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May 6, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—May 6, 2008

In his fascinating and hilarious kitchen memoir Heat, Bill Buford proposes a useful dichotomy of cooks. Basically, there are “pastry cooks” and “meat cooks.” He does not mean this literally; he is not trying to suggest that all cooks in the world are either pâtissiers or charcutiers by training. But he does mean that all cooks have the outlook either of a meat-worker or a flour-worker, and I agree that this is the case.

“Pastry cooks” are all about precision and measurement. They are the scientists of cooking, the flour-sifters and the cup-levelers. They like materials like butter and water, which react exactly the same no matter where you are and no matter where you got them. In the visual arts, their equivalent would be pop artists like John Wesley, working with poster colors and ruled lines, or filmmakers like Wes Anderson, constantly worrying over the specific type of light to allow into the frame. You can tell the pastry cook by the neat recipe index cards he totes everywhere in a little grey plastic box, by the crease ironed into her snow-white apron, and by the thought he puts into plating design or doily arrangement. He blows you away by making 190 sugar cookies of identical size and thickness or by preparing a four-course dinner, serving each dish perfectly hot, pairing a wine with each course, and somehow ending up with all the dishes in the machine ten minutes after the soufflés come out.

“Meat cooks” are your dad, the barbecue expert. They are the brilliant improvisers, the last-minute supper saviors of cooking. They like food that was very obviously alive once, like birds roasted whole or oddly shaped heirloom tomatoes drizzled with balsamic. You can find the meat cook examining a T-bone steak to determine whether it is properly marbled, stirring furiously at a smoking hot wok with one hand while adding more oil with the other, or swearing softly to herself as she squats over a charcoal pit that’s taking forever to come to temperature. A good pastry cook’s dishes are always perfectly seasoned because he’s made them a thousand times; a good meat cook’s dishes are always perfectly seasoned because he tastes them every 20 seconds. More musician than painter, the meat cook trades a certain amount of elegance for a certain quality of gusto and authenticity, reflected in the grill marks he leaves on everything and the four