We now live in the world of the "meat hipster," as Times writer Christine Muhlke self-deprecatingly described herself in a recent article about mobile slaughterhouses. Meat hipsters glorify the lost art of butchery. They take classes in how to cut up whole hogs. And when they cook their meat, they like it really raw. For a sense of the tone, see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's magnificent The River Cottage Meat Book. In a section called "How Pink?" Fearnley-Whittingstall argues that "bloody as hell" is a taste worth acquiring, noting that his wife likes her meat "when a good 3 inch circle in the middle of the joint is absolutely frigid cold. …" Elsewhere, a beautifully photographed spread shows a pig roast. In the accompanying text, Fearnley-Whittingstall explains how long it will take for the "porker" to cook, but if you're not sure it's finished, "There is certainly no shame in having a meat thermometer handy to test for doneness."
Of course, there is shame. That's why Fearnley-Whittingstall has to say something about it. Though the meat thermometer once identified you as a thoroughly modern cook, it now suggests that you lack skill. More importantly, it betrays you as a cook who is guided by fear—someone who cares more about killing bacteria than about making meat taste good. The meat thermometer has become a weapon in the battle between taste and safety—the crux of most conversations about doneness today.
Our contemporary concern with food-borne illness began in the 1980s, when we became aware of a host of new, dangerous pathogens (which emerged for reasons including antibiotic overuse and factory farming). Soon the USDA began to offer home cooks safety guidelines. These days, cookbooks feature charts listing two sets of temperatures: the author's cool-kid recommendations alongside the schoolmarmish standards of the USDA.
Personally, I blanch when I see these charts: The juxtaposition makes me feel uptight. I worry a lot about E. coli O157:H7, campylobacter, salmonella, all the things that might not be killed if I don't cook my meat to death. I called the USDA, seeking an expert who could validate my déclassé preferences, and was directed to Kathy Bernard, who's been answering calls on the Meat and Poultry Hotline since 1992. Bernard won't tell you what color your meat should be, and she avoids terms like "medium" and "well-done"; the USDA insists that temperature is the only way to gauge safety. But I was surprised to learn from her that the USDA hasn't become unilaterally stricter over time. For instance, a couple of years ago the department actually reduced its poultry recommendation to 165 across the board rather than 180 for thighs and 170 for breasts. The science was clear: Salmonella was dead at 165.
This really got to me. At home, I insisted on 180. Even the USDA wasn't on my side? What kind of food safety nut was I, if I was exceeding the most stringent recommendation there was? My outsize contamination fears inform my preference for well-done. But if there was no compelling safety reason to watch that needle creep toward 200, what was my deal? Suddenly my preference seemed like a pathology, not just a personality quirk. This was something I had to combat.
I sought help online and immediately discovered I wasn't alone: "[People tell] me that it is really weird and gross for me to enjoy well done meat," wrote one desperate gourmand. "How do I get off of my fear of undercooked meat?" Such revelations are treated like serial-killer confessions. People aren't interested in our rehabilitation; they just want to berate us for "murdering"—this is the favored term—meat. The few who think we could one day rejoin society offer the common-sense wisdom that the interior of an intact piece of meat is bacteria-free. Just avoid hamburgers, all ground-up and exposed, if you really have issues. Rationally, this makes sense to me. Neurotically, it isn't enough.
I needed something bigger: a philosophy, a reason to believe. And, soon enough, I found my guiding principle on the foodie site egullet, where a user described reacting in disgust to the "petrified lifelessness" of "200 uniform chalk-white chicken breasts" in a college dining hall. She observed that the meat had been overcooked to the degree that it was now completely disconnected from its origins as an animal roaming on land. This idea spoke to me: I'm an earnest, Greenmarket-ing, Pollan-reading Brooklynite. Eating rare meat now seemed imperative. Forget questions of taste or pretensions to hipsterdom; this was a matter of "conscious eating" (admittedly, a pretension of its own kind). It was about being attendant to the flesh in a big picture way, not just its texture on my tongue. Choosing well-done meat is pathological; choosing rare meat is ethical.