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.)

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.

It was time for a steak. I chose steak because it's basic and classic—the Brooks Brothers of the meat world—and chose to order one at SoHo's seasonally-focused Savoy, believing that meat is safer at a restaurant that relies on trusted purveyors rather than factory farms. As for a dining companion, I picked my mother, because she's no fan of undercooked meat herself. I ordered grilled sirloin with cipollini onions and heirloom fingerling potatoes. It was one of the first times in my life I chose an entree for its center rather than its sides. When the waitress said, "Is medium-rare OK?" it was the moment I'd been anticipating, like a proposal. "Yes," I answered. Yes!

And then: here was my steak. "Well, it certainly is rare," said my mother, peering across the table. It was black and crusty on the outside and in the middle, dark red. It had been cut into thin slices, which was reassuring. There would be no mystery center—a raw shocker halfway through my meal. I wouldn't have to worry that the kitchen hadn't realized the inside was still bloody; a professional had evaluated this meat, decided it was OK like that. Normally I would have started with the most well-done strip, but this time I went right for the red. I tasted it, and it was: good.

The meat gave beneath my fork. It was tender. It was juicy. But here's the catch: I didn't revel in its merits. And this confirmed what I had suspected: that these aren't necessarily qualities I prize in food. When people say "juicy," I think of Starburst TV commercials from the 1980s—an artificially flavored explosion in my mouth. I was reminded of an observation I'd come across online: People who prefer well-done don't regard the lack of juiciness as a problem. They like dried things. Liking dried things: Yes, this was me. It was a motif, a style, an inclination for the arid: for raisins, for the air in Colorado, for floorboards without the high-gloss sheen. My spirits fell a little. Is this who I am, a lover of the desiccated? I poked around with my fork, and my heart lifted at discovering something blackened: the onions. Delicious. Then I cut a bite of a savory, well-cooked end strip. "See, this is so good," I said, sighing. It was disappointing to admit it. "This is what I like."

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