I have a 3 1/2 year old pug named Tojo. I’ve written about him before; he’s the fruit loving pug. Pugs are interesting dogs; they are very loyal, are obsessed with food, and they can’t scratch. They can’t scratch because they have square bodies which means their height is the same as their length and their legs can’t reach their bodies like other dogs. Pugs are one of the oldest breeds of dogs and were once the royal companions of the Chinese Emperors; they were bred to fit perfectly on a royal lap and to look like the Chinese depiction of the lion. My pug comes from a line of show dogs, so he is perfectly proportioned and perfectly square…..…..too bad for him.
What does this have to do with food you might ask? Well it doesn’t , but what does relate is the way that humans feel the need to continuously manipulate foods to remove the ‘undesirable traits’. Take steak for example. It is nearly impossible today, unless you are lucky enough to have a real butcher shop in your vicinity, to buy a bone-in steak or buy one that is more than 1-inch thick. Why, because bones are not desirable; you don’t eat them so why buy a steak that contains one? The problem is that most steaks that should come with bones are pretty tasteless without them. It is the bone and the fat that gives the steak that delicious flavor. Another example is fish; again, unless you live in an area with some ethnic fish markets, it is highly unlikely you will ever find whole fish for sale. Occasionally, here, we can buy whole trout, or salmon (mostly without the head), but very rarely anything else. Why, because of the bones and who wants to look a dead fish in the eye??!! Yet again, bones and skin (and the head) are what give the fish flavor. When I was in Italy last year, I only ate whole fish because that is what the restaurant I worked in served. They thought it very strange that we Americans sell pieces of fish & not the whole thing….how did we know it was fresh if we could not see the whole fish? Good question!!!
I was asked a few months ago by a French man, at a demo I did at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City, where the rest of the chicken was…….his question threw me a bit: what did he mean? He asked why was it that he could only find the breast wherever he went? The breast, according to this man, is the worst part of the chicken and needed to be attached to the rest of the bird in order for it to have any chance at all of tasting good—and he was very serious. I didn’t have a very good answer for him, unfortunately. My question is how did this happen? When did we decide to give up flavor for convenience and be OK with it? When did chicken breasts become preferred over a whole chicken? We buy whole chickens from Walker Farms of Siletz and I cut them up into portions and freeze them for later meals. Or I roast or grill the whole bird and we eat it over a few days. Either way, the meat is delicious and much better tasting than the skinless, boneless stuff in the Styrofoam packages at the grocery store.
I visited a ranch in Tuscany that raised Chianina cattle during a culinary school field trip last spring. Chianina are an ancient and huge breed of animal that is used to produce the very famous bistecca alla fiorentina or Florentine Steak. That steak usually weighs 2-3 lbs. and is at least 1 1/2 -2 inches thick and it has a huge bone in it. No Italian would ever think of ordering or buying a steak for bistecca alla fiorentina without the bone.
We have done the same things to our fruits and vegetables. The preference is looks and shelf life over flavor and nutrition. I recently bought some peaches for a cobbler I was making for a client. I shopped the local grocery store and found white peaches; they looked beautiful, but they were as hard as rocks. I bought the ones that felt softer hoping they would be ripe by the time I needed to use them. They were, slightly, but they had no flavor at all—at least they didn’t taste like a peach.
This is why I always try to buy fresh food (when I can) from as local a source as possible. Sure, peaches are in season now, but where did those nasty white peaches I bought come from? They came from California and shame on me for buying them. I should have bought frozen peaches instead since I couldn’t go to the farmers’ market to get local fresh peaches—-I really did have a choice as we all do.
I will leave you with the recipe for an Americanized version of bistecca alla fiorentina from Giulano Hazan (yes, he’s related to Marcella).
My pug may not be able to scratch, but he knows a good steak when he smells one: one with a bone! Buon Appetito!