Monday, March 15, 2010

What's for dinner?

On Saturday I read Avery Gilbert’s latest “I Smell Dead People” post, and on Sunday I read this interesting little article about Judith Jamison’s favorite scents, which mentions several foods. Some alchemy between the two has got me thinking about the smell of meat. (Squeamish persons and zealous vegetarians might want to stop reading now.) I grew up in a family that ate lots of meat, and I was always aware of the various smells associated with flesh foods. Every kind of meat has a unique odor, even when raw. Beef has a different smell than lamb or venison, chicken has a different smell than duck. My father and brothers used to go dove hunting, and I can clearly recollect the distinctive smell of the birds being cooked, even though I haven’t had dove for dinner in forty years.

When I was around 8 or 9 years old my mother worked for a while in the meat department of a grocery store, grinding hamburger and slicing steaks. I went to work with her a few times, which I’m sure violated any number of health and workplace safety laws, but I loved watching her do her job. I remember the smell of the place as incredibly rich, and not at all unpleasant. The metallic smell of fresh blood mixed with the slightly sharp scent of sawed bone. The wrap that covered the packages of meat was cut with a hot wire, so there was a very faint hint of burnt plastic in the air. And of course there was the scent of rot. The shop was (reasonably) clean and well run, but where there is raw meat, there is always a whiff of decomposition. As long as it’s below a certain threshold, it’s just part of the aroma profile of the food. It’s not only tolerable, it’s part of meat’s olfactory appeal, like the stink of turnip greens or the sweet/sour reek of ripe cantaloupe.

I suppose my happy carnivorous memories are the reason I never lost my tolerance for the smell of meat during my years as a vegetarian. Even when I was a vegan, shunning all animal foods, I would wander through carnicerias in Chicago and be completely untroubled by the rank smell of the meat and the piles of salt cod. Cooked meat smelled good to me, even though I didn’t have any desire at all to eat it. All my positive associations with meat overwhelmed my conscious rejection of it, and I loved the smell in a nostalgic way—the way you might be pleased by the smell of your grandmother’s perfume, even though you wouldn’t dream of wearing it yourself.

I’ve been a born-again omnivore for quite a few years, so my kitchen is often filled now with the aromas of flesh foods. I’m very aware of the sensual pleasure I take in those smells, how completely natural that pleasure is, and how disturbing.

Die Köchin mit Geflügel, Joachim Beuckelaer (1534-1574)


Anonymous said...

Flesh pleasures...tasted, inhaled and felt...disturbing and enlivening, every one of them.

Olfacta said...

I have a theory about teeth. Pure carnivores, like felines, have exclusively incisors and other teeth designed for ripping flesh. Horses and cows, 100% herbivores, have teeth designed for chewing and grinding vegetable foods. We have, out of our 32 teeth, 4 "canines" or incisors; I think this means that our diets should be the same ratio, or 8 to 1 vegetable/grain foods to flesh foods. It just seems to make sense to me.

jmcleod76 said...

I can relate to this, definitely. Most of the meat I find myself around is dull, poorly cooked, factory farmed stuff that holds not the tiniest bit of temptation for me. I've even "cheated," here and there, over the years, taking a bite of the ground beef I'd prepared for my dog's temporary "soft diet" or continuing to eat vegetarian-looking dish after realizing it contained tiny bits of chicken or pork I'd originally missed. The result is always a distinct sense of "Blech! How did I ever enjoy this?" But every so often, I'll encounter a meat smell that makes my mouth water, my stomach rumble, and my animal brain itch with craving. The strongest example was when I was covering the wee city of Bath, Maine, for my last weekly newspaper job. The police station sat a block away from the local rib joint, Beale Street Barbecue. You could smell the pork smoking every day for several blocks in any direction, and it was amazing! Any time I needed to visit the cops there - at least once a week, but usually more - all I could think about was how much I wanted to go in there and order some ribs. I only covered that beat for a few months, so I never found out how long my willpower could hold out. If I ever do decide to eat meat again, that'll be the first place I go.