Slumming Around the Carcass

As a meat-cutter trying to save money to travel, I took full advantage of my special position to make sure I could get my steak at least once a week. What kind of meat cutter doesn’t get his steak? For example, I could cut the flatirons out of the shoulder and wrap them up priced as ten percent grind, since that’s what the shop would do with them anyway. Eventually though, flatirons got popular, and management figured they were too valuable to grind, even though none of the other cutters could actually clean them up well enough to be worth grilling (except you, Kent). I don’t mean to be a braggart, that’s just a fact.

It was like having a decent little one-bedroom in the bad part of town, and they jack the rent. Now I’m eating pot roast and potatoes instead of rare beef and tomatoes. The price of off-cuts and what they used to call butcher’s cuts soared compared to the rest of the cow. Meanwhile, over in the poultry section, wings climbed to over three a pound, while management was falling all over itself to keep the price of boneless, skinless breast down. It’s the definition of gentrification, which is really just a dysphemism for trendy.

This “food gentrification” briefly became a hash tag a year ago after Whole Foods—in their stilted, white-people’s-overbite style of awe-shucks marketing—starting saying “Collards are the New Kale.” The mille feuille of absurdity inherent in this claim went largely unremarked upon, but collards seemed to strike a nerve with social media activists, probably due to their their race class connotations. Now, I know it sucks to see your old neighborhood—the place where you got your ass kicked on a regular basis growing up, where you learned to watch your back out of the corners of your eyes in the shop windows—being overrun first by a bunch of earnest and unafraid hipsters, and eventually by a bunch of Toyota yuppies, but you can’t gentrify a hardy, weedy, widely distributed green leaf. You can’t even gentrify pot (well, I suppose we’ll put that to the test here soon). But you can gentrify meat.

A cow only has two hanger steaks, two flanks, two outside skirts, two tri-tips, and four flatirons—and let’s be generous and say all that weighs twenty pounds trimmed—and you can’t just harvest cows like lettuce, on a cut-and-come-again basis, to get more trendy butcher’s cuts. The real tragedy though, has been for people who used to eat near the bottom of the price floor. Oxtails are like eight dollars a pound at the natural foods store now. Short ribs, six-fifty. Even beef bones, which I used to buy on the regular to fill up the freezer with stock, have been sucked up into the maws of pampered yuppy dogs and paleo dieters, to over three a pound. Never mind, I just use shank nowadays (three-fifty or so), while I still can. The boneless and trimmed rounds meanwhile, languishing from unpopularity, weigh about eighty pounds total. They don’t even stock half the cuts anymore.

I watched an old woman come into the store every other week or so for a couple of years, who always bought nearly all the wings we had for a buck-sixty-nine a pound. Expensive to her already, but she really liked our chicken—Petaluma Poultry free range at the time. She came in once after the price broke two a pound, got mad then laughed it off, bought some drumsticks for one-fifty-something I believe, and never came back. What I don’t think she noticed was that the boneless skinless breasts had stayed the same price: $5.99/pound.

Class Conscious

Back in November, the New Yorker reviewed a newish pizza place called Emmett’s, which has the audacity to serve Chicago deep dish in The City. Without apparent condescension, incredulity, or scorn, they offer this detail about the life of the charming, Midwestern rogue, Emmet Burke: “Taking a few years off from Wall Street to tinker with a recipe he came up with himself, Burke has devised a very savvy replica of the real thing.” We’re used to hearing this sort of thing all the time anymore—restaurateuring being the new yachting— but this sentence catches my eye every time I pick this rag up.

A few years off—from Wall Street—to “tinker with” his pizza recipe? Sounds cute but, what the fuck was he doing? Trying to hit on just the right grind of his proprietary artisan salt blend? Distilling the New York tap water in order to chemically recreate Lake Michigan’s distinctive blend of pharmaceuticals, herbicides, hexavalent chromium and lead? The proletarian mind boggles. I want to hate it. I need to hate it.

Where’s the impetus to work one’s way up from the line to restaurant ownership when every other new restaurateur is a guy who’s taken a step down from his career litigating corporate buyouts, or negotiating derivative sales? Career management cannot be beat, and this Emmet Burke is a real marketing genius besides.

I don’t mean to impugn the guy’s Midwestern “aw shucks” credentials, but this website is just too self-ignorant to be believed. That hokey font, the info box, the customer reviews proudly displayed right on the front page! This guy worked on Wall Street, and his website looks like a couple of not-too-bright bro dropouts from Peoria decided to open a sandwich shop: “I ain’t too savvy but….” No, I do not buy it sir.

Stop cooking guys. Go to college and study finance or economics. There’s nothing for you in this world anymore. If a Wall Street guy is taking years off of work to “tinker with” his pizza recipe, how will you ever get ahead? I call on the cooks at Emmett’s and every other management-professional/white-collar-dropout-owned restaurant to call in drunk. Shit, call in hungover.

Say it’s the wealth inequality that’s got you down. Say: “Hey, check that RGM watch of yours. I think you got just enough time to maybe hop into the LS, race down to the old offices, and round up a few interns to come in and cook those pizzas today. No problem bro, dial up some Dave Matthews on the in-dash mp3, and you got this.”

