Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting to the meat of it: 'The Jungle' revisited?

'The Jungle,' Upton Sinclair's game-changing look at the meat-packing industry in early 20th century America, paved the way for creation of sanitation safeguards and other improvements in the field.

We've been getting our own version of it in culinary school, where the syllabus for the Culinary Foundations III cooking class includes lectures, demonstrations and discussions covering a wide range of proteins used in restaurant service, and in the home, to, for that matter.

Not that conditions now -- at school, in restaurants or in the industry at large -- are anything like they were 100 years ago. But the basics are the same: Raise animals, fatten them, take them to market and, eventually, turn them into edible bits.

We are learning just enough butchery to understand the primal and subprimal cuts of beef and pork and how they are broken down. We also have begun learning how to cut meat, or as it's known in restaurant kitchens, fabricate proteins for the range of cooking techniques we have undertaken.

For example, we have twice practiced in class the fabrication of a whole chicken. That is, cutting it into 10 pieces for cooking. Doing so in 15 minutes and in a specified manner, keeping intact the most meat possible, is required to gain American Culinary Federation certification, something we will be tested on the last week of class. More about this in a future blog.

For now, suffice it to say that beef comes from cows, pork from pigs and chicken from, well, chickens. And hot dogs? Don't ask.


  1. Hah! Loved your last graf. Have you read Julia Powell's latest tome? It's called "Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession." Your talk of butchery reminded me of the book, which I read about recently, but will not actually be reading. As Time magazine says, it's the "sordid tale of the recent years she spent butchering pigs, cows, and her husband's heart." Oh great, more husband abuse from Julia Powell! Just what the world needs. And some of the scenes sound really ugly and disturbing -- and unfortunately those aren't the scenes involving actual butchering of meat.

  2. Haven't read Julie Powell's latest. Did read her first book, and while it was a good story, there was too much of her personal angst in it and not enough cooking.

    Now that I think of it, though, cooking can be as much an expression of one's inner self -- turmoil, calm, wonder, fear -- as anything else in life.