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One day I was cooking for one of the sponsors of a health fair. In addition to the obligatory salads, they were also serving grilled hamburgers. Now I know what you’re thinking: Hamburgers at a health fair? Well, whether burgers are unhealthy or not is up for debate. I certainly don’t believe the extent of the propaganda about them fueled by the fanatical American health craze. But that’s neither here nor there. All I can say is we had salad left over but couldn’t keep up with the line at the grill for the burgers. At a health fair no less!
The grill cooks were cooking the burgers toward the well done end of the spectrum, due to the people petrified by meat with the slightest pink hue. I find it intriguing that they were pandering to the well-doners at the cost of the medium-rarers. Not that I’m arguing for the reverse. I’ll tell you right now I think everyone should have their burger exactly the way they like it. But I couldn’t help but notice the inequity.
So, despite the fact that our burgers were medium-well or better, one woman sternly rejected her burger, which she hadn’t even bitten into yet, because there were meat juices on the plate; “blood” as she put it. I summarily obliged to have her burger cooked more. But when I nevertheless informed her that it wasn’t blood, but mostly water and protein, (myoglobin* to be exact), she shot me this bemused scowl. It was akin to telling someone from the Middle Ages that the earth revolves around the sun.
I’m going to come right to the point: A phenomenon of modern day culture, particularly American culture, is an insidious aversiveness to so called “undercooked” meat. It has been instilled in many people, inevitably from others during their formative years, but indubitably from other psychic forces as well, to recoil in the face of red meat that is still, well, red.
From time immemorial, which began before the discovery of fire, mankind has consumed raw meat. That’s right, not rare meat, raw meat. But modern food neurotic society has eternally associated raw or undercooked meat with food borne illness. Even rare or medium-rare meat is banned for any germaphobe. Yet interestingly, beef tartare (ground raw meat with seasonings and heaven forbid, a raw egg) and beef carpaccio, (thin slices of raw beef tenderloin), are consumed worldwide, particularly in Europe, and people clearly aren’t dropping dead in droves. Why?
Because the fears about the dangers of raw meat are out of proportion to the actual danger. That is not to say there is no risk. But clearly if there was any appreciable peril, it would be stricken from menus everywhere. If it were that pernicious, more people would be getting sick from it.
The worst irrationalities to combat are the ones that have a kernel of truth. The human mind’s proclivity for paranoia latches onto that one grain of truth in the sand, and then generalizes it to the whole sandbox, and sometimes beyond. In the case of raw meat, that “beyond” is the extension of the paranoia to meat that is cooked, but not well done. Rare, medium-rare, and in its extreme form, even medium-well done meat is imbibed with the same irrational fears.
But germaphobia alone doesn’t account for all the undercooked meat anxiety. As with all human habitudes, there are multifarious forces, many which operate in tandem. The famous Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura, (1925 - ), displayed in numerous experiments how children learn behaviors and certain belief systems through modeling. Basically, children “model” the behavior, (and all the associated thoughts and feelings), of those around them. Many anxieties are learned through this process of emotional contagion, whereby adults’ visceral reactions to certain stimuli are imparted to the child. I’ve spoken with many well-doners who revealed their parents or significant others as sources of their well done meat mindset. They relate how all meat was cooked well done in their household and/or their parents having strong reactions to meat cooked otherwise.
Within this mentality is a repulsion to what is perceived as the more grisly and primitive aspect of carnivorousness. This is resoundingly manifested in the perception of meat juices as blood and the corresponding repugnance the thought of consuming blood engenders. But again, this is a modern trend with arcane roots. Historically mankind did not harbor these kinds of issues about meat consumption. Somehow, 20th century culture, particularly American culture began to forge an abhorrence for the consumption of flesh, despite millennia of its normalcy. The rise of vegetarianism is both a product of and an influence of this orientation.
I believe another influence in the revulsion of less-than-well-done meat, albeit an indirect one is the general vilifying of red meat. Once again, our fanatical obsession with “health” food has identified red meat as one of the bad guys. This artificial dichotomy between healthy and unhealthy food fails to consider that few foods are that black and white. Excessive meat consumption can be a concern due to saturated fat which has been demonstrated to play a role in heart disease. But the simplistic healthy vs. unhealthy food vantage point overlooks the fact that meat has many nutritional benefits as well.
Red meat is high in protein, iron, B vitamins, zinc, and choline. It also contains selenium and conjugated linoleic acid, (CLA), both of which are reputed to have anti-cancer properties. Half of the fat in beef is monosaturated fat, (like olive oil), which has been shown to lower cholesterol. One third of the fat in beef is stearic acid, a particular saturated fat that has no effect on cholesterol. But paranoia is immune to reason and knowledge. Once an emotional conviction is ingrained, it is nearly inextricable as evidenced by the reaction of the woman at the health fair when I endeavored to educate her about the “blood” on her plate.
The problem with well done meat is that the more meat is cooked, the drier and tougher it becomes. This is an incontrovertible scientific fact. Beginning at around 110 degrees, (medium-rare is 130 degrees), proteins begin to denature. The protein strands tighten which toughens the meat, and squeeze out their moisture which dries the meat. Medium-rare meat is done enough to surpass the gooey texture of raw or rare meat, (as well as circumvent most food-borne illness), but is still juicy and tender enough to be satisfying.
I think it is indisputable that people are naturally, gustatorily more receptive to food that is tender and moist. Well done meat goes against the basic biology of the human palate. In other words, if you raised a human in a vacuum devoid of undue psychological and cultural influences about food, this gastronomically pristine human would naturally find medium-rare meat more appealing than well done meat. I can’t help but wonder how much the well-doners think they like well done meat, not because it inherently tastes better but because they’ve been conditioned to think so. The pleasure they derive from side-stepping all their fears and irrationalities about medium-rare meat outweigh their inherent sense of taste. This assertion may arouse some controversy but this is “Food for Thought” after all, not “Food for Unreflectiveness.”
So where does all this leave us? Am I suggesting people force themselves to consume a food they don’t like in the hopes of desensitizing themselves and thus transcend any undue influences on their palate? Of course not. Despite my contentions, people should eat what they like, no matter why they like it. But I do hope to provoke some thinking, some insight and some observing ego, i.e., the ability to be able to step outside of one's frame of reference and objectively evaluate one's conceptualizations; or more germane to the present discussion, to be able to logically analyze ones’ sensitivities. It is the rare person that can do that and if you can, then I say well done!
* Virtually all of the blood has been drained from meat at the slaughterhouse. Red meat is red because of myoglobin, an iron based protein that transfers oxygen from the blood to the muscles of the animal. Muscles which are used more will contain more myoglobin, (since they require more oxygen), and will be redder or darker in color. Moreover, there are different kinds of myoglobin and some are redder than others. pH, (a measure of acidity vs. alkalinity), also affects meat color. Beef and lamb are redder than pork or chicken because of the amount and types of myoglobin and the pH.