Friday, July 10, 2009

Community, and, Do Compromised Ethics Really Count as Ethics At All?

I got into a lengthy conversation with a good friend of mine who is also a cook the other day, as we sat by the lake with another friend eating, among other things, braised pork sandwiches from Ba Le on Argyle and Broadway. Ba Le, if you don't know, has some pretty tasty sandwiches at extremely cheap rates. Definitely worth a try. If you do go, try the Pennywort Soda. I did. I can't say I finished it all, and something about the picture on the can and the taste made me think of geraniums mixed with a bunch of sugar, but hey, give it a try. It apparently has all kinds of digestive benefits. But I digress. The point I set out to raise is that my friend and I discussed, at length, the challenge of getting people into eating "good" meat, by which I mean to say meat that has been raised humanely and healthily, with a focus on the quality of the end product as well as the quality of life for another sentient being, as aptly described in the beautiful essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg here.

The challenge as chefs is difficult to meet due to cost restrictions and the public's willing to have the expense of good meat passed on to them. As consumers, the same problem exists. It is relatively tough to find good meat, let alone afford it. And what of the wonderful sandwiches at Ba Le? I'm not sure that that meat comes from a good source, and I'm certain the steak in my chimichanga at El Norte down the street doesn't either. Chicago dogs coming from a good source? Give me a break. Which makes me a hypocrite in my quest, as a food lover, to educate people on the importance of this good meat.

Doesn't it?

This is the internal conflict I have every time I eat meat, and perhaps I'm too weak of a human being to resist the qualities of much of the ethnic and street food that isn't using meat from good sources. The question always arises: do I eat a boring burrito at and support a mega chain like Chipotle, that uses meat from good sources, or do I eat a much more interesting, delicious and culturally important burrito at a tacqueria that surely uses the cheapest meat available? It's a huge conflict, one that I can't claim to be ethically pious enough to answer correctly every time, but certainly something worth considering and making moves toward answering, if nothing else, thoughtfully. (And to all the non-meat eaters out there rolling their eyes at this seemingly obvious non-decision, please bear with my weakness as a meat eater.) One small step is, when cooking at home, to only use this good meat. Simply put, it tastes better, it's better for everyone involved, and perhaps we can slow down and savor smaller amounts of it more, in order to reduce the cost and extend it's pleasure. That's not going to save the world, and it's a far cry from really taking a firm stand, but as we think about the importance that street food and food that doesn't always consider its sources holds in the history and culture of the world, it is a choice that we can make. Less meat of better quality all around. Do we really need to be eating 54 ounce steaks of questionable quality?

That said, the very friend I was talking with surprised me with a phone call asking if I'd like some meat from his freezer--an overloaded crypt of meat from a CSA he bought a share of earlier in the year, that he just can't keep up with. Shown above, I got a chicken, some ham hocks, a ham steak, a pork roast, and beef stew meat...all of which will be savored over the summer in a most appreciative manner. And it showed me that hey--community can exist, in whatever small dose, in the city, something I've been concerned about lately. And to speak further to that, I realized how much I had been given recently from friends and others in to food (again, you can click on the pictures for the full, huge versions):

Some of the best pickles I've ever had, and hands down the best escabeche I've been treated to, brought by a friend to the pie-off and now residing in my fridge...

Cherry Syrup brought to me by a friend after her trip to Michigan last summer, sitting in my cupboard, well preserved, until I decided to bake a chocolate cake with a good dose of the syrup in it, and whip cream cheese and nutella with the syrup to make a tangy frosting, topped with sour cherries I got from Edgewater Produce for something like two and a half bucks, that blow away neon red "maraschino" cherries in cocktails...

Limes as part of a drink invention spree by a friend and I (see the story within a story about Clementonics); recently he's been showing up at my place with the whole citrus family, and we've made a drink based on the Sidecar involving grapefruit, lemon, orange and lime juice mixed with brandy we lovingly dubbed the Wagon Queen Family Truckster...

Fresh Mozzarella in a bowl given to me by an old chef of mine, with a sauce of garlic, vinegar, mustard, parsley and olive oil I'd made to slather on the sandwich coming up next...

...french bread, the sauce above, fresh mozzarella, fresh torn basil, tomatoes, red onion, proscuitto di parma, with an avocado halved and sauced with the above mixture, and home made chips tossed in bacon salt, given to me by the same person who gave me the bowl above, shared with a good friend who'd brought over a beautiful bottle of wine...

I recognize that this is a meandering essay, but hey--that's how all good conversations evolve, isn't it? So thanks, guys, for all of your beautiful gifts, and let's all get out there and pickle something, or bake something, and take it to a neighbor or friend. You never know how much that just might keep them going.


  1. Hi! Just found your blog today and loved it so much that I mentioned it in my blog post! I'm definitely looking forward to being a regular reader.

  2. Thanks very much--glad you are here!


  3. Wow, I need your friends. And, I think the economy of meat is thought-provoking.

  4. Don't feel bad. My own meandering essay on the subject of "beef choices" is up to 1277 words. We must be on the same wavelength. Or, of the same conscientious, industry-educated community that you write about.

    You bring up a lot of questions that are difficult to answer. You say some of these ethnic places are not using meat from "good sources." Do you think most people know what a good or bad source is? And do you think the operators of these ethnic places know the difference?

    Chipotle obviously believes it's using a good source. But the Chipotle vs. ethnic taqueria observation is an interesting one. Are people "in the know" more inclined to go to Chipotle than a taqueria because they use all-natural meats? Sounds like authenticity and flavor trumps that one. Perhaps a hail mary or a week of beef abstinence are some people's way of making right by their beef sin.

    It seems like Chipotle and taqueria represent two very opposite poles of conscientiousness and flavor. What if you opened a taqueria? Now we'd have something that I'm not sure would be in the middle, but maybe it's own pole. We'd have an authentic(you'd hire the right people), conscientious(you'd serve meat from "good" sources) and flavorful (a chef's approach to tacos) choice. Cue Bayless'XOCO, Paul Kahan's to be named taqueria and Bill Kim's Urban Belly/Shack and MK's grass-fed burger concept.

    Of course, if these good source alternatives become more available, will we stop supporting the little ethnic eateries? Or, will the new places inspire them to look at what they do in a new way?

  5. For me so many of these questions come up if you approach it from a negative standpoint-- "I must not eat meat/industrial pork/chain food/whatever." Then you get the old Philip Morris problem (are they a good company or a bad company because their cancer sticks support really great pro-gay policies?) I prefer to look at it from a positive point of view-- every dollar I spend at something that's good for some reason was good for that cause, but I don't have to look at it as a fight to the death between quality pork and the nice family down the street who have the muy autentico taqueria.