When it comes to eating, I have quite the penchant for adventure. I jump at the chance to try exotic dishes and experience exciting new flavors, and I never turn away from something unfamiliar. Throughout the years I have eaten everything from calf brains, pig ears and goose carpaccio to tripe sandwiches, mealworms and horned melons.
On the one hand, my love of unordinary foods is an enjoyable hobby. It gives me great delight to try something I’ve never tasted before, and I love telling stories about the unusual things I’ve eaten. On the other hand, my taste for the exotic has fundamentally altered the way I look at all types of food. It has instilled in me a respect for the strange and unpopular, and it has given me a new perspective on common and overeaten foods, especially meat.
Every time I walk through a grocery store or look at a restaurant menu, I’m always amazed by the lack of variety among the types of meat offered. Chicken breasts, rib-eye steaks, bacon, ground beef and pork chops are overwhelmingly popular, and they are such mainstays that many people never branch out and try different cuts or unfamiliar types of meat.
As a result, these few cuts from a select number of animals dominate plates across the country, leading to disastrous consequences. I highly recommend watching Food Inc, Michael Pollan’s Cooked or Cowspiracy for a more detailed investigation into the science and ethics behind these eating habits. Instead of dwelling on the problem, I want to take a closer look at the solution.
I think most people stick to these mundane meats for two primary reasons: fear and taste. Perhaps it’s xenophobia – since many exotic cuts of meat can only be found in ethnic restaurants in the US – or perhaps it’s a fear of the abject – an evolutionary phobia of things which may poison or harm our bodies. In any case, I think that many people are simply scared to try something new. With encouragement, I believe most eaters would step outside of their comfort zones, and those of us who like exotic food should share our experiences with the culinary cowards we know to push them in the direction of more diverse eating habits.
The second reason why I think most people don’t eat the whole animal or turn away from rare meats is that these foods often aren’t cooked properly. When served in a restaurant, this isn’t the case. Professional chefs know how to make any cut of meat taste exquisite, so you can bet if you’re trying something exotic or unusual at a restaurant it will be delicious and well cooked.
In the home, it’s a different story. Many of the go-to cooking methods that average home cooks rely on – stewing, pan-frying, baking etcetera – don’t work well with lesser-used cuts of meat. Many unusual cuts need to be slow roasted, well marinated or tenderized to ensure the finished dish is tender, flavorful and succulent.
Although I am adamantly opposed to hunting for ethical reasons, several of my family members are regular hunters, and as a result, I often ate wild game growing up. Deer was a staple protein for us, and my mom would use it for everything from slow-cooker pot roasts to meatballs. Unfortunately, deer is a very dry meat, and these preparations did nothing to impart flavor or make it moist. When people outside of my family tried deer at my house, they hated it, and it only strengthened their avoidance of rare meat. If the deer was cooked well, however, I’m sure all those who ate it would have become more willing to try exotic meats.
Since people aren’t familiar with how to cook lesser used cuts or exotic meats, they aren’t willing to buy them to cook at home. And, if consumers don’t buy from the whole animal, tons of meat gets wasted every year. The cycle begins with the shopper at the grocery store and the customer at the restaurant, and taking the step beyond your comfort zone is the best way you can begin to change society’s one-dimensional eating habits and disastrous wastefulness.
So, the next time you want to make a lamb roast, try switching out a loin with a less prized cut like neck. If you’re in the mood for Mexican food, try using tongue to make authentic lingua tacos. If you want to make barbeque, opt for slow-roasted short rib. Or, if you like glazed salmon, chose farm-raised arctic char or ocean trout instead.
By making these simple changes, you can do your part to encourage more environmentally sustainable eating habits. Cooking the whole animal wastes less, and opting for more exotic meats promotes diverse farming and the raising of more sustainable animals – like rabbit. Such changes don’t need to be drastic – I’m not encouraging everyone to eat primarily organ meats or to cook only foods you’ve never heard of – but even the most minute of changes can have lasting benefits.
So, don’t be afraid to eat a variety of foods, and don’t be scared of cooking new cuts of meat. Instead, revel in the adventure and in knowing that your food choices can help the planet.