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Lab-Grown Meat: The Next Great Culinary Playground

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Oh, look. A tray of raw beef garnished with… a sprig of juniper for some reason? Who eats raw beef with juniper? What the hell is going on here?

Less than two years ago, laboratory-grown beef made a big splash in the news. The scientists who grew the first hamburger not carved from the flank of a steer munched on quarter-pound burgers that were also quarter-million-dollar burgers, and pronounced them, if not the most delicious ever, acceptably beefy.

The burgers, at that cost, were a curiosity at best. But the price of growing meat by the cell has been dropping steadily and sharply since then. The same quarter-pound patty now costs about ten bucks to grow. At this rate, we may see commercially viable laboratory-gown meat very soon (one expert says twenty years, this writer hopes for much sooner)—and that means you’ll be seeing it in your grocery store by-and-by.

It will be up to the consumers to decide whether or not they want to eat something grown in a lab as opposed to carved out of an animal. Many meat-eaters are skeptical of the idea, but on the other hand, there are a lot of current vegetarians and even carnivores who are skeptical about the level of cruelty involved in factory farms. Personally (I’m a meat-eater), I’ll take the laboratory. Look at it from the cow’s point of view: would you rather have a muscle biopsy so a bunch of people can eat food grown from a few of your cells, or be carved apart with knives and saws and consumed directly? I know which I’d prefer. Also, producing animal flesh in a lab involves a whole lot less water consumption than raising an animal the traditional way, it certainly means less grain going to animal feed rather than feeding hungry humans, and, of course, there’s WAY less animal poop to dispose of. That sounds like a joke, but it’s really not. Have you ever heard of a ‘livestock waste lagoon’? Yes, lagoon. As in, enormous pool of rotting poop that covers several acres, causes various contamination problems, and nobody really knows how to deal with. Yuck.

Those are all important concerns, and all good reasons to look forward to getting our meat out of the laboratory rather than off the hoof.

But, as usual, there’s more here than meets the eye. There’s the potential to do a whole lot of things with meat that are impractical, impossible, or even illegal to do with meat as we know it now.

At present, most people in the USA eat beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, and a few basic fish like tuna and salmon and whiting. Even less-popular meats like lamb can be hard to come by and pricey, because a grocery store has to buy large ‘primal cuts,’ whole portions of an animal, for sale—and that means waste for an unpopular meat: low demand and a requirement to take on a large supply if they want to offer it.

But if it’s grown in the lab, grocery stores have the opportunity to order only what they need, and to order small batches of less common meats to see if consumers are interested in trying them out. The supplier to the store isn’t slaughtering a large animal, they’re growing to order as well. And that means variety becomes easier to offer. Have you ever thought of trying game meats, like caribou or wild boar? You won’t find either in the supermarket. You can order them online—if you don’t mind paying fifty bucks or more per pound.

With a simple muscle biopsy, a meat-growing lab could produce caribou and boar just as cheaply as it produces beef. Or other meats. Have you ever thought you might like to try an elephant steak, or panda or eagle or Galapagos tortoise, if only you could do it without, you know, killing an endangered animal and breaking the law? Well, it’s probably not against the law to buy a small cell sample from the local zoo and grow elephant steaks to sell. Have you seen how many people have been protesting the slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan lately? Would there be a need for protest if they could take cell samples, let the animals go, and eat as much cruelty-free dolphin and whale as they’d like? And speaking of aquatic creatures, how about fish without overfishing disrupting the oceans’ ecosystems? Who knows what this technology might yield as producers begin to try new things? The possibilities are endless. Here are some pie-in-the-sky imaginings that seem possible, even likely:

You’ve noticed, of course, that bigger shrimp cost more—but if you’re just growing shrimp tissue, there’s no reason you couldn’t just grow it in any size you wanted, for the same price per pound. Imagine picking up a 3-lb chub of solid shrimp, and slicing it into easy-to-sear shrimp patties for the grill. Or quarter-pound chunks in the familiar comma shape.

Family size scallops—one to a pie plate.

A ten-foot roll of bacon. Cut to the strip size you like with your kitchen shears. “The doctor said to hold it down to one strip of bacon with breakfast… mine is three feet long.”

Any meat you’d like, grown in sheets like pie dough, so you can enclose other food with it. Great for Thanksgiving—individual turkey and stuffing pockets! Make a turducken as easily as folding a pillowcase. Or think of delicious shepherd’s pie made in a ‘pie crust’ composed entirely of tender, succulent beef.

Eat quail and trout without having to pick out a million little bones.

3-D dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets for the kids. Like, one that could stand up on the plate like a regular action figure.

3-D dinosaur-shaped dinosaur nuggets for the kids—just need to find a few cells in amber, Jurassic Park style. This one might be a bit of a long shot, but it’s fun to dream, isn’t it?

And wouldn’t it be nice if the few people struck by the creepy desire to eat other humans could go ahead and do so—without murdering anyone? (I’ve already played with this concept a little in a flash story entitled All Flesh Is Grass.)

