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What’s my beef with burgers?

As usual, I’m slightly behind the times on all the really exciting and futuristic food news. But a conversation I had yesterday with an older volunteer at my local library brought back the article and my (as usual) sarcastic thoughts on the way forward in American food culture. The man I talked to grew up in Arcadia, about 10 minutes southeast of Pasadena, back in the 1950s when it was still mostly farmland, and he rode a horse to school–and was often sent home with it early because it started fertilizing the school grounds at a copious rate. Nowadays, they’d have to pay good money for the stuff.

This gentleman, about my mother’s age, was talking about the younger generation, his grandkids, and while he admired how adept they seem to be with sophisticated technology, he shook his head at the fact that his grandson was the only kid last year in his kindergarten class who had any idea where tomatoes come from, because his family was the only one that had a garden or (perhaps) ate vegetables that didn’t miraculously appear, wan, grainy orangeish slices, mixed with pickle slices, on top of a hamburger in foil paper. “It’s all burgers now,” the man shook his head. “That’s all anyone seems to eat anymore–hamburgers and hotdogs. That’s not food.”

It was exactly what I’d been thinking all summer long, looking at the magazine covers and newspaper food sections. Which is why I view the biggest food story of the year a little differently than most biochem-trained enthusiasts….

Two weeks ago, an Austrian nutritionist, an American journalist, and a cell biologist in the Netherlands shared the first public taste  of a hamburger made from beef tissue cultured in laboratory from cattle stem cells.

Ordinarily we’d all be running around in circles throwing our hands up in the air and, depending on our political bent, either chanting “This is the Age of Aquarius” or else screaming “Soylent Green is People!” Or possibly “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” (quickly followed with a heavy-booted reprise of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”).  I mean, it’s a big deal. Right? It is.

Yeah. Well. So, what is it, really, this synthetic stem cell-derived miracle burger? Synthetic beef, lab-cultured in (yes) flasks of nutrient sera as the starting stem cells differentiate into beef-style shoulder muscle (read, brisket?) cells and some fat cells.  The animal rights people are thrilled and dreaming of scaleup that could eliminate the need for stockyard cruelties, the vegetarians say they’d be first in line to try it, and…apparently no one yet has asked what exactly is in the nutrient serum to grow the little strings of muscle tissue.

Is it a vegetarian-sourced solution of amino acids and so on or does it (as I suspect) derive from the more usual beef and other animal broth, made (inexpensively for laboratory consumption) from boiled-down hooves and skins and various meat scraps? Maybe it ain’t time to celebrate that aspect just yet.

But still, it’s a big step forward. Isn’t it?

I mean, an actual New Age synthetic beef alternative using the latest advances in cell biology. Very exciting.

Except…they’ve used all this very sophisticated technology to develop…a hamburger.

For this test, the 20,000 or so individual strands of muscle tissue they managed to harvest (after a five-year developmental process funded by by Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google, no less, and 3 months or so of growing this particular sample) were patted lovingly into shape and fluffed out to reasonable volume and held together with the help of some salt, some breadcrumbs, and some egg powder. And some beet juice for realistic coloring because the strands were a little more yellow than pink, somehow. And then the sample was cooked and eaten plain by the lab director and his two volunteers.

Who complained that it was really hard to judge the flavor of the synthesized beef without any of their favorite toppings on board. No jalapenos or cheese or pickle relish, no salt and pepper, no aged gouda, no ketchup. They both skipped the lettuce and tomato they were offered, to say nothing of the bun. And they couldn’t judge the meat on its own.

Why not? Was it actually flavorless? Did it not taste like beef? Or do they not really remember what beef itself tastes like because they’ve never eaten anything that was just beef, no cover-ups?

When I think about it, it’s even more astonishing that they didn’t notice all the breadcrumbs and egg powder fillers and so on and complain about that. They didn’t, though. I’m so against meatloaf in any form, but especially parading as beef-only ground beef, that I can’t see how they missed it. Then again, I eat meat so seldom these days that I’m sensitive to the taste. I’m pretty sure a real ground round hamburger tastes a lot different than the soy-and-corn-filled substitutes in the chain restaurants these days. A real hamburger flipped over charcoal and just pink in the center is a rare thing, or at least a medium-rare one, nowadays. Not to be drowned out by cheez and bad quality buns and other lame stuff.

You know, I think I’d stick with the veggie burger if I can’t have beef or lamb. And I think I’d stick with felafel way ahead of that. Or perhaps something a little more slow-food, a little more serious, and a little less imitative of the lowest common denominator in food tropes.

Because I’m sick of seeing all the food sections in the national newspapers tout and rank the “15 best burgers in DC or LA or NY or Chicago or Des Moines”, and I’m tired of seeing all the supposedly gourmet food mags on the stands show burgers and fried chicken on their covers every two or three months. I’m tired of having to watch Jack in the Box ads on Youtube that supposedly present two completely different (but visually identical) versions of a McNugget-style or Chick-Fil-A-style doubledecker breaded synth-chicken patty with two or three slices of cheez and bacon and a bun. The latest in LA? Some kind of “ramen burger” mashup, with two stuck-together wads of ramen noodles substituting for the bun, and also the latest from Taco Bell, a rubber waffle held taco-like (in their imaginations) around a slab of breakfast sausage and some scrambled eggs. It’s endless, and it’s drivel.

