In this installment of Tabletop Wrestling, Naomi Bishop defends her practice of ordering raw beef whenever it's listed on a menu. Hanna Raskin is slightly aghast.
Helga's Lobster Stew
Naomi Bishop is a fan of raw meat's flavors.
Eating raw beef can make you sick. Let's just get that out there. Of course so can eating any vegetable (see recent e. Coli outbreaks linked to cantaloupe, jalapeños, and spinach). If you're the type who eats only at the hotel in Mexico and Vietnam, or the type that coddles your egg before making Caesar dressing, I'll venture to say you probably won't enjoy raw meat. Those of us with able stomachs and smart minds, though, can figure out that eating good quality meat, properly prepared, as a raw dish keeps the risk down and the reward high.
Raw beef has a texture and a flavor that are unique and simply irreproducible in cooked versions, which is why so many cultures around the world have raw beef dishes. In addition to the ubiquitous steak tartares of French and German restaurants and the carpaccios of Italian ones, the rich, luxurious feel of uncooked meat can be found in Seattle at any of the multitude of Ethiopian restaurants in the form of kitfo, a warm, buttery, and berebere-spiced dish that will hit you with heat, then cool you down with housemade buttermilk cheese.
Many Korean restaurants will offer yuk hwe, a slightly sugar-sweetened, chopped dish that contrasts the soft meat with crisp slices of fresh pear. It's to my chagrin that almost no place serves silky Lebanese kibbe naya (traditionally made with raw lamb) or spicy Thai koi soi, a larb-like raw beef salad. I'll happily make the drive to Vancouver to eat Phnom Penh's famous chicken wings, but I'll want a side of the marinated butter beef, a Vietnamese carpaccio-style dish, laced with browned garlic.
One of the best bites I've ever had was a thin slice of beef liver sashimi at a Japanese izakaya in New York City: cool and complex, it was what any piece of fish sashimi would strive to be, melting onto the tongue. And now that I've learned it exists, I'm hoping to hunt down carne apache, a Mexican dish that substitutes beef for the raw fish in ceviche.
So you can hide from every germ that makes its way around, avoid the tastiest raw-milk cheeses, and be happy with flavors that rate a seven or an eight. But if you want to get the best out of your beef, the unbridled meat flavor and soft, comforting texture, have faith in your body to do what those of millions of people from every culture around the world do, keep you safe while you go with the small risk and go for the raw beef.
But Hanna Raskin orders raw beef very, um, rarely.
Our current food system is so dysfunctional that detractors of almost any meat, cheese or vegetable can point to a tragic case study in which somebody was done in by the object of their dislike.
It's telling that Stephanie Smith, the children's dance instructor who was the subject of the New York Times' 2009 "The Burger That Shattered Her Life", initially attributed her life-threatening symptoms to spinach. It took a team of researchers to discover the severe foodborne illness which left her permanently paralyzed was caused by an e. Coli-contaminated beef patty her mother served for Sunday dinner.
When pathogens are extremely powerful, even high cooking temperatures can't obliterate them: It's doubtful Smith's mom served burgers tartare in her Minnesota home. So if eaters can be fatally sickened by grapefruits and disabled by burgers made according to federal guidelines, why fuss over a delicacy that's been savored for millennia? In my opinion, raw beef's an unnecessary risk.
The appeal of uncooked meat, which was so trendy in 2012 that New York City diners were whispering requests for raw chicken, is clear: Like raw fish, raw meat offers an unmediated eating experience, in which natural flavors aren't obscured by smoke or char. The draw of its primal deliciousness is so strong that I'll nearly always snag a forkful of a raw meat dish should it end up on my table. But having dealt with lesser foodborne illnesses, including a mild case of salmonella, my enjoyment is almost always tempered by fear.
"Raw meats or undercooked foods leave you at risk of infection [of parasites or a slew of other illnesses]," Michael Mansour of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital told the New York Post. And many of those illnesses are quite serious. Depending on the type of bacteria and vulnerability of the eater, e. Coli can result in bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death. Salmonella, listeria and campylobacter aren't larks, either. That's why the Centers for Disease Control advises against consuming undercooked ground beef.
Ground beef is typically the culprit in e. Coli outbreaks linked to beef, but eaters can't protect themselves by avoiding hamburgers. In response to a 2011 e. Coli outbreak associated with a Japanese barbecue chain which left 180 people sick and five dead, including a six-year old boy, Japan last year banned restaurants from serving raw beef liver. The government initially urged restaurant to police their own meat supplies, but adopted the new rule after another 13 diners were poisoned by raw beef.
Raw liver is enormously important in Japanese culinary culture, just as kibbe and kifto are important in Lebanon and Ethiopia. But traditional methods of producing such dishes are sometimes safer than the methods used by the modern factories which supply most of the meat served raw at restaurants. As Naomi says, human bodies have aptly handled raw meat since the dawn of carnivorism, but industrial agriculture is a much more recent development, and people are defenseless against the dangers it fosters. Cows arrive at slaughterhouses smeared with feces, and there aren't yet sufficient measures in place to prevent feces from tainting meat during skinning and gutting, among other safety concerns heightened by an assembly-line approach to butchering.
It's horribly bad form for a critic to cop any kind of food squeamishness, but I strongly believe science is on my side (even if I conveniently ignore it when I want my steak bloody.) I don't think my hesitation to order raw beef in every restaurant marks me as an alarmist prude: To me, it's a useful reminder that our food system is currently broken, and it's incumbent upon all of us to advocate for its repair.