickens are raised, genuine excitement in the interest is reflected back.
To make it easy, I developed a household rule to combat contributing to the industrial farming complex: don't buy four-legged animals if the package is fluorescent-lit. Grocery stores are out, but the butcher and the natural light of the outdoor market are in.
Cook Thy Meat Well
You've acquired this beautiful cut, you are planning to take it home and enjoy it for dinner. For all the time and energy that you put into the decisions that led you to this moment, I urge you to pick up a copy of Ted Reader's Gastro Grilling.
This book will walk you through all the ins and outs of the grill and provide you with easy-to-follow recipes and mouth-watering photographs. Think you know everything about grilling? I did too until I started reading, really reading, the front pages of this book. For instance, I've always flipped my fish when grilling on a cedar plank. Wrong! I also thought charcoal came in two types: briquette and hardwood. Wrong again! Ted outlines ten types of charcoal, some of which I've never thought of incinerating like coconut husks. Ted's voice is charming and shines through in his anecdotes.
On cooking burgers: "Do not squish or press the burgers while they are cooking. Leave them be! Every time you want to push, press, squish and/or cut the burger, go have a sip of your beer or cocktail instead." You know who you are.
He also provides some etiquette points that will ensure you have a successful grilling event:
"When attending a gastro grilling party, don't touch the grill. That is the domain of the host and hostess of the grilling party and moving in on their turf, uninvited is the biggest faux pas you can make. As a guest, you can watch, but never touch."
Grilling season is upon us, though page 26 of GG challenges the idea of a "season" at all. Enjoy your pork chops that have been specially selected by generations of your ancestors that love you and want you to be happy. Pick up an excellent cookbook from a known source. Throw some portobello caps on for the differently inclined, and enjoy those too.
To hear Ted Read talk to me (@chefemilyp on Twitter & Instagram where I post pictures of my grilling accomplishments and other things), listen to Episode #29 of Sharp & Hot on HeritageRadioNetwork.org***