Meat and Fire
This is about meat and fire. It will be distasteful to some and salubrious to others. In either case, it is not for the faint hearted. It is about the selection of the best meat and its preparation for consumption. It is about life and death. It is unapologetically carnivorous and acknowledges the spiritual proximity of men to the various beasts that become their food.
We are held harmless by the relentless machines of death that, in war, produce “body counts,” and enduring grief and, in the food industry, put meat on our tables. As we waddle through supermarkets pushing our chrome carts and scanning the white foam trays of theatrically lit red and gray meats wrapped in food film, we have entirely lost the images that connect us to the gentle animals from which these cuts come. Mutton, pork, poultry, beef, veal, venison and rabbit all have warm blooded living cognates in the animal kingdom, some domestic, some feral. Ironically the one product descriptor called by its real animal name is the one we eat the least, rabbit – too much recall.
Supermarkets, like the military machine, want us to see their outputs wholly disconnected from the source. The military censors images of carnage and does not allow footage of soldiers returning home in coffins. Real as they are, they belie violent death and raise questions. We are disconnected from carnage in military conflicts and butchery in our food supply.
In countries where food is 50% or more of the total family expenditure, the food industry is either undeveloped or selectively ignored. Where people traditionally care deeply about the source and quality of the living elements of their diet, markets are often outdoors and food is sold by the producer. Chickens, ducks, rabbits, turtles, fish and snakes (in Asia) are sold live. In Europe, meat is sold either on ice or hanging and custom cut, fish on ice. Produce is sold in wooden boxes and is fresh-picked within hours, not weeks, of sale. Go to a market in Europe, China, Africa, South or Central America and you will see how the rest of the world acquires its daily food. Go to a seasonal farmers’ market in Burlington and see us beginning to reconnect to the sources of our food supply.
But this is about meat. Meat is disturbingly proximate. We are meat, our pets are meat. The vegetarian’s aversion to meat and their respect and kinship for fauna turns them away from the consumption of flesh; this is wholly understandable and laudable. Having said that, most of the world eats meat when they can get it.
Getting meat… Don’t buy bulk processed meat of any kind with the exception of sausages made by someone you know. Buy whole cuts of meat and buy them from local producers. If possible buy a large cut and don’t have it sliced or ground unless you plan to eat it within 24 hours. Vermont now has fresh sources of beef, lamb, chicken, duck, rabbit, pork, and venison. If you like exotics like elk and caribou, go to Slovenia on Boul. St. Laurent, just south of Avenue des Pins in Montreal. They have everything and they cut it before your eyes. They make trustworthy and delicious sausages and import saucissons d’Arles, a personal favorite. If you need beef in large quantities, go to Costco. It will be from away, but it will usually be good. But the ideal is to find a local butcher or producer and tell him what you need.
Getting fire at Home Depot… we love knobs and switches. Turn a knob and poof, there is fire, sort of. Propane gas ignites automatically and slowly turns grease-laden charcoal or “lava rocks” into a smoldering petrochemical glow. We are now primal, cooking over a “fire,” except for the knobs, hoses, tank, igniters, stainless steel hood, deck furniture, bottled marinade, boom box and barbecue tools.
Getting real fire … Dig a small hole at the edge of your property, down wind from the house, about 3-4’ in diameter. Line the perimeter with sedimentary stone, not igneous or river stone. Go to a welder and buy a suitable piece of fire escape tread grillwork. Crumple up some new paper, lay some kindling or faggots on top and place three or five dry pieces of hard wood (apple, maple, cherry) on the pyre pyramid-style and light it. Burn off any paint on the grill work if it is new. Think of wood as spice not fuel. It will be ready for cooking in about 70-100 minutes. If you need to cook for a long time, add some real charcoal, the kind made from wood, not coal. It comes in chunks, not “briquets.”
A prime example…. Cook a whole beef filet over a real wood fire.
Two days before you plan to cook, unwrap the meat, remove surface ligaments, dry it off and hang it from a steel hook vertically with a bowl underneath to catch the sera. Although my home will be surrounded by federal agents for saying this, cool room temperature is fine. Meat sold in stores is so full of water and blood, not to mention processed meat with dextrose (sugar), salt, water and carcinogenic nitrates, that when it is cooked without first hanging it, it does not cook properly; it poaches in its own watery fluids. This is why much meat turns gray and unappealing when cooked. It is being poached rather than braised. You will be amazed at how much drains out.
Meanwhile take a bowl, add a couple of tablespoons of tamari, a ¼ cup of good oil, less than a ¼ cup of marc, (cheap brandy, calvados or even good dry sherry will also work) and less than a ¼ cup of cheap balsamic vinegar. To this add course ground pepper, salt, Spanish smoked paprika (lots) and garlic if you wish. Whisk this into an abrasive rub and don’t worry about spices not dissolving. With your hands, rub the meat thoroughly with this mixture. Massage it as you would your wife’s gams. The salt, booze and acid remove surface bacteria and flavor the exterior of the meat. It is not a marinade. Put the newly relaxed meat uncovered in the fridge until ready to cook.
Cooking the meat…Remove the meat from the fridge a couple of hours before you cook it. Re-massage the meat with leftover rub. Good meat is best cooked from room temperature. The fire should be down to coals and have only occasional dancing yellow flames. Drop the meat on, letting it sear on the exterior and turning it so it blackens nicely on both sides. Move it to the side somewhat to let it cook and don’t worry about some charring on the exterior. It will only add flavor.
Filets are tapered. You should aim for the narrow end to be medium and the thick end to be rare so you can please a spectrum of carnivores. Turn every 10 minutes and slice open the thick end to assess progress. A large filet will usually cook over a good bed of coals in 20-25 minutes. Don’t worry about occasional flare ups.
Serve: slice and serve with oven-fresh French baguettes, unsalted local butter and several salads. Except for the salad, encourage people to eat with their hands if they are that sort. Toast your beast with a hearty burgundy. If you are Native American, you may follow the tradition of asking the animal’s forgiveness for its sacrifice.