Lab-grown meat is coming. It has the potential to eliminate the enormous loads that raising animals for consumption places on the environment in terms of demands for water, land, feed, and disposal of waste. And it also has the potential to allow people to indulge in a wider range of culinary exploration than ever before—and no dead animals (or people, for the cannibals in the audience) to show for it.

Thirteen Word Story: A Distant Relation of Armstrong

Why not? We’ve played this out enough times in our own history…

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The aliens pronounced him King of the Moon, then gave him his decrees.

EAT SCIENCE FICTION

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Could the future be so cruel?

     I love food, and it shows in my fiction. There aren’t many stories I write that go by without the characters having a meal. I’m working on a story now, and my characters just finished a Kazakh-inspired meal of mutton and rice with dried fruit and garlic. In Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, mother and son enjoy a lunch of bread with ham-seasoned foraged beans on a North Carolina coast impovershed by the effects of sea level rise. Sudden homelessness does not deter the hero of Isolation from munching down on some hot crispy cuy in an underground kitchen. Even in super-short Labor Of Love, the alcohol-addicted protagonist takes time out from his quest for drink to scarf down a couple of “Kraut and Cheezies” from a fast-food joint.

     It’s not that I always write when I’m hungry — though I can just about always find room for a snack.  It’s that food is often forgotten in fiction.  Food, after all, is not the main part of the story. It’s not the point. It shouldn’t be center stage, except in the rarest of circumstances, as in Pig where the central situation is that the main character’s food begins talking to her, begging her piteously not to consume it — much to her dismay.

     But most of the time, the food is an aside, and it’s a challenge to integrate it into a story and not have it stick out like it doesn’t belong. But, for me, writing is about life, just as eating is about life. In the real world, people socialize around food. They think about food. They worry about whether they have enough money to buy groceries that will last until next paycheck, they worry if the meat department will have the right sized rib roast for Easter dinner, they’re afraid they’ve burnt the toast, they invite colleagues to talk business over tapas, they stop for food on the way to the hospital to visit a sick relative, they ask the kids how the school week went over Saturday morning eggs and bacon.

     They’ll do all of these things in the future, too. Oh, some details may change. Maybe the kids will go to school via internet instead of taking the bus. Maybe the meat will be grown in a nutrient solution rather than on the hoof. Maybe the pasta will be made in a printer instead of rolled out in a factory. Interstellar colonists may eat alien fruit, or aliens might come to nosh on us, as so many stories have suggested.

     But unless something very radical indeed happens, like the whole world up and loading itself into a virtual reality, we’ll always have the social nexus and sensory joy of eating food. And maybe, if we’re all virtual beings, we’ll still choose to do it anyway, even if it’s unnecessary.

     Because food is comforting. Eating is primal and elemental to us. Mealtimes, for time immemorial, have cemented families and friendships. So given how vital it has been and is to human society, I like to carry that vitality into the future as I imagine it.

What’s With the Pretzel Buns?

Pretzel buns seem to be the new fast-food and not-so-fast food fad.  You want a bun that tastes vaguely like the cousin of a soft pretzel?  Okay, fine.  Whatever.

The pretzel-bunned burgers billed as totally awesome because of their amazing pretzel buns, though… that misses the mark.

A burger or a sandwich is about the filling.  The bread is a sideshow.  It can be a delicious sideshow.  The sideshow can change the way you taste the main event, enhance it.  But the advertisements I’ve seen reverse that.  They’re all about the wow holy shit it’s kinda like a pretzel oh nom nom nom and the patty and trimmings and condiments are just kind of there to prop up those two halves of the pretzel buns and keep them from touching each other for some reason.  Maybe it’s like Ghostbusters where you can’t cross the streams.  Don’t cross the buns, it’ll be terrible.  Which makes me wonder how we can get away with something called ‘hot cross buns’ without a catastrophe befalling us, but that’s a different subject.

In any event: burgers and sandwiches shouldn’t be about what’s outside first and what’s inside second.  Sort of like people.

Where’s the Good Corn?

Corn is starting to show up in the grocery stores in my urban habitat.  What I am used to this meaning: figuring out which store has the yellow corn this year, not the white corn that is most prevalent.

 

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This is what I’m looking for.  So far this year, nobody has it.  Instead, they have white corn.

What, you ask, do you have against white corn?  Well, just that it is bland, flavorless, and tastes more like sugar than anything else.  It doesn’t taste like corn.  It doesn’t have that corny corniness that is corn.  White corn is sweet baby food.  Yellow corn is corn.

So where is all of the yellow corn?  Is the white corn early, greenhouse-planted corn, earmarked (no pun intended) for the supermarket?  Is it all white because that’s what most people seem to want to buy?  Is the yellow corn still all in the fields, is it going to be late summer before I see any?

Is it all being made into ethanol to add to gasoline?  Is the less desirable yellow corn all slated for export?  Is it all being turned into syrup to make soft drinks and bread and… well, that crap seems to get added to damn near everything, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was in the ground beef, too.

Maybe I should have my eye on the field corn being grown in the fields right outside of town, waiting to be made into animal feed because it’s too starchy for my fellow Americans’ taste… which is itself sort of odd, because we’re all about potatoes, and it doesn’t get much starchier than that.

I bet that field corn is the corniest tasting corn that ever corned.

Culinary Adventure: Chocolate Rosemary Bread Pudding

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From time to time… okay, often… I decide to embark on a culinary adventure.  Sometimes it’s as simple as buying a new spice and trying it out on everything that I cook for a week or two.  Usually it’s trying something I haven’t tried before.  Lately it’s bread pudding.  This is the second one I’ve made.  The first was much the same, only with the zest of an orange rather than the cocoa powder.  Both have come out delicious.  I’ll give you the recipe of this one, if you’re interested in trying it out.  It’s not as sweet as some bread puddings I’ve had.  So pairing with ice cream or a sweet sauce of your own creation is recommended.

I am a ‘by eye’ home cook.  By that, I mean: I am not a chef, I have never been a food service professional of any description, my understanding of recipes is that they are rough guidelines meant to be played with, and my concept of measuring ingredients is sloppy at best.

Stuff for Chocolate Rosemary Bread Pudding: one jumbo ramekin… I guess the thing is about 8″ across.

One loaf of french bread or similar (about a pound)

One loaf of rosemary olive oil bread (about a pound) (I’d have added the leaves of a healthy (what, maybe 3 or 4 inches long?) sprig of fresh rosemary, minced, if it hadn’t already been rosemary bread)

A stick of unsalted butter

7 large eggs

3 1/2, maybe 4 cups of milk (I measured 3 and freehanded the rest when the mixture was too dry. You want wet, but no free liquid wandering around)

Cocoa powder — I’m guessing I probably put half a cup in.  Maybe a little more.  It’s definitely chocolatey.

1 cup sugar

Molasses — at a guess, a quarter cup?  I drizzled it in until I was happy with it.

Cayenne pepper — a pinch. Less than half a teaspoon, more than a quarter.  You don’t want to taste it, you just want it in the background giving the chocolate a little boost.

—–

Cut the bread roughly into cubes.  Put about half of them into a large mixing bowl.

Melt the butter.

Drizzle the bread with melted butter and sprinkle with cocoa powder & cayenne.

Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl of their own.

Add the milk, sugar, and molasses to the milk and beat until the sugar dissolves.

Pour about half of it over the bread and mix it around a bit with your (clean) hands until the bread soaks up the liquid.  This reduces the volume of the bread, giving you room to add more bread and liquid until it’s all in there.  Try not to mix it up too much.  You don’t want mush, you want the bread soaked but most of it still holding its shape.

Grease (butter, shortening, lard, or other edible solid cooking fat) the ramekin and flour it.

Put into a 350 degree oven and cook it until a knife plunged into its chocolatey heart comes out mostly but not completely clean, and hot.

Let it rest for half an hour on the counter.

Remove from ramekin, slice, and devour.  If you haven’t tried it before, chocolate plays remarkably well with a bit of rosemary.  If you want to try it with ice cream, I’d start with good old classic vanilla.  I think it’d be a good counterpoint to the relatively aggressive and rich flavor of this bread pudding.

Bleuuuuurg for the Whole Family!

So, for the last 3 days we’ve been a plague house.

First, the baby spent an entire night waking up every half an hour to puke.  And it’s particularly pitiful when someone not-quite-two gets sick to his stomach.  He kept assuring us “I’m a good boy!” and “no want nummies” during bouts of vomiting.  And everyone out there who has raised a baby is just nodding their heads because the 😦 factor of a little sick kid is universal to the raising a little kid experience.

A day went by.  The rest of us thought we were safe.  Then the 15 year old got sick  and spent most of the day in the same state.  At night, my wife took her turn, which alarmed her doctors to no end since she’s got about 6  weeks to go until New Baby arrives.

This morning, just when I thought my Rasputinlike constitution had spared me, boom.  Technicolor yawn alarm clock.  Just how I like to wake up.  I’ve just spent most of my afternoon consuming about three cups of rice gruel (1 cup rice, 6 cups water, let the rice cooker work on it until it’s the consistency of loose oatmeal) with egg in little tiny batches.  At this rate, I might be able to eat serious food by tomorrow morning.

Why am I telling you this?  It doesn’t have much to do with writing, or creativity, or my books, or someone interviewing me, or…

…you get the point.

I’m telling you because the name of the place is “Seriously Eclectic” and I feel like telling someone.  I still feel like crap, I’m not driving anywhere and nobody else in the family is interested in going anywhere, and everyone locked in this blighted house already knows the horrors—horrors, I say—of the Puke Plague.

 

(Editor’s note: WordPress wants me to link ‘Technicolor yawn’ to graphic videos of people vomiting.  I’ll spare you.  Bad, WordPress.  Bad.)