Bar Jester Chronicles 11: The Thoughtful OmnivoreBy Jason Peters for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Rock Island, IL
Warning: the following contains mature content and may not be suitable for all audiences.
The thoughtful omnivore lives between two opposing impulses, one to limit and one to liberate his appetites. Or, to put it another way, he has great admiration for Thoreau—“it is a part of the destiny of the human race … to leave off eating animals”—and, at the same time, significant sympathy for Rumpole—“never trust a vegetarian.”
Between the opposing impulses there are variations of which the Mark Bittman approach is a good enough example: no animal products until the evening meal. I know people who do this and feel good about it. They also actually feel good.
And then there’s the Michael Pollan thesis, also sensible: eat food, mostly plants, not too much.
Even the Church is helpful in recommending periods of meatlessness. These are solemn stretches of time, and not a bit fun, but they are necessary and useful and healthy in the largest possible meaning of that word.
But during them you can sometimes feel your incisors trying to answer some ancestral call. They want to tear into something, and, brother, it ain’t tofu. They want flesh. They want smoked pork tenderloin and porterhouse and calamari. At such times you can almost believe we did come down out of the trees–that, if we are men, well then, by God, we are also animals. Thoreau himself tells us he was tempted once to eat a woodchuck raw.
But he’s also the one who said that, when the body sits down to dine, the imagination must sit down with it and that both must be fed essentially.
It is unlikely, I think, that either can be fed essentially if we are not mindful of limits. I don’t mean quantitative limits only, though I mean those too. I mean, mainly, qualitative limits. I mean rhythms of abstaining and partaking. At some point we must all leave off eating Death by Chocolate for dessert if we ever hope to enjoy chocolate again someday. We were not made for satiety. We were made for variety.
If that variety includes seasons of somber meatlessness, it includes, at least for me, seasons of meatiness as well. And by meatiness I don’t mean burgers on the grill, though I’m all for them. I mean raw meat. I mean mooing beef, as in “the cattle are lowing.” I mean red bloody uncooked dead cow.
Listen. If you’re going to pity vegetarians for missing out on steak diane but not meat eaters for missing out on steak tartare, you’re not serious about omnivoraciousness. Your Thoreau-Rumpole ratio is seriously out of whack.
I have read around enough in the literature of tartare d’boeuf to know that there are disagreements about just how to prepare and eat this most elemental of heaven’s gifts. Some chefs want only this particular cut of meat, others only that one. Some don’t want an egg yolk added, some do. Some use olive oil, some don’t. Some use onions, others shallots.
I propose to settle the matter once and for all: here I offer not only the best steak tartare recipe but also the best way to prepare, eat, and reflect upon it.
Step 1: Choose some music and put it on. N.B. The music you choose will depend in part upon which concoction you plan to fortify your digestive system with. The Carmina Burana will do if you’re going to quaff something Dionysian, like, say, a quart of homemade sangria. Your manhood will suffer a little from this choice—or your womanhood (you’ll be under the table ere you eat)—but there are times when the Orff-sangria option is a good one. A Bombay sapphire martini with a lemon twist or an onion garnish will complement nicely anything baroque. (Olives are permissible if they are stuffed with blue cheese but not otherwise, especially during a Bach oboe concerto.) I myself like just a tiny little bit of bourbon to go along with Brahms’s third symphony or The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. An Islay single malt may be taken with just about anything, including Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, Gorecki’s Totus Tuus, and “Sweet Home Alabama.” An Imperial IPA is certainly okay, but you might want a more deadly concoction for obvious reasons.
Step 2: Crank it up louder, especially if yours goes to eleven.
Step 3: Carefully trim the fat off a local grass-fed ribeye or top sirloin steak. Cut the meat into long thin strips, then cut the strips again crosswise into small cubes. Scrape them into a bowl—a white one.
Step 4: Chop up some fresh parsley. You’ll want at least a quarter cup.
Step 5: Chop up a whole shallot—a good-sized one. Under no circumstances should the shallot be sautéed. Like everything else in this dish, it should be raw. (Some want the shallot added at the finish, as in the photograph above. More on this option presently.)
Step 6: Take a sip–or quaff a desired quantity–of the fortification. Repeat. Repeat again and hum or sing along to the music. Think uncharitable thoughts about vegetarians and the sissy carnivores who won’t go the distance with you.
Step 7: Add 2-3 tablespoons of capers to the bowl. (Some want the capers added at the finish, as in the photograph above. More on this option presently.)
Step 8: Repeat step 6.
Step 9: Scrape all the chopped ingredients to the bowl.
Step 10: Add two tablespoons of Dijon mustard; add sea salt and ground black pepper to taste.
Step 11: Add one egg yolk. (Some want the egg yolk, along with the capers and shallots, added at the finish, as in the photograph above. This is an acceptable method but should probably be used only if you’re entertaining certified postmodern or gay friends who like to use the word “presentation.” Otherwise, I recommend the full-mix method for reasons I’ll get to presently.)
Step 12: Drizzle in some olive oil and add about three tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce.
Step 13: Stir lovingly.
Step 14: Repeat step 6 and let the ingredients mingle promiscuously while you listen to the music and behold the slow disappearance of the gastric fortification. This full-mix method does alter the “presentation,” it is true, but the promiscuous mingling is, in my opinion, essential to the flavor of your steak tartare. (I sometimes let the promiscuous mingling go on overnight in the fridge.) Plus it gives you an excuse to mix another concoction and listen to Brahms’s first symphony or Tchaikovsky’s sixth.
Step 14: NOT TO BE PERFORMED UNTIL YOU ARE READY TO EAT. Squeeze half a lemon, pour the juice into the bowl, and stir lovingly. (The reason you don’t put the lemon juice in until the very end is that it actually cooks the beef a little, and you want this as raw as you can get it while still availing yourself of the astringency of the lemon.
If you have finished your concoction(s) and have opened a very deep inky assertive red wine—a Salice would not be inappropriate—you are ready to eat.
So—step 15—give thanks, reverently making the sign of the cross while thinking uncharitable thoughts about vegetarians and the sissy carnivores who won’t go the distance with you.
Now some culinarians will suggest that you spoon the tartare onto thinly sliced pieces of french or pumpernickel bread or toasted garlic wafers. This is a fine way to enjoy tartare if you’re sharing it with others—for example, your certified postmodern or gay friends—and using it as an appetizer. Nothing should dissuade you from using bread or garlic toast as your carrier. But I like to eat this right off the spoon or fork, in small delectable portions, pausing after every second or third bite to swirl, smell, and then sip the wine, all the while thinking uncharitable thoughts about vegetarians and sissy carnivores.
But here’s a word of warning: people who can’t believe you would eat raw beef should not be allowed anywhere near you when you do it. Trust me: they will spoil everything—the music selection, the concoction, the climactic savoring—everything. Eat steak tartar alone or with likeminded friends but never with a dissenter, nonbeliever, apostate, or reprobate. This is as important as delaying the lemon juice until the end.
Nor would I have readers think that eating this divine dish is its only reward. Many other benefits accrue to you and your palate fine.
Among them I number the following:
3. You develop a deep gratitude for all bovines, who are very deserving of our gratitude.
2. You distinguish yourself not only from all vegetarians but also from most omnivores and therefore secure for yourself the intoxicating feeling of exclusivity.
1. You experience what Jonathan Edwards called the Divine and Supernatural Light. There are no atheists among steak tartar eaters—or, if there are, they are profoundly disingenuous and ought to be scolded coldly by a roomful of severe and unmerciful wives. (The wives of golf addicts are recommended.)
Now some will wonder about the safety of eating steak tartar. My friend the parasitologist tells me that freezing meat in a normal freezer for a week will take care of flukes, tapeworms, and roundworms. He says that there are some strains of worms that have evolved in the arctic and that these can survive freezing—trichinosis worms, for example—but we can solve that problem easily enough by not eating cows pastured in the arctic.
(There are, apparently “other dangers,” but they issue from the academic left–that is, from atheists, darwinists, and commie-dems–so ignore them.)
Others will say that eating meat, cooked or raw, is simply wrong. I doubt if these people are right, though I confess that I have some interest in what their arguments look like. I would not, after all, be a mindless and unthoughtful omnivore. But I must say that vegetarianism is, I think, a luxury of the age of cheap energy and cheap transportation, especially here in the north.
Vegetarianism also has the disadvantage of excluding tartare d’boeuf, one of the best proofs—right up there with a really fine pair of kneecaps—that God exists.
Besides, if we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?
One final word—just to come full circle: you should not eat steak tartare every day. Honor the rhythms of abstaining and partaking. Choose Thoreau over Rumpole and clear your palate over a long stretch of time with a vegetable diet. Work hard at being the thoughtful omnivore acutely aware of opposing impulses, one to limit and one to liberate your appetites. Then, after a suitable interval, choose Rumpole over Thoreau, clear the domicile of naysayers, and proceed again with step one. I recommend Neck and Neck, by Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler, and a mint julep.