I’ve been on vacation this week. I got thinking about two interesting and related things.
Firstly I was reading Mill’s Utilitarianism. I love Mill, and this book is no different. He deals in some depth with the obvious objection to Utilitarianism. How do we judge what constitutes a pleasure, and particularly a ‘higher’ pleasure. Part of this is the question of aesthetic education. Is Shakespeare’s “Tempest” really more aesthetically worthy than the movie “American Pie”. How can we tell?
I was mulling over this while eating a steak. In two neighboring tables folks also ordered steak. And they ordered it well done. It struck me that this was the same thing. Well done steak is the equivalent of a crappy rom-com, and rare steak the equivalent of Shakespeare. You see, most people who order their steaks medium or more, have suffered mis-education. They have been told that pink meat is unhealthy (it is not), or that it is raw (it is not), or that it is somehow icky (it is not). So instead they ask for meat that has lost most of its texture and flavor, meat who’s proteins have been changed to be less digestible and therefore less nutritious. I was such a person. That was my background. But then someone took me in hand and said, pretty blankly: “steaks are supposed to be cooked rare”. Sometimes you need someone to tell you in those bald terms.
This isn’t a matter of personal preference, but of chemistry. The taste, texture and color of steak are generated by a complex set of proteins. You can track the changes in these proteins during the cooking process. There is quantitatively less of the major flavor compounds in well-done steak than rare steak, and fewer flavor compounds generally. Overcooking steak causes the muscle fibers to denature and fuse, meaning it is much tougher and drier (some folks even use a steak hammer to tenderize their steak before overcooking it!). Overcooking also dramatically increases the concentration of heterocyclic amines (HCA) the major DNA-damaging (and therefore cancer-causing) agents in red-meat. Red meat is not a significant carcinogen if cooked properly. You may look at the rare steak and think “eww”, but that is because you have been told to think that. In fact, the rare steak is both tastier and better for you. And neither of those assertions are a matter of preference – they are falsifiable statements of fact.
Part of the problem, in steak and popular culture, is that the crappy version has become institutionalized in our culture. It is very difficult in the UK, and almost impossible in the US (in my experience) to order a ‘rare’ steak in a restaurant and get an actual rare steak (this doesn’t apply to all restaurants costing > $50 per entree, but even then you’re not guaranteed success)*.
We have steak no more than once every few months at home, so I like to go for it on holiday. Of the three steaks I ordered this week, I got one medium, one medium-well and one medium-rare. 0/3 hit rate. That’s pretty sad. Last time I ordered a rare steak in the US I got this lecture about how “rare means red and bloody in the middle – is that okay?” (actually it isn’t bloody in the middle – that’s just rubbish, it is an aqueous solution of myoglobin that gives rare steak its characteristic red juice – and rare steak should be more than just red in the middle!). I said “yes, absolutely, the rarer the better”. And I got? A steak that was medium-well done. God help anyone who ordered it well done – probably better to serve it in an urn.
How do we raise the cultural sophistication of society? How do we tell people that eating well-done steak is consuming a bunch of BS and a substandard product? How do we encourage artistic effort and excellence, rather than another crappy movie? How do we educate the aesthetic sense of others in a culture where aesthetic sophistication is considered to be arrogance? Where can I find aesthetic education in those areas that I am still ignorant?
Photo credit: The Healthy Butcher
* I’ve heard a (possibly apocryphal) story that Gordon Ramsey would refuse to cook steaks more than medium in disdain for the uneducated palette of anyone who ordered it that way.