Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Medium Raw

Medium raw : a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook
Anthony Bourdain
Ecco Press, New York, NY. 2010

Anthony Bourdain is the Hunter Thompson of food writers; profane, insightful, and funny as hell. He also possesses a personal honesty that Thompson never had. His latest book, Medium Raw, is a collection of short essays, really, each delving into an aspect of the food world. Why he despises the Food Network, but understands why his friends are in thrall to it. Whether or not you should attend cooking school or get a job in the restaurant industry (probably not). A crazy-funny chapter called The Rich Eat Differently Than You and Me that is brilliantly observed. And another called The Fear that details what happened to the New York restaurant industry in 2008. And some pure unadulterated food porn in a chapter called, simply, Lust.
But the chapter Meat is simply one of the great jeremiads about industrial food. It's' so good that I wish I had written it. I want to quote a long passage from it--by no means the whole thing. I think it best expresses the rage, horror, and sense of betrayal all of us should or would express at the current industrial food system.
Medium Raw is a great read. You should pick it up.

I believe that the great American hamburger is a thing of beauty, its simple charms noble, pristine. The basic recipe--ground beef, salt, and pepper, formed into a patty, grilled or seared on a griddle, then nestled between two halves of a bun, usually but not necessarily accompanied by lettuce, a tomato slice, and some ketchup--is to my mind, un-improvable by man or God. A good burger can be made more complicated, even more interesting by the addition of other ingredients--like good cheese, or bacon...relish perhaps, but it will never be made better.
I believe that the human animal evolved as it did--with eyes in the front of its head, long legs, fingernails, eyeteeth--so that it could better chase down slower, stupider creatures, kill them and eat them; that we are designed to find and eat meat--and only became better as a species when we learned to cook it.
We are not, however, designed to eat shit--or fecal coli-form bacteria, as it's slightly more obliquely referred to after an outbreak. Tens of thousands of people are made sick every year by the stuff. Some have died horribly.
Shit happens, right? Literally, it turns out. That's pretty much what I thought anyway--until I read recent news accounts of a particularly destructive outbreak of the pathogen O157:H7. What I came away with was a sense of disbelief, outrage, and horror--not so much at the fact that a deadly strain of E. coli found its way into our food supply and made people sick but at the way other, presumably healthy burgers are made--the ones that didn't make anybody sick. I was well aware--I mean, I assumed--that your frozen pre-made burger patty--the one intended for institutional or low-end, fast-food use; your slender and cheap, pre-packaged supermarket disk--was not of the best-quality cuts. But when I read in the New York Times that, as standard practice, when making their "American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties," the food giant Cargill's recipe for hamburger consisted of, among other things, "a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps" and that"the ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria" (italics my own), well...I was surprised.
By the end of the article, I came away with more faith in the people who process cocaine on jungle tarpaulins--or the anonymous but hardworking folks in their underwear and goggles who cut inner-city smack--than I had in the meat industry. I was no less carnivorous, but my faith had been seriously damaged. A central tenet of my belief system, that meat--even lesser-quality meat--was essentially a "good" thing, was shaken.
Call me crazy, call me idealistic, but you know what I believe? I believe that when you're making a hamburger for human consumption, you should at no time deem it necessary or desirable to treat its ingredients in ammonia. Or any cleaning product, for that matter.
I don't think that's asking a lot--and I don't ask a lot for my fellow burger-eaters. Only that whatever it is that you're putting in my hamburger? That laid out on a table or cutting board prior to grinding, it at least resembles something that your average American might recognize as "meat.
Recall, please, that this is me talking. I've eaten the extremities of feculent Southern warthog, every variety of gut, ear, and snout of bush meat. I've eaten raw seal, guinea pig. I've eaten bat. In every case, they were at least identifiable as coming from an animal--closer (even at their worst) to "tastes like chicken" than space-age polymer.
An enormous percentage of burger meat in this country now contains scraps from the outer part of the animal that were once deemed sufficiently "safe" only for pet food. But now, thanks to a miracle process pioneered by a company that "warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia," we don't have to waste perfectly good "beef" on Fluffy or Boots.
"An amalgam of meat from different slaughterhouses" is how the Times describes what's for dinner when you dig into "American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties"--but what the fuck does that mean?
In another telling anomaly of the meat-grinding business, many of the larger slaughterhouses will sell their product only to grinders who agree to not test their product for E. coli contamination--until after it's run through the grinder with a whole bunch of other meat from other sources.
Meaning, the company who grinds all that shit together (before selling it to your school system) often can't test it until after they mix it with meat they bought from other (sometimes as many as three or four) slaughterhouses. It's the "Who, me?" strategy. The idea is simply that these slaughterhouses don't want to know--'cause, if they find out something's wrong, they might actually have to do something about it and be, like, accountable for this shit, recall all the product they sold to other vendors.
I don't want to sound like Eric Schlosser or anything. I'm hardly an advocate for better, cleaner, healthier, or more humane--but you know what? This Cargill outfit is the largest private company in America. A hundred and sixteen billion dollars in revenue a year. And they feel the need to save a few cents on their low-end burgers my buying shit processed in ammonia? Scraps that have to be whipped or extracted or winnowed out or rendered before they can put them in a patty mix? Mystery meat assembled from all over the world and put through one grinder--like one big, group grope in moist, body-temperature sheets--with strangers?
I believe that, as an American, I should be able to walk into any restaurant in America and and order my hamburger--that most American of foods--medium fucking rare. I don't believe my hamburger should have to come with a warning to cook it well done to kill off any potential contaminants or bacteria.
I believe I shouldn't have to be advised to thoroughly clean and wash up immediately after preparing a hamburger.
I believe I should be able to treat my hamburger like food, not like infectious fucking medical waste.
I believe the words "meat" and "treated with ammonia" should never occur in the same paragraph--much less the same sentence.Unless you're talking about surreptitiously disposing of a corpse.
If you are literally serving shit to American children, or knowingly spinning a wheel where it is not unlikely that you will eventually serve shit--if that's your business model? Then I got no problems with a jury of your peers wiring your nuts to a car battery and feeding you the accumulated sweepings of the bottom of a monkey cage. In fact, I'll hold the spoon.
(pp. 95-100)


  1. Wow. I've done a certain amount of reading about fast food source materials, but I didn't come across that. Yargh.

    Well...luckily there's a farmer's market near me that will be opening soon...I hope....

  2. The thing is, this is totally avoidable. there are lots of decent producers who would love to sell you food directly off the farm. Meat inspected, cut, wrapped, and frozen--delivered direct to your door. A half or quarter too much? Split with a friend or co-worker.
    Because every time we do that, we make the food system a little better and a little more secure.