Then, go enroll in college. Take on a fuckload of loan debt and live on campus. If you can skate through economics with a c+, you’ll have a place in 10 years or less. That is, if the thought of a 5% profit margin in a good year doesn’t make you sweat too heavy in your new suit. This is called bootstrapping, and America will make sure that there are enough finance and management positions for everyone who is willing to stay the laborious path of cram sessions and cheap pizza. Also, there is no shame in being “college poor,” unlike the workaday version of poverty under which you currently suffer.

 

Fermenting Resolution

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? Drink more? Philander? Eat shittier food? Good ideas all!

Especially this “eat shittier food,” because you know what I love? What I have always loved? I love those cheap hamburger dill slices they put on top of hamburgers at virtually every fast food joint in the country. I’ve worked at a couple of those awful “bistros” (the early 90’s midwestern equivalent of upscale casual) where they serve the typical American city menu of burgers, grilled chicken, fajitas, caesars, a handful of pastas, and maybe a few atrocities that the “chef” (glorified kitchen manager) thought up on his own. Those kind of pickles usually make their appearance in places like these as a garnish atop the hideously wilted shred of green leaf, right alongside the crunchy pink tomato slice. I’d say they’re generally the most edible things on the premises. The diners may love it when their chicken fettucine alfredo is delivered with a flourish by a dude with a secret barbiturate habit and at least one venereal disease, but it don’t look so appetizing when you pull the pre-grilled chicken strips out of a little plastic baggie, where they were placed three days ago, and toss them with the equally old pre-boiled pasta, canned chopped garlic, and pre-shredded parmesan. The pickles are clean and pristine.

I’d always assumed these pickles were just quick pickled: tossed in a vinegar bath with some kind of calcium-based crisping agent and canned. Au contrair! They are in fact industrially produced in the hippest, most self-consciously artisanal method of 21st century food faddism: fermentation. The USDA does a ton of research on vegetable fermentation in order to devise and modify regulations for the fermented pickle industry. Artisan pickle producers: you have been found out! Your $10 pickle quarts will be a thing of the past when trendy foodies everywhere wake up and smell the lactic fermentation on their Wendy’s hamburgers. Although, it should be obvious to everyone by now that there is no earthly reason why a quart of pickles should cost $10.

Of course, Food Services of America will never be able to slap the label “small batch” on the sides of their white, five-gallon pickle buckets since they typically ferment in 30,000 to 40,000 liter tanks. But what disqualifies them from the label “artisanal”?

Pickle vats at the Mt Olive Pickle Company; scientists in funny pants. Photo by Robert Flynn for the USDA.

Pickle vats at the Mt Olive Pickle Company; scientists in funny pants. Photo by Robert Flynn for the USDA.

 

See those? Those are are the open-air, wood fermentation vats at Mt Olive Pickle Company, the largest independent pickle producer on the United States. Looks old world—artisan even. Of course they go and junk up the final product with corn syrup and yellow dye and Splenda. In fact, they proudly let you know on the website that they were the first food processor in the US to use high fructose corn syrup way back in 1969. In any case, shouldn’t the small-batch, artisan pickle cost less than the Mount Olive pickle since it doesn’t have polysorbate 80 or yellow #5? That stuff doesn’t grow on trees you know.

What’s nuts is that the research done by the USDA at their Agricultural Research Station in North Carolina, a lot of it in conjunction with the Mount Olive Pickle Company, has led them to the conclusion that vegetable fermentation is really, exceptionally safe. So safe that those five gallon pickle buckets aren’t even pasteurized. Sandor Katz likes to quote a USDA microbiologist named Fred Breidt as saying that: “There has never been a documented case of foodborne illness from fermented vegetables. Risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation.” Whoa!

Actually though, there was the older California woman, first generation immigrant of Southeast Asian descent, who nearly killed both herself and her husband by leaving a bowl of tofu sitting on the counter in some chicken stock for a week, then eating it. Apparently, she had been preparing that recipe her whole life and this was the first time she had any problem. So even that risky-sounding procedure is usually just fine.

Leaving a fermented pickle fanatic to wonder: if fermentation is so safe and easy, why don’t more restaurants around here serve house-made sour pickles, rather than the usually painfully acetic and otherwise unexceptional little quick pickles that they so often do? I honestly don’t know. After reading this article in the Oregonian where Jason French and Ben Meyer claim that the state essentially forbids restaurants from fermenting their own vegetables, I got curious and did a little research.

I called the Oregon Department of Agriculture and asked them and they said nay: if they did regulate restaurants, which they largely do not, acidified foods are lightly regulated. So I called the county health department. Indeed, the old grouch on the line informed me, you can pour cold brine on vegetables and put it in the walk-in, and keep it there indefinitely.

I said that I didn’t think vegetables would ferment at walk-in temperatures. She insisted they would. I said that, maybe they would, but it would take a long time. She said that to do it otherwise would require a variance, and she made it clear that I didn’t want to try to get a variance. I asked how I could get a variance, and she gave me the number for a woman at the State Food Program. Aha! The state!

So I called Erica at the state. She said that yes, you can ferment vegetables in a restaurant, in the normal way, at room temperature, and then store them indefinitely. The people at the county are confused. She said that she would get on the line with them and set them straight.

So diners, chefs, restaurateurs, I removed the obstruction to the floodgates; you may now proceed with the tsunami of proper pickling. You’re welcome.