As of this writing, Google returns about 21,700 hits for "bacon-flavored condom." How do I happen to know this? I just thought of the stupidest possible use for bacon, and then dared the Internet to come up empty-handed. My suspicion about the long-lived and very tiresome bacon craze is that the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, dietary choices often (but by no means always) promoted by the smug and priggish, has lent meat-eating a kind of roguish cachet, like letting your child go to play-date without his elbow pads. In New York City, anyway.
At the first-ever Meatopia, a food festival hosted by Josh Ozersky (a James Beard Award-winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History), Robert Richter (the pit master of Fatty 'Cue), and Jimmy Carbone (Good Beer Month Founder and Taste of Tribeca Co-Chair) on Governors Island, July 11, I spotted a t-shirt reading MEAT IS MURDER. TASTY, TASTY MURDER. Did I find this funny? Of course. Did I appreciate the sentiment? You bet, although I do think this shirt is pithier.
Still, a part of me wishes to go back to that prelapsarian time when meat-eating was taken for granted--when people just ate their bacon, instead of crafting it into Star Wars memorabilia. The last time anybody made a decent joke about meat was 258 A.D., when St. Lawrence was roasted on a gridiron by the Roman Emperor Valerian. Lawrence is said to have quipped (okay, shrieked), "Assum est, inquit, versa et manduca!" ("This side's done, flip me over and dig in!") Not for nothing is he the patron saint of comedians and spareribs.
Meat is nothing to laugh at, though it's certainly something to sniff at. We ought to eat as much of it as possible, without the self-conscious pride of defying the nanny-statist health nuts or sanctimonious cow-huggers. It should be our daily bread.
Well, the stuff on offer at Meatopia was not meat in that quotidian sense. There was no North Carolina chopped barbecue, no Kansas City ribs, no Texas Red, and certainly no pre-formed, shrink-wrapped, Grade-Z burger patties. This was meat imitating art, and I hope I'm not betraying my common-manly sensibilities when I report that it was pretty damned delicious.
Preposterously long lines and a distracting beverage tent, featuring a variety of beers from Sixpoint Craft Ales, made it impossible to try everything, but I made a decent effort. Seamus Mullen of Boqueria (53 W 19th; 212-255-4160), one of around thirty chefs featured at Meatopia (and the t-shirt culprit), roasted a whole lamb, a glassy-eyed dinosaur that looked as malevolent in death as it must have looked peaceful and fluffy in life. He also sold slices, below cost, of a black-hoofed leg of Jámon Ibérico de Bellota, acorn-fed cured ham he claimed to have smuggled into the States in a suitcase.
High Plains Bison, the "Official Lean Meat of the Chicago Cubs," offered little Styrofoam cups of sliced bison steak with a kimchi salsa, thus combining the bragging rights of a meat I'd never eaten with the reliable pleasure of anything involving kimchi. The bison itself is touted as a lean alternative to beef, but cooked slowly, barbecue-style, it doesn't let on that it's any healthier. It doesn't let on that it's any different, either, but that didn't bother me much.
Chipotle Mexican Grill isn't an outfit I'd expect to see at a fancy meat festival, but I'm glad it was there. Its carne asada tacos, prepared with Niman Ranch beef, were proof that people who reflexively declare franchise food inferior are not thinking with their tongues. (All of Chipotle's pork comes from the Oakland-based Niman Ranch, though I didn't catch and don't especially care whether the same is true of the beef--though it was excellent beef.)
Akhtar Nawab of La Esquina (114 Kenmare; 646-613-7100) served up roasted Fudge Farms pork shoulder, marinated with "leche condensada, eqazote [sic], ajo, y naranjas." Let me translate: condensed milk, epazote (About.com: "a Mexican herb that has a very strong taste and sometimes a gasoline or perfumey type odor"--gasoline or perfumey?), garlic, and orange.
This didn't leave a very powerful impression on me, and I regret that many of the more basic-sounding pork tastings had run out or developed formidable lines by the time I got to them. I'd have picked a slow-cooked pig over any number of sophisticated bilingual marinades.
High marks to The Meatball Shop (84 Stanton; 212-982-8895) for its mini meatball salad with white beans and watercress, a dish seemingly designed to be as un-manly as possible while still including meat. I suspect I gravitated toward it to test the mettle of Meatopia's wussier-sounding offerings. Mini meatball salad! Sounds a bit like Spaghetti-Os, doesn't it? Well, I couldn't pick a wood-grilled Bell and Evans chicken out of a line-up, but I can attest that it yields a remarkable meatball. Friends, there is no shame in loving a mini meatball salad.
The list of things I didn't get to eat includes, among many other fleshly delights, pecan-smoked short ribs, smoked duck tacos, char-grilled English lamb chops, and a baron of beef (which is not, as I initially guessed, a figure from McDonaldland's feudal past), and all I can do now is linger tearfully over my photos. I leave you with this final thought: Meatopia was terrific, I daresay inspiring -- albeit a bit undersupplied -- but meat-eating doesn't need to be a special occasion, an indulgence, a guilty pleasure. Just as paradise is a state of mind, Meatopia can and should be your own kitchen, every single day of the year. Vaya con carne.