The lab burger wasn’t even the worst offering, but goddamn it, doesn’t anyone have any food imagination anymore? Because burgers do not really need the publicity boost, let’s face it. They’re already much too entrenched as a common reference unit of food, they’re boring-tasting–if the current popular urge to dress them up in the food equivalent of doll clothes is any indication, no one’s actually paying attention to the meat itself–and they’re not very good eating nutritionally. Especially oversized and with a side of fries. See Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me” for reference.

Moreover, Sergey Brin is supposed to be forward-thinking. To him, I say, I don’t care if you lived on burgers and nothing but while developing the behemoth that is Google. When you invest in high tech lab advances, don’t you think the new miracle technologies should be used to achieve something a little more important, like growing heart muscle cells for repairing damaged cardiac tissue in congestive heart failure cases, just to pick an example from the journals? Nerve cell myelin sheaths for spinal cord injuries. Skin for burn victims. Corneas. Pancreases.

Anything a little less dim and mundane than a goddamn burger. Yet again.

4 Responses

  1. Well, this is why I like the simplicity of In-N-Out. You got your non-frozen ground cow, they slap it on a grill and you may or may not add other extraneous stuff. They don’t fancy it up, you got your hamburger, your cheeseburger, your secret menu (which is just your ground cow with varying traditional backyard-available condiments), a fluffy white bread bun, fries, and something to drink. It’s not molded chik’n blobs, or pretending to be a salad or heart healthy or gourmet or in a sauce or has an ad campaign. It’s a burger.

    Which is why our local one is always busy, and has the most racially/ethnically/monetarily/ages diverse crowd. No vegans, no kosher, no Hindus, but everyone else. It’s fast food, tons of fat and salt, it’ll kill you, they don’t pretend otherwise. Eat it or don’t.

    If you have to turn it into ersatz meatloaf, it is not a burger. I’m not sure why they eschewed (heh) condiments after they’d already thrown in eggs and breadcrumbs. At that point, what’s some mustard or lettuce?

    Nobody rode a horse to school in my day, but my second grade teacher, every year, hatched chickens in an incubator. Eggs, little slimy dinosaurs, fuzzy peepers, things with feathers. And they really DID get to go live on a farm afterwards — we had a field trip to see them when they were all grown up! (they were different fancy colored/feathered types with distinctive markings) And my dad fought mightily against tomato diseases and pests every summer. But nobody comes from farming/ranching stock any more, hardly.

    I also had Barbie’s Real Plant Rock Garden Patio or something… I don’t know, it came with a bunch of seeds that you planted in the potting soil holes, and when the plants got so big that Barbie and Ken were basically living in the Jurassic, you planted them outdoors. We lost the tomato battle that year, but the beans and corn were spectacular — got a grand total of 8 ears of corn and Mom set the water to boil as we picked them in the yard. Can you imagine Barbie having something like that nowadays? Obviously you’re not going to grow corn in a studio apartment, but that a major toy company thought it was perfectly reasonable for 9 year old girls to be able to grow actual food while Barbie sat there in her go-go dress?

    • Hilarious–and so true! But then again back in the 1970s and ’80s Glamour magazine had articles on politics, financial trends and ambitious careers for women as well as how to cut your own hair, fend off annoying coworkers nicely, and generally kick butt. Nowadays? Fashion-Beauty-Celebrity-Gossip. I think that’s what’s on the spine. And no more wicked party games like my personal favorite from the mid-’80s: “Death is not an option”–ie, who would you take to bed of two awful choices picked by the other players. I think they gave an example that matched Donald Rumsfeld against Michael Jackson. Even then, it was a poser. And really, really prophetic! But to make up for the travesties of Glamour are all the aggressive-foodie-and-armchair-homesteader mags like Lucky Peach (hairy tattooed arm on the front cover, so much for appetizing) and Chickens (as in, how to raise chickens. An entire magazine of it.)

      I too have de-Japanese-beetled corn and zucchini and green beans (my mom called my dad “Farmer Brownjeans” after the beloved sidekick on Captain Kangaroo, only not green…) and snuck zucchini onto other people’s porches in the middle of the night. Well maybe not that, exactly, but close. Kids today don’t know what they’re missing.

      • Oh Lord. Zucchini. That stuff grows while you’re looking at it, like a 50’s horror movie.

        Dad’s tomatoes were always defended partly by getting child labor to squish pests, which I didn’t much care for, but the neighbor boys loved to do. Honestly, you stomp bugs and then eat something, isn’t this a perfect activity for children?

        [note: excerpted as the last comment on this post without really stretching it]

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