Thursday, December 04, 2008


Most of the people in my circle of friends are big fans of game meats like venison, or other flavors unlike the ones in a typical supermarket meat case. At best, I find most of those meats a poor substitute for more "mainstream" meats, and for no good reason whatsoever I feel like that's something to be embarassed by.

I don't mean that I feel judged; my friends do not generally take on a superior attitude for their more discerning palates or anything. I think it's just the long-standing American cultural trope towards considering the mainstream, the "ordinary", to be a bad thing, and to celebrate deviations from it. (I don't mean that's why my friends like those meats; I just mean that's why irrationally I feel like I ought to.)

If I had lived centuries ago, a piece of venison would have been a remarkable treasure and I would have been glad to have it. So if I turn my nose up at it in favor of more "refined" things, am I being a snob?

Sure, some of the things that used to be common, and got set aside in favor of more "refined" alternatives that didn't turn out that great by the time I was alive, are worth revisiting. For instance, in my youth, the state of the art in bread was a fluffy, light Wonder Bread. Bland, nutritionally almost empty, but completely unlike the coarse, harsh breads that a century earlier (or less) the lower classes were stuck eating, while wishing they could have the much better breads that upper classes enjoyed. But as lighter breads moved their way down the social castes, they also lost a lot of what made the good ones good; and by my childhood in the 70s, Wonder Bread was only superficially like the breads that made white bread preferable to coarse "peasant breads" a few generations earlier. Nowadays, coarser breads are sold as a luxury food, "artisan bread", and white bread is the cheap commodity bread you imagine surrounding bologna and mayo in the cheapest sandwich in the school cafeteria.

So why isn't the same true of meat? Maybe venison is something that used to be too common to be good, but other meats that only the richer people could have, have had the good bred out of them as they moved down in price to reach more people.

Well, maybe so, but if so, I don't taste it. You can change the taste of meat a lot with changes in breeding and raising methods, just as you can change the taste of bread a lot by finding ways to make it cheaper, lighter, and longer-lasting on the grocery store shelf. But maybe in the final analysis you can't change meat as fundamentally as you can change bread. So maybe beef hasn't gotten worse as it's gotten more common, by nearly as much as white bread did. Maybe the reasons why beef was preferred over venison by the rich centuries ago were more sound reasons than why they preferred white bread over coarse bread.

For whatever reason, the meats that were preferred back then, are still, to me, preferred. They've probably gotten better, too. I'm sure some of what we do to raise beef today is geared towards making it cheaper or keep better at the expense of taste; but I bet a steak from the supermarket today would be both tastier and healthier than a comparable cut from a cow of 1608, that more has improved than gotten worse.

Whereas venison hasn't changed much, I'd wager. Some changes due to mankind's effect on the ecosystem (which probably don't make venison tastier!) but nowhere near as much as the changes wrought by cattlemen over centuries of breeding and other refinements.

Add it all up, and I conclude there's nothing whatsoever wrong with me preferring ordinary, mainstream cuts of beef to venison. The same arguments work when I compare chicken with quail, and so on.

And yet I still wonder if I'm not the one missing out, a victim of the modern world that's stripped from me the discernment needed to appreciate what's really good in favor of what's merely popular and mass-produced. I can't quite shake the idea. I can say "you like what you like and that's that", but somehow it doesn't quite wash it all away.


litlfrog said...

And yet I still wonder if I'm not the one missing out, a victim of the modern world that's stripped from me the discernment needed to appreciate what's really good in favor of what's merely popular and mass-produced.

I feel this way too. Our palates naturally want fat, sugar, and salt. Industrialized food production has capitalized on that to pack much of our food with historically unprecedented levels of syrup, grease, and chemically enhanced flavor. It's what we ate growing up, and venturing to new flavors as an adult is difficult when it can be done at all. I wish I could enjoy brussel sprouts, oysters, olives, and tofu. But you know, my tastebuds aren't having any of it. And if you get a lot of enjoyment from a good beefsteak, I doubt that pleasure is any less than a different diner would take from saddle of venison or curried goat.

Jill said...

If you want to try something good for you, different, and actually available is some grocery stores, try Ostrich! It's actually a red meat, not poultry. It tastes like a cross between beef, veal and venison. It has lower fat and cholesterol than most meats and poultry and you can substitute it in many beef dishes. Stop and Shop near us carries it ground and in a tenderized steak. It's very good and not gamey like many alternative meats.