A history of well-done meat in America.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 16 2010 10:01 AM

Shoe-Leather Reporting

A history of well-done meat in America.

Raw steak. Click image to expand.
A raw steak

I prefer my meat cooked through, gray, no trace of pink. Shoe leather? To me that signifies "food safety." Mine is the hockey-puck, the charcoal, the hunk of tuna that is still on the grill. Gourmands consider well-done timid, even cranky. It's the gradation of people who don't really like to eat. So at a restaurant, I wouldn't humiliate myself by ordering seared tuna, well-done; I just wouldn't order the seared tuna at all. Nor would I choose hanger steak or even a really thick fish like halibut that might come out still glistening. My pride is not the only issue: If the chef thinks the dish should be rare, far be it from me to suggest an edit. Also, I've read enough kitchen dirt— waiter blogs, Anthony Bourdain memoirs —to know that diners who ask for well-done are answered with filets that have been loogied on. So I gravitate toward entrees that will fall off the bone: short ribs, osso buco, pork shoulder. That these dishes are substantial proves my culinary cred—shows that I'm not the skinny girl who nibbles and picks.

The problem is, my menu choices are increasingly limited. It's a struggle to prefer well-done in an underdone world, as the mania for undercooking now extends even to white meat. A few years back, when then-New York Times food critic Frank Bruni celebrated the comeback of the medium-rare pork chop, the commenters cheered him along. "Chalk me up as a fan of chicken that's pink all the way through!" wrote one. The Times seems to have adopted an editorial board stance endorsing rare meat. One morning I sat down to the Dining section only to see that one of our household heroes, Mark Bittman, had written, "Forgive my snobbishness, but well-done meat is dry and flavorless. …" Yes, snobbishness. There it was. And I got to thinking: How did we arrive at these standards? Has pinky-red meat always been a culinary ideal?

*****

Although much has been written on the history of meat-eating, the topic of doneness is strangely unexplored. Over the past few years, Lynne Olver, of the food history site the Food Timeline, has begun surveying the subject, from the caveman on. In an e-mail, Olver explained that for eons, "[m]eats were cooked with one general goal: make them edible." Nonetheless, even the ancient Greeks and Romans "prescribed," as Olver puts it, certain methods of preparation in accordance with their humoral theory of medicine. For instance, according to Hippocratic teachings, beef "will agree best with those who use it well-boiled," and pork "should be eaten without the skin, and in a coldish state." Such aphorisms laid the groundwork for theories on preparation that developed in the following centuries.

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I honed in on the modern American history of doneness, in large part because it can be tracked precisely—thanks to the meat thermometer. This early-20th-century invention brought about a giant cultural shift: the reliance on a gadget—rather than instinct, or experience—to assess our meat. The thermometer was promoted to home cooks as a tool of scientific precision. It was also an instrument of relaxation, something that freed you from worrying about misjudging the meat: "A roast thermometer makes for carefree roasting," advised the 1959 edition of Fannie Farmer's famous tome. By midcentury, temperature measurements were a common feature of cookbooks.

I decided to compare temperatures in old cookbooks with those in new, starting with the historical volume nearest at hand: a weak-spined, light-blue Joy of Cooking from 1964, one containing handwritten notations from both my grandmother and my mother (on recipes such as "rich roll cookies" and "whole-grain bread cockaigne"). For comparison, I had the glossy, white-covered 1997 update I acquired in my early 20s. I opened both volumes to the general section on meat. The measurements are radically different. Leg of lamb, for example, once considered "slightly rare" at 160 to 165, was later classified as "medium" at only 135 to 145. A session in the reading room of the New York Public Library confirmed the downward trend. Stacks of cookbooks around me, I noted that not only had the temperatures fallen, but the very right to choose well-done had been expurgated. For instance, in a 1979 recipe for leg of lamb, Craig Claiborne offered instructions for cooks like me who might "wish the lamb to be well-done." By the 1990 update to his classic cookbook, well-done isn't even listed as an option.

Our standards for doneness changed rapidly when, thanks to Claiborne, Julia Child, and others, we discovered, and began to venerate, cooking methods that originated abroad. Once American palates adjusted to the European style of underdone meat, guidelines fell even further. (Child's leg of lamb: rare at 140 in 1961; 125 in 1979.) Times writer Florence Fabricant took note of this development in a 1982 article called "A Trend Toward 'Less Well Done.' " Fabricant called overcooking "a tradition in this country" and attributed the change to the influence of "Oriental" and "French nouvelle" cuisines. She also connected the trend to the then-new vogues for crisp-tender vegetables and for raw foods, like sushi. But eating rare meat wasn't simply a matter of evolving taste. It was a means of signaling something about yourself, an ethos. When Fabricant's article was published, serving your guests rare meat showed you were sophisticated. These days, it shows you're cool. (Look no further than the title of Bourdain's forthcoming bad-ass memoir: Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.)

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