In America, we have the most varied cuisine in the world with thousands of foods available in grocery stores and menus in restaurants from every corner of the globe. Why do we need all of this variety? And why are meat and barbecue so high up on our list of favorite foods? Our guests offer some answers to these questions.
Sophie Egan, Director of Programs and Culinary Nutrition for the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Culinary Institute of America, author of Devoured: From chicken wings to kale smoothies – how what we eat defines who we are
Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked: The history and science of our 2.5 million year obsession with meat
Robb Walsh, journalist, restaurateur, author of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and recollections from the pitmasters, revised edition
Links for more info:
From Cronuts to Meat to Barbecue: Why we eat what we eat
Gary Price: America has the most varied cuisine of any country on earth. Grocery stores are stocked full of thousands of foods; restaurants serve dishes from every corner of the world, and manufacturers are always thinking up new products that hearken back to what mom used to make to tempt our palates. Meat is a big food here, especially barbecue, and we eat more of it than almost any other country, despite cautions from the healthcare community that we should ratchet it back. Why do we need so many food choices in the U.S.? And how did we get so hooked on meat and barbecue? Our guests have some thoughts on America’s love affair with these foods and why we can’t seem to get enough of them. Sophie Egan is the Director of Programs and Culinary Nutrition for the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Culinary Institute of America. She’s also the author of the book, Devoured: From chicken wings to kale smoothies — How what we eat defines who we are. She says that our taste for certain foods starts early – very early.
Sophie Egan: We certainly mimic the behavior that we see our parents exhibiting when we’re children. And not only that, but many of our taste preferences are formed as early as in the womb, in fact. So what we’re actually fed before we’re even at the level where we can really make conscious understanding of what our parents are doing, just the taste and the foods that we’re introduced to at a very young age.
Price: Egan says that when we grow older, marketers step in to try and shape our food choices for us using some rather sneaky methods – especially for children…
Egan: Children often have a harder time distinguishing between reality and what they’re hearing. So they might see an ad for their favorite cartoon character, you know, Dora the Explorer, and say, “Oh mom, I must have that candy bar because my friend, Dora, told me to.” So that can be very concerning how powerful that is. And it really sticks with us for life. Many of the foods as adults that we are most excited about go back to this nostalgia, the comfort foods maybe that you had as a child.
Price: No matter what kinds of foods we’re talking about – healthy or not – why do we need so many choices? Egan writes that McDonalds has 107 menu items; Starbucks has more than 87-thousand drink combinations! It all boils down to our culture of fierce independence.
Egan: This can be traced back to our inherent individualism. So as Americans we have this founding principle of free will and independence and that’s certainly a fantastic trait but it means that when it comes to food, we look to personalize and customize our eating. And that’s a very different mindset than other cultures that look at food more communally. You know maybe there’s a collective or a large dish, a casserole or a chili or a stew, something like that, you know a lasagna, who knows, that everyone takes a piece of.
Price: It’s not just in restaurants either. Egan says that grocery stores offer hundreds of categories of foods like orange juice that are pretty much the same, only one has lots of pulp, another has no pulp but is enriched with extra calcium and another has vitamin D and folic acid. Egan says that too much choice is just as bad as not enough, and some provides are beginning to see the light.
Egan: The interesting thing to me is people are feeling paralyzed by just how many choices there are and there seems to be a reaction, a little bit of a turning of the tide where some restaurants are paring down their menus because they recognize that people feel overwhelmed by that diversity of choice.
Price: Egan says that another type of food that Americans go crazy for is the “stunt food”. These are the things like Cronuts – donuts made from croissant dough – and stupendously huge burgers topped with other meats. There’s one of these novelty items that took off and she couldn’t figure out why – the Taco Bell “Doritos Locos Tacos”.
Egan: Why did we buy these things in record-breaking numbers? Why did, on average, a million of us Americans buy one every day for the first year they were out? You know this was just perplexing to me, especially at the same time that we’re all supposedly more concerned about health. So, what I learned in the course of my research was a couple of things that are driving this. One is we in the United States very much value science and innovation – it’s a huge part of our national brand, if you will. Whether it’s the iPhone or biotech or any number of things that we’re famous for in terms of that “pioneering spirit,” we inherently welcome and embrace “the new.” We are very open-minded and we’re very forward looking, as opposed to, for example, countries where food is much more about the past and recipes and traditions, ways of eating that have been passed on from generation to generation.
Price: Egan also found out that the marketing of this fast food item played to Americans’ need to have adventures and live on the edge.
Egan: In the book I learned this term of “experiential resume” that many of us subconsciously look to kind of use food to show that we’re living a full life. And I actually talk about with the Doritos Locos Tacos really played to that with the marketing of “Live Mas.” If you go and you eat one of these over-the-top, just bizarre, clearly nutritional train wrecks, that you are adventurous, and you’re seizing the day. And it really plays to that part of our collective mindset.
Price: Our collective mindset is also on a quest for meat – as much as we can find. Marta Zaraska found this out while she was researching her book, Meathooked: The history and science of our 2.5 million year obsession with meat. We love meat, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, Zaraska says that humans didn’t start out as meat eaters – we were vegans.
Marta Zaraska: For very long periods of our history our ancestors have been vegan and subsisting on foods such as grass or leaves or even tree bark. But then about two-and-a-half million years ago they started eating meat. And the reason for that was that the climate has changed and the vegan foods that they were subsisting on, they became less available. So they started scavenging meat off giraffes or zebras that they found on the savannah, something that was left over from dinners from carnivores such as lions or leopards.
Price: Meat has some qualities that made it a preferred food to our cavemen ancestors who couldn’t find the vegetation they once consumed. Zaraska says that there are three things that made meats so desirable to them that still make our mouths water for a good steak or burger today.
Zaraska: There are several components of meat that make it a very particular food and very different than other foods. So, first of all, there is fat in it and fat signifies calories so that’s something that was very good for our ancestors, obviously. They needed as many calories as they could get. Second thing is a taste called “umami” – that’s Japanese for delicious and this is the fifth basic taste. It’s usually found in foods that have a lot of protein in them so it probably signified to the taste buds of our ancestors that this particular food had a lot of protein. So, again, it was good for them. And the third component of meat is something called the flavors of “the Maillard reaction.” This is a reaction that happens when you grill or you roast certain foods such as meat or, for example, when you toast the bread. This is the browning on the outer layer of steak on the grill or on the toasted bread or baked cookies. And it smells delicious to us. And the reason for that is because it signifies the food has been cooked and it means that it’s safer to eat. It doesn’t have so many parasites or bacteria. And such meat grilled over fire was better than raw meat and that’s why, also, we prefer its taste because it tastes of safety.
Price: Interestingly, humans don’t need meat these days to get all of the nutrients to stay healthy. There are proteins in foods that aren’t from animal flesh such as peanuts, beans, legumes and dairy products. Zaraska says that in many parts of the world, meat is used very sparingly, if at all, as a flavor and not a main dish. In some cultures only half of the population eats meat – the male half. She says that meat has long been connected with power and masculinity.
Zaraska: It was also something that men had because they were the hunters, they had the goods, they had the meat. And they also were the ones who were deciding whether to share it, you know, who will get a piece, who will get nothing. So they had the power to give or not to give meat. So they were associated with the meat. And it still carries on, this cultural symbolism that meat equals masculinity and (still) around the world there’s a very similar thing. For example, in some cultures, meats are tabooed for women. There are many taboos on meat where women are not allowed to eat. For example, in Africa and many cultures they are not allowed to eat chicken, let’s say. And this is because men, you know, they wanted to keep their food for themselves. It was the more nutritious, delicious food that they wanted and so we tabooed it. And that’s why, you know, this kind of masculinity and having meat is connected to the power of men over women.
Price: There’s probably nothing that says “manly” more in the U.S. than dad standing at the grill searing a thick juicy steak over the coals. Barbecue is a religion in Texas as Robb Walsh knows well. He’s an award-winning journalist, a Houston restaurateur, and author of the newly revised edition of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cook Book: Recipes and recollections from the pitmasters. Walsh says that barbecue has been part of various cultures for centuries, but here in the U.S. our founding fathers had a hand in making it popular.
Robb Walsh: Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have recorded diary entries about going to barbecues. Barbecue was a way to gather people together in colonial times. All sorts of big events were celebrated at barbecues and the tradition was to dig a pit and lay the animals on wood spits across the embers, the smoldering coals, and slow cook the barbecue. And the cooking was as much a part of the celebration as the eating. People came to see all that meat cooking on those coals.
Price: Walsh says that cooking meat over hot coals came to Virginia and the Carolinas as far back as the 1600s from the Caribbean sugar cane planters, and we owe much of what we know about it and its flavors to the slaves brought over to work on plantations. Walsh says that what makes barbecued meats so luscious is what Zaraska talked about earlier – that umami flavor, the fat that renders off, and one more effect that happens when meat is cooked low and slow.
Walsh: The science of barbecue is turning collagen into gelatin. Sounds kind of weird and gross but collagen is essentially all that gristle and tough stuff in the meat and in the course of slow cooking it for 12 or however many hours, you are rendering that gristle and that tough stuff into a very soft and flavorful gelatin. So the meat is now saturated with the fats which you have rendered by slow cooking it, and you know, if you like bacon you like fat, you know. So these fats start dripping with all of the seasonings – particularly garlic – and when you talk about walking down the street smelling it. So you’ve got rendered pork fat or call it bacon grease, saturated with garlic dripping onto smoky wood or smoky coals. I mean, there’s a combination of…of elements that are just designed to drive the human nose crazy.
Price: When it comes to barbecue specialties, restaurants and cook-offs, the rub or the sauce is as important as how the meat is cooked. Walsh says that there are as many varieties of seasonings as there are cooks, but a few of them stand out.
Walsh: Here in Texas we have four schools of barbecue. We have tejano, which is Latino flavorings and usually includes some chili pepper in a rub or in a marinade; we have African-American barbecue which is always heavily sauced and the sauce is usually pretty sweet. The German meat market barbecue is seasoned with salt and pepper and nothing else. And that is really the most popular style in Austin and Dallas and all the places that you’re seeing television reports about these days and about great pitmasters like Aaron Franklin who won the James Beard award for Best Chef – Southwest a couple of years ago. These guys are just using salt and pepper.
Price: Walsh says that making good barbecue requires patience, persistence and a good palate, but it’s really not beyond the average cook’s abilities. If you’d like to give it a try, pick up Robb Walsh’s book, Legends of Texas Barbecue Cook Book for how-to’s, history and recipes. He also invites listeners to his website at Robb –with 2 b’s – Walsh.com. Sophie Egan’s book, Devoured gives insight into why we eat what we eat and what it says about us and our culture. Her website is SophieEgan.com. For answers about how humans came to love meat, and why we should try to eat less, look for Marta Zaraska’s book, Meathooked in stores, online and on her site at Zaraska.com. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.