BOOKS OCTOBER 26, 2012
by Bruce Aidells with Anne-marie Ramo
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 632 pp., $40
MR LEOPOLD BLOOM ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
This is how James Joyce introduces us to the hero of Ulysses. Whatever he does or thinks on that long June day over which the novel takes place, we can always sense on Bloom the tang of kidney.
Bruce Aidells, a successful sausage-maker and cookbook author, is a man of similar appetites. Aidells eats with innocent relish crispy pan-fried sweetbreads; beef tongue tacos; and the livers of lambs, cows, and pigs. He enjoys goat and noodle soup, oxtails braised in soy sauce with star anise, gorgonzola-stuffed flank steak. Especially, he loves chewing chops that have “ample marbling” and “gnawing on steak bones.” To read The Great Meat Cookbook is to be confronted by the sheer volume of meat-eating that has become normal in America.
Nominally, this edition is a timely update to Aidells’s original meaty bible, published sixteen-plus years ago. In his introduction, Aidells notes that the new edition was provoked by a “heightened” awareness about the gruesome methods by which the vast majority of meat is produced. “A growing number of food lovers have decided that they no longer want to buy meat produced in industrialized feedlots or other confinement systems,” he writes. And “many people prefer to avoid meat from animals that have been pumped full of antibiotics and growth promotants.” Others, he continues, “are simply looking for more choices in flavor and texture.” With this litany of concerns out of the way, Aidells gets back to the important matter of eating more meat—“sustainable meat.” Throughout the book, he favors pasture-raised, hormone-free, local and heirloom breeds.
But if he displays some sensitivity toward sourcing and some of the other issues that trouble meat-eaters, this is not a man who counsels moderation as a partial cure. If Aidells has a bunch of scallions, he wraps them in pork belly. (Oh wait, here’s an alternative version of the recipe for those who don’t like pork belly: use pancetta or smoked bacon.) If he can assemble two or three friends to come round, Aidells will slice the cooked meat off a two-pound, two-inch-thick rib-eye steak, “keeping the bone for myself.” And he will gnaw away happily.
This man is seriously knowledgeable about flesh. “All-encompassing” was how The Washington Post described the original version of Aidells’s tome, and this fully updated edition is no less capacious. He knows his cuts and what to do with them. If he has a gnarly piece, “rich with collagen,” such as “short ribs, shanks, cheeks,” he will “cook them long and slow in a moist environment.” As is traditional, each chapter of The Great Meat Cookbook contains a map of the relevant animal. Pork is divided into shoulder, loin, belly, and ham; beef into chuck, rib, loin, sirloin, round, shank, brisket, plate, and flank. But Aidells’s appreciation of anatomy and how it might translate to cooking methods is far more detailed than any meat chart. When choosing chuck-eye steak, a “bargain cut,” he advises the customer to seek “steaks as close to the rib primal as you can get.” He is a fan of blade-end pork chops because they have more “intramuscular fat and connective tissue than the rest of the loin,” making them a tasty section to braise or grill.
The Great Meat Cookbook offers a revealing snapshot of how thoughtful American cooks are dealing with meat in 2012. Pork belly? Check. Italian broccoli rabe and sausage pasta? Check. Meatloaf with an interesting barbecue sauce? Check. “If you’re like me, you’re looking for new and exciting ways to spice up your meals,” he confides. But “exciting” does not mean adventurous—an example: Pork Stew with Hard Cider. Aidells contributed to the meat section of the updated Joy of Cooking in 1997, and his tastes are very much those of mainstream—but committed—home cooking in America. “Meat” in this book means primarily beef and pork and to a much lesser extent bison, goat, veal, and lamb. Most Americans, he notes regretfully, eat no lamb “whatsoever,” perhaps because they think it will taste strong like mutton. Chicken, meanwhile, is entirely absent from the book, except when chicken livers are used for flavoring. This is a world so red-bloodedly meaty that poultry doesn’t qualify.
Aidells writes for those whose idea of the ultimate feast—in fact, the Ur-meal—remains a steak house grilled rib eye with a pat of flavored butter, served with a wedge of blue-cheese-smothered iceberg, and a baked potato slathered in sour cream. This recipe is tagged as “Fit for Company, Family Meal, Great Leftovers.” Aidells reveals that the reason steak house steaks taste better than the ones we cook at home is not the quality of the meat itself. “The secret lies in the correct seasoning, the grilling technique, and the final flavor enhancements.” A massive blast of heat followed by a cooler grill-roast; a liberal dose of salt and pepper; and more butter smeared on at the end than you’d believe.
Almost all of Aidells’s dry-heat recipes involve some kind of rub, marinade, or flavor-brine. In this respect, the steak described above—which just gets a quick rub of oil, salt and pepper—is unusual. To be a great meat chef, in Aidell’s book, means to be the master of Ziploc cuisine. A fatty skirt steak might be treated with a coffee and chocolate rub; a chuck steak is doused in a mixture of beer, chile, and cilantro. As for pork, Aidells plumps and salts it in myriad brines, flavored with Guinness or bourbon or pomegranate molasses and cumin (Turkish Flavor Brine).
Meat cooks have always found ways to add flavor to the flesh as it cooked. Larding needles or lardoirs were common kitchen equipment until the middle of the twentieth century, used to insert strips of seasoned pork fat into a joint as it roasted. Similarly, bourgeois French cooks often give meat a long bath in red wine—as in boeuf bourguignon. But the use of flavor and texture enhancing in The Great Meat Cookbook has reached frantic levels. Partly this is because we are all now cottoning on to the depth of flavor that can be achieved through pre-salting. Aidells’s recipe for roast leg of lamb with rosemary was the best I have ever tried: 24 hours coated in a salty lemon-rosemary paste made the lamb wonderfully savory and herbal. Then again, this was a good leg of lamb to start with, grass fed in the West Country of England.
Here and there, however, we get glimpses of another reason for all the rubs and brines—and a vague gesture toward the concerns that ostensibly prompted the book. Modern factory-farmed meat, in particular what Aidells calls “commodity pork,” can be dry, hard, and devoid of flavor. That’s if you’re lucky. A worse scenario is something called “pale, soft and exudative” meat, more common in chicken but also seen in pork, a horrible, squishy thing “caused by abnormal muscle metabolism” resulting from “stressful handling of the pig before processing.” This is not the sort of thing you want to think about as you fire up the grill to cook a pork chop. Aidells doesn’t dwell.
Receiving even less attention is the question of whether we should eat meat at all. For a cookbook that purports to be something of a response to contemporary concerns, this is a single-minded volume. As The Guardian explained it, a report in August from the Stockholm International Water Institute warned that the world’s population might have to switch “almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.” Meanwhile, in Aidells’s world, “If you are a meat lover, you owe it to yourself to sample and compare grass-fed beef from various sources.” The term “vegetarian” enters the book only in relation to the animals themselves: Aidells suggests eating only vegetarian cows. There is no concept here of less meat, never mind no meat. Often the recipes consist of meat flavored with more meat: beef filet stuffed with prosciutto; steak with chorizo butter. Even my butcher goggled when I asked him for the eight-pound joint of beef rib that Aidells recommends to serve eight people (admittedly with leftovers, and OK, some of it is bone, but still). Meat consumption in the United States is about 276 pounds per person per year, only just behind Luxembourg (300 pounds) and nearly forty times as much as India (7 pounds). This doesn’t sound much like heightened awareness to me.
Aidells is the perfect guide for those American cooks who have read enough Michael Pollan to start worrying about meat, but not so much it puts them off their steaks and chops. Aidells is no Anthony Bourdain, reveling in blood and violence. The mood is one of sweet innocence. So many meats, so little time to sample them all. You can almost feel him licking his bearded lips as he describes the pleasures of such dishes as Pot-Roasted Veal on a Cloud, a rich veal stew on a bed of cornbread. Comfort Food, Fit for Company, Fit for a Crowd.
Bee Wilson is the author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat (Basic Books).