An omnivorous chef ponders test-tube meat
That was my first reaction, anyway, to news that the search to produce animal-less sources for meat are moving, if not right along, at least in the direction of progress. The story I read is actually an editorial in Capital Press, an agricultural newspaper published for farmers in the western United States. “[T]he landmark experiments Dutch scientists are undertaking could open the door to a brave new world of food production,” the editorial states.
In other words, test-tube meat: it could soon be what’s for dinner.
As someone who likes food and frequently eats it, I’m not sure this is a direction about which I’m particularly enthusiastic. As it happens, I was discussing this very thing with another cook a couple of days ago at a catering function we were working just outside Berkeley.
“It certainly puts the matter of veganism into a different perspective,” or something to that effect, said Jay, slicing dried figs into quarters to be added to salad. I was slicing kumquats into eighths, and then seeding them. Really.
Already, he continued, the growth of the grass-fed cattle industry — free from many of the blights that plague Big Agriculture meat production — undermines many of the arguments vegans and vegetarians (but mostly vegans) use against consuming meat. Of course, those grass-fed cows — lolling happily on green fields and given only the occasional antibiotic should they actually become ill — are still doomed and will eventually end up as the main course on someone’s barbecue grill, charring next to a chicken leg or hot dog, I assume. That, of course, does little to dissuade very many vegans.
As an omnivore, however, I am interested in humanely produced meat. I’d like for it to have come from animals that lead healthy, reasonably contented — admittedly short — lives. It would be kind of nice if it didn’t pollute the environment, while we’re at it. I don’t eat as much meat as I used to because when I decided to switch to eating only sustainably raised meat, it also meant spending much more on less. I’m fine with that. No one except the Inuit really need to eat that much animal protein anyway.
But at the crux of the vegan argument is the fact that animals are killed so that I can enjoy the occasional expensive hamburger or barbecued tri-trip. And, yes, I’m OK with that, too. I don’t mean to imply that I’m comfortable with other beings dying, but I do understand that another being died so that I can eat. I grew up on a small family farm in Arkansas where we raised cattle, pigs, and chickens for our own consumption. Even as a kid, I was under no illusion as to where our dinner came from. As it happened, it came from the steer we had named Shelly (after a cousin; long story) or any number of other critters.
The idea of eating food produced in a lab, whether it’s starch or meat, has very little appeal largely because — and I am basing this solely on my experience eating laboratory-produced starches — it hasn’t any flavor. I suspect, and I may be wrong, that meat produced in a laboratory will taste something sort of like meat, meat-ish, but I can only wonder at the idea that a food removed from the necessary environmental inputs — think terroir — could possibly taste good. Velveeta doesn’t taste good. Twinkies don’t taste good — well, OK, they do, sort of. But when you come down to it, grass, flowers, dirt, bugs, even the characteristics peculiar to the breed of the animal, all combine to make a pork loin tasty.
That can’t be duplicated in a lab. At least not in any form I’d care to eat.