Bar Jester Chronicles 11: The Thoughtful Omnivore

by Jason Peters on April 20, 2010 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low


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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jeffrey Polet April 21, 2010 at 9:08 am

There are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to listen to Carmina Burana, and very few for Tchaikovsky’s 6th (the 4th, on the other hand, is another matter). And I will fight to the death any man who suggests that a good single malt is an accompaniment, even to activity.

avatar DJ April 21, 2010 at 9:09 am

I cannot for the life of me tell if he is serious or not…

avatar D.W. Sabin April 21, 2010 at 9:45 am

Might I add the Vermont Transit Bus Station Ground Chuck Tartare developed by a street inhabitant of Burlington, Vermont we referred to as “Mr. Soft Contacts” due to his sartorial innovation of wearing a Soft Contacts advertising shirt for several weeks and then turning it inside out for several more weeks in order to wash it.

He would assemble himself at a booth in the diner at the bus station and order up a heaping plate of raw ground chuck, lather it in raw onions and smooth it all down with black coffee muddied with approximately 15 packets of sugar. It must have been fortifying because I would often come upon him at about 11 pm baying at a group of young college boys he’d cornered off Church Street. As I walked by, I would always salute him with an “evening Bobby, nice night eh?” and he would interrupt his ferocious braying to reply “same to you” and smile sweetly before turning back to the cowering flock of college boys in order to resume the frightful bellowing. He’d corner up to 5 strapping youths at a time but truth be told, many were from New Jersey where un-cooked meat is anathema.

avatar jmgregory April 21, 2010 at 10:29 am

The fortification and lemon are very important, as illustrated in the short story linked below. Be ye warned: ’tis not for the faint of heart.

avatar Kate Dalton April 22, 2010 at 6:34 am

Let me guess who gave up red meat for Lent.

When we were in Belgium, my husband and I were amused to see this dish called “American prepare’” on the menu, when we knew very few Americans who so prepared it. It’s “Peters prepare’” to us from here on out.

avatar Nicole D April 22, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I feel nearly the same about any opportunity to enjoy kibbeh nayeh, which is a Lebanese dish of freshly ground raw lamb with spices, best eaten with pita bread still puffed up and hot from the oven. Usually, in my case, accompanied by the noise of a very large family and some arak.

avatar Rob G April 25, 2010 at 2:09 pm

We had a thing here in Pittsburgh 40+ years ago (don’t know if other places had it as well) called a “cannibal sandwich,” which was basically a raw hamburger on a bun with onions. They were a bit before my time, but I probably wouldn’t have eaten one anyways.

My quasi-vegetarianism is based on a rejection of factory farming, not a rejection of carnivorism in general. I’m happy to eat free-range organic meat and poultry.

avatar RiverC April 26, 2010 at 9:24 am

@Kate – We all give up red meat for Lent – all meat…

It’s worth it when you break into the St. Aubrey and bacon on Sunday morning, though.

Sounds like a fantastic idea, this – though it is so rich that I wonder if I’d be able to even finish the plate. Very pungent. I never was much for Shallots until we did a crab soup with them.

As a lover of sushi, I’m all for eating things right off the beast if I’m not going to retch and reel for 24 hours afterwards.

Next we’re going to hear (hopefully) about the qualities of the water in various canned goods. While everyone is wasting perfectly good water and nutrients, yours truly is enjoying fish oil and spinach water. Clam water is something I have trouble with, though.

avatar Dr. T. David Gordon April 26, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I’ve never prepared it myself, but you now have me tempted. We used to get it from Fuad at the Chicago Steak House in Nashua, NH, who also made a fabulous, knock-out, table-side Casesar salad if you ordered the tartare (I’ve learned to make the salad, but not yet the tartare). Fuad was/is Moroccan, but his culinary training was in France. Any reason the Brahms 4th symphony wouldn’t work? It works with everything else, so I thought I’d check. We grilled lamb chops tonight, so I might have to “fast” a little on red meat before attempting this…

avatar Robin Datta April 27, 2010 at 2:38 am

To my knowledge there is no single plant that contains all essential amino-acids in proportions adequate to get us around Liebig’s law of the minimum:

(Easy mnemonic: L cubed T squared PMV)'s_law_of_the_minimum

However an adequate variety of plants can get around this, as is evident from the millions of vegetarians around the world. Two eminent persons of the last century who incidentally were also vegetarians: Mohandas Keramchand Gandhi and Adolf Hitler.

avatar WmO'H April 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I have some bison in my freezer. I’m tempted to try this recipe on it. Would it work?

avatar Jason Peters April 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm

WmO’H: only if you drink the bourbon neat. Remember what ice is for. (I would be disinclined to try it with bison, but a Chicago Mick could probably get away with it.)

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