Monday, November 19, 2007

The Turkey Is In the House

In the refrigerator, actually.

Turkey is the exotic protein in American diets. We pretty much eat muscle of three animals. Cows, chickens, and pigs. No organ meats. Not even a particularly large range of muscle meats (we tend not to eat much of the tougher cuts of meat that require slow cooking, but have more flavor, unless we grind them up into patties.) And pork is getting more and more marginalized. We probably eat most of our pork as ham bacon or sausage. Maybe the occasional pork chop. We didn't used to eat that way.

We used to eat a range of animals. Lamb. Mutton. Goose. Duck. Most of us didn't eat animal protein every day--but when we did eat animal protein, the range was bigger. Venison, boar, pigeon. (Passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction. Not all of them--probably not most of them--were eaten, but there really was a dish called pigeon pie.) The reason there is something called 'Mock Turtle Soup' is because there used to be something called 'Turtle Soup.' Frog legs. Eel. Partly this was because a lot of people shot at least some of their own food. My mother remembers eating squirrel and dumplings. (As she explained, there isn't a lot of meat on a squirrel and even if you shoot a bunch of them, you need the dumplings to stretch the dish. Meat used to be as much about flavoring a dish as it was about being a dish.)

But we don't do that anymore. I suppose part of the reason is that chickens and pigs lend themselves to factory style agriculture. I don't know why we have such a huge beef industry. It seems an odd thing, economically. A cow is a pretty good food investment when you can milk it and/or graze it--but we support most of our food quality beef on corn these days. Our meat grows blander. We prize tenderness over taste. Turkey is a good, safe 'exotic.' Especially commercial turkeys, which have relatively bland meat.

I know you can buy ostrich and bison these days. I have. But if you stand in most groceries, what you see is a lot of beef, a lot of chicken (broken down mostly into breasts and thighs, with some pre-cut up assortments and some whole birds. What happens to the necks and the backs? Meat is 'broken down' and shipped as parts these days--grocery stores do some butchering, but those wonderful chicken backs that make such good stock aren't back in the back in the grocery.) And you see a smaller area of pork. And then 'poultry--turkey, duck, and cornish game hens which aren't really game at all, they're a small chicken.' Lamb, bison and ostrich are stuck at the edge of the beef/pork areas. We seem to like our meat tender and without too much flavor. Part of that might be because of restaurants--more flavorful cuts of beef, for instance, require a long braising or stewing time, and that's hard to do in a restaurant. Easier to have something you fire on the grill or in the saute pan to order.

There's a growing interest in cuts of the animal that aren't steak as well--long braise cuts like beef shanks, pork shanks, ox tails and beef cheeks. And turkey hangs on. Thanks to the recent interest in reducing fat--turkey is very low in fat, the way that chicken used to be before it was bred to be fatter. (Unlike pork, which is being bred to be leaner, to the detriment of its taste.) And thanks, of course, to Thanksgiving.


Blogger Adam Rakunas said...

Corn. Corn, you are the bane of all that is good and proper in eating! And I don't mean a lovely ear of sweet corn; I mean commodity corn, that bastard stepchild of agriculture that clogs our farmlands like a golden, inedible* plague. Corn leads to beef, beef leads to Atkins dieting, Atkins dieting leads to the destruction of bakeries and fields of terrified, weeping wheat.**

* Inedible unless processed.
** Is it just me, or would "weeping wheat" make a great title?***
*** And, yes, ever since reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," I've been on a one-man crusade against commodity corn. Turned me into a grass-fed-bison man overnight.

November 19, 2007 5:29 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

I notice you don't talk about fish. It's a distant fourth, admittedly, but I think every supermarket carries fish, so I'd expect that it would warrant a mention before, say, lamb.

You say that a beef industry seems odd to you economically, but until the 20th century beef was much cheaper than chicken. Before factory farming made it affordable, chicken was something limited to Sunday dinners.

(And if we're talking about the changing prestige of certain foods, I suppose it's worth mentioning lobsters and oysters, which used to be food for the poor but are not food for the rich.)

November 21, 2007 3:04 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Yup, that's what I grew up eating in Kansas, cows, pigs and chickens. With corn, peas or green beans on the side. Anything else seemed exotic -- beets? Rhubarb? Wow. Now I spend several weeks a year in a place where fish/seafood is the staple and my staples are exotic and expensive. Certainly an incentive to eat more, um, experimentally.

November 21, 2007 8:48 AM  
Blogger Jarvis Rockhall said...

"What happens to the necks and the backs?"

Waste meat is often ground down into protein-rich pellets and used as feed for poultry, livestock and farmed-fish. Although this is used less often for cows now because of the possibility of disease transfer (e.g. the BSE virus) it's still common for other factory farmed produce.

Bon apetit!

November 21, 2007 12:19 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Yeah, Ted, you're right. Fish is the big news in the expanding animal protein market. I mean, when I was a kid, groceries didn't have fresh fish, and even frozen shrimp was a big deal. Now my local market has more kinds of fish than you can shake a stick at.

But beef being much cheaper than chicken? Maybe in parts of the US where suitable land for grazing was not the issue it was in say, Europe or Africa, but in most of the world, are you sure? If you can graze a cow it's fairly cheap. My grandmother always had chickens because although she did feed them some grain, especially in winter, they could forage for a lot of their food. She didn't always have a cow because it was a big honking investment. Although when she could she had a milk cow.

Their meat animal was a pig. It was bought for meat, was less intensively expensive than a cow and could be fed on stuff humans ate, and when it would start to get expensive to keep, it could be slaughtered, smoked, salted, hung in the cold cellar and eaten all winter.

Of course, chickens produced eggs. And eating one meant not getting eggs. So an old hen would get eaten once she stopped laying (and hence the need for a pot, an old laying hen needs to stew or it's tough.) I guess my theory on beef in the U.S. is that we have space, and for European immigrants, beef was a bit of a prestige meat, so if they could get it reasonably, that's what they wanted. But that's entirely unsupported speculation on my part.

November 21, 2007 1:11 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 21, 2007 2:12 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

I don't know about the rest of the world, but in the U.S., I'm pretty sure that chicken used to be more expensive than beef; see here for more info.

I agree that owning a chicken is a smaller investment than owning a cow, but in terms of cost per pound of meat, I have no trouble believing that -- before factory farming -- chicken would be more expensive than beef. You'd have to raise hundreds of chickens to equal the meat of one cow. (Obviously modern factory farming has made both meats much cheaper.)

Back in the 1700s, the French used to call the English "rosbifs" because beef was a staple in England, and I don't think it was a recent addition to the British diet. That suggests to me that it was economical to raise beef quite a while ago.

November 21, 2007 3:59 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Ted, now I'm curious. It's true that roast beef is associated with Englishmen. I'll see if I can investigate.

November 23, 2007 7:44 PM  
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