Scene: near an oak tree, in a pasture, by the highway, in Iowa

Propped up by the bucket of a skid loader, the cow was in obvious distress. Her belly was bloated; a blue tongue stuck out of her mouth as she panted and belched; snot and a trickle blood ran from her nostrils. The three men looked at the downed cow much the way the same group might bend over the hood of an ailing pickup truck.

One of the men, a farmer from down the road, saw her lying on her side in the sun as he’d driven by, noted she didn’t look good, and stopped. The second, the first’s second cousin and contractor who owned the cow, had arrived after a quick phone call. The third, a butcher-turned-laborer, arrived a couple minutes later. Each had his own expertise and suggestions.

The 14-year-old cow had fallen in a slight depression in the pasture. It was possibly from the bull trying to mount her, possibly she just collapsed. But with her head slightly down hill and with the sun beating down on her black hide on a 90-degree day, she started to puff up.

Quickly it was clear that the men were too late. Even after they had helped her onto her side with the skid loader, she refused water and wouldn’t stand. The cow could do nothing to beat the flies off her eyes or back. Then she started to low.

For several seconds she let out intermittent, throaty bellows, and then slumped over, her left eye glassy and unblinking.

“She’s gone,” said the butcher.

“She didn’t have a chance, really,” said the farmer.

“Fuck,” said the contractor.

Two bushels of Maryland blue crabs

On our just-completed vacation, we spent four days in Maryland with my mom’s side of the family in a beautiful house on the Miles River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, apparently own homes near by. We still had a nice time.) Josh, my retired-chef cousin, steamed two bushels of blue crabs for the 30 people. Lots of fun.

The crabs in this video went into the pot much more willingly than many of the others. It often seemed that for every one that went in, two would escape. It was necessary to chase them down and force them back into the pot. Meanwhile another one would escape and the process would repeat.

Well, back to shoveling pig shit tomorrow.

How far can American food fall?

As a piece on Serious Eats points out:

The U.S. is a country whose national cuisine might as well be the hamburger. How pathetic is it then that such a specimen made with fresh beef and grilled onions is considered ‘gourmet’?

Indeed. Let’s not forget the decline of the peanut butter and jelly (and grilled cheese) sandwich either. Americans choose convenience over quality long ago. Sigh.

True or Onion dept.

Today on Onion Radio News is a story with the headline “Entire Meal Pig-based.” Mmmm, a tasting entirely made of pig. (The idea of entire meals featuring a single ingredient has always appealed to me.)

Onion Radio News is no Splendid Table, though. Everyone knows a true pig feast wouldn’t end with a “hamhock crème brûlée” but rather with a pie contained by a lard-filled crust.

Validation

I think it’s important to have some connection to where our meat comes from. This isn’t to say we should completely avoid Taco Bell, Wendy’s or other supporters of factory farming. But we should at least recognize what our meat goes through before it shows up at the grocery store, restaurant table or drive-through window.

So last night when I did a cooking demo and food writing talk at a small public library just north of here as part of its adult summer reading program, I really pushed it. I read, in quick succession, a few pieces about animal death. Pieces I really love. Perhaps against my better judgment, I shared these, in longer forms, before I cooked and we ate.

First E.B. White’s 1948 essay, written prior to Charlotte’s Web, “Death of a Pig”:

The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom-time, feeding through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.

Next came Anthony Bourdain’s chapter “Where Food Comes From” from his book A Cook’s Tour:

They finally managed to wrestle the poor beast back up onto the cart again, the guy with the mustache working the blade back and forth like a toilet plunger. The pig’s movements slowed, but the rasping and wheezing, the loud breathing and gurgling continued… and continued…the animal’s chest rising and falling noisily… continued and continued…for what seemed like a fucking eternity.

And then Michael Ruhlman as the voice of Thomas Keller in “The Importance of Rabbits” from The French Laundry Cookbook:

One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin and eviscerate a rabbit. (…) He showed up with 12 live rabbits. He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, and skinned it—the whole bit. Then he left.“I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and 11 cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan. I clutched at the first rabbit. I had a hard time killing it. It screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.

Then we cooked pork chops from a farm, Pavelka’s Point, that I’ve been visiting this summer. Everyone one ate them and the chops were fatty, juicy and delicious.

I didn’t flinch

In my quest to understand real butchers — those that know how to take a live animal and turn it into edible parts — I have witnessed the slaughter of 16 Iowa hogs. Two of those I videotaped actually being shot with a .22-caliber rifle.

It is hard not to flinch, even when you expect the gunshot. But watching the video, I am surprised with my own ability to hold the camera steady through the shot and any kicking and blood splattering that might follow.

I have become increasingly comfortable being around the death of these animals. I can’t imagine how desensitized these men (and all of the butchers I’ve talked to and watched are men) become when they do this every day of the week.

Not that they seem to get any pleasure out of the death. Each butcher has told me he doesn’t particularly like his job. They don’t dislike it because they’re sick of killing, but because it’s a dirty, physically taxing job.

The deaths of eight pigs

Today I watched the slaughter of more than a ton and a half of pigs.

The slaughterhouse was one of the many small so-called “official” processors across Iowa. Here, I watched the butcher stun, stick, skin and split five 280-pound hogs and three 700-pound sows.

It was a simple routine. The butcher drove each pig into the slaughtering room’s 3-foot by 8-foot pen, looked each pig head on before shooting it between the eyes.

Convulsing followed but no squealing. In just seconds, the butch returned the gun to the rack by the eastern door, picked up his curved 8-inch knife, stuck it into the pig’s throat and opened its neck. Surprisingly bright red blood flowed into the circular floor drain a couple of feet away.

When the pig was reasonably bled, the butcher wrapped a chain around its hind legs and used a winch to lift the carcass and lay its back on to a stretcher-like table for butchering.

First, he severed the pig’s spinal cord. Next, he removed each foot, taking with it skin from the chest and belly. The head was then removed completely. These pieces all went into a 60-gallon or so gray bucket labeled “inedible.”

Then the butcher began skinning the pig, starting in the middle. With the skin removed from the pig’s belly and sides, he took a saw — it resembled a chainsaw — and cut through the breast plate and pelvis with two quick strokes. A knife through the midsection opened the hog’s body cavity, exposing the steaming organs. These were scooped out, inspected and put into the gray “inedible” bucket. The butcher hoisted the pig up, this time by a metal hanger hooked through both hams, fully removed its skin and sawed the pig in half.

Finally, the butcher transferred the hog halves to meat hooks hanging from a rail on the ceiling. Another cutter weighted the carcass and the state inspector stamped in the pork in purple before it was moved into the refrigerator.

The whole process was quiet, really. Besides the sound of the gun immediately followed by the sound like a water-filled balloon as the hog hit the concrete floor, the loud whirr of the saws and the spray of a hose to rinse everything, the butcher worked quietly.

The sows, which nearly filled the pen and required two men using an enormous bone saw to split in half along the spine, thrashed the most. One flipped from one side to the other and kicked the wall for a couple of minutes. Another, hoisted by its back legs attached by a chain to a wench on the ceiling, jerked around so much I was afraid it would fall the three feet back to the floor.

I don’t know what it says about me that I don’t feel disturbed by the ordeal.

Even seeing a headless, skinless, split-in-half lifeless carcass’s muscles still twitching didn’t bother me (though at first I thought I was seeing things).

The only lasting effect is that I can’t get the scent of pig shit out of my nostrils.

Tomato soup and bread

Frank Bruni, The New York Times’ restaurant critic, wrote on this on his blog today:

The most pleasurable meals aren’t about the rarity or quality of the food and the setting. They’re about the indulgence of eating when you didn’t intend to in a place you just trip across.

Truer words…

On a spring day in the Tuscan countryside — this story starts idyllically but you should soon realize it wasn’t — when I was trying to keep from vomiting what little was in my stomach as I sat in the middle of the backseat of a “large” European sedan between two other adults as we drove over roads with bumps that, in Iowa, are called hills.

Finally, we stopped in a little town whose name I will never know. There, desperate for something to eat, we went in to a wine bar where the proprietor was halfway through his lunch: a bottle of red wine.

We ordered lunch. It was simple. It was safe. Tomato soup and bread.

I have been trying to find food that lives up to that meal ever since.

Down the Alinea rabbit hole

On Thurday, we spent five and a half hours eating our way through 24 courses.

The restaurant was called Alinea. For my mother’s 50th birthday four years ago, my father took us to a place I hadn’t heard of in Evanston, Ill., called Trio. The meal we ate there became the benchmark for all other meals. Lamb, cooked sous-vide before it was cooled, with four different flavors. Beef short ribs served in a glass and flavored like root beer. Seared foie gras as part of a deconstructed mince meat pie. Candied nori in chocolate for desert.

When the chef of Trio left, Grant Achatz, he left to begin Alinea. The restaurant received good press and we were excited about eating there the first chance we got. When Gourmet named it the best restaurant in America, I was worried that we wouldn’t get the chance to even make a reservation.

When I called three months early, I was told I had to wait until November for the restaurant to open its January reservation book. When I finally got through, at 11:00 a.m. on November 1 while sitting in the j-school’s resource center, I was told that they would be closed for the two weeks following our anniversary.

Flash forward to 5:30 p.m., January 4, 2007. It is pouring in Chicago, the rain filling every crack, depression and gutter in the street. Laura and I get soaked just hailing a cab during rush hour.

The cabbie can’t find the restaurant. Nobody knows what to look for. The restaurant, it seems, has only large, white numbers proclaiming its address on the front.

Alinea works hard to keep its dinners of guard. Opening the large black doors, you enter a hallway that is constructed in such a way as to skew perspective. The black floor looks like it’s running down hill, the right wall — covered with floor-to-ceiling panels that encroach into the hall — seems to want to eat the dinners.

At the end of the hall, a sudden SWEESH!

Doors in the left wall disappear into the wall ala Star Trek, exposing the restaurant. You are clearly no longer in Kansas.

Everything about Alinea is unconventional. There are no table clothes or chargers at your place setting. The centerpiece is minimalist — ours was two sprigs of rosemary, each in a small, metal base — and becomes part of the meal. The menu, which the waitrons practically refused to give us, has two options: 12 or 24 courses. The food is served on ware known as “the antenna,” “the squid” and “the anti-plate.”

Then, of course, there’s the food itself.

The opening course was soup. Sort of. A bowl small enough to fit in your hand is brought to the table and set in front of you. Suspended above the cold soup by a small pin sticking through an equally small hole in the side of the bowl is, in order from top to bottom, a slice of black truffle, a warm ball of potato, a half-inch section of chive, a cube of Dutch butter and a cube of Parmesan cheese.

From here it continued, for five and a half hours, for 24 courses. . Poach monkfish, fried munkfish and munkfish mousse served with shards of “onion paper.” Duck confit, duck breast and crispy duck skin with various puddings served on a plate on top of a pillow that emitted juniper-scented air as it deflated.

Beef short rib served under a sheet of warm — yes, warm — Campari gelatin. Skate wing served with browned butter, capers and lemon. Each in powered form. With banana slices. (Who would dare pare capers and banana?)

Three medium-rare lamb medallions served on a brick so hot the meat still sizzled and each topped with a different flavor. Venison rolled in granola topped with oatmeal foam.

And while four dessert courses — each with its own dessert wine — almost put me in a coma, I wouldn’t have hoped for a better meal.

My first amazing meal

Going out to dinner was the last thing that crossed my mind following the sailboat ride through choppy waters which caused one member of our party to vomit and everyone to feel nauseous. But it turned out to be one of the top five meals of my life.

Tomorrow, my family and I are going back to Madeline Island for a long weekend. The center piece of the trip is returning to that restaurant where I had my first amazing restaurant meal. Like a good book, I wanted to wade deeper into the meal, to taste everything, but also didn’t want it to end.

I’ve had better meals since, at TruCharlie Trotter’sJean Luc Figueras and now-defunct Trio (when Alinea‘s Grant Achatz was there). But this meal was the first time I became truly excited about the eating experience. I wanted to talk about the food, not just eat it.

I have lost my copy of the menu, which I kept stuffed into my copy of Larousse Gastronomique, but I still remember what I ate. Duck “saltimbocca” with wild rice-stuffed crepes and seared foie gras.

It was the first time I had eaten fatten duck’s liver. I was amazed to find how it did melt deliciously in your mouth and coated your tongue in a bath of fatty goodness just like I had read about.

What will be most interesting for me to discover upon my return is whether the restaurant can live up to my expectations this time. The first time to Wild Rice I had no expectations but now what I expect from a restaurant is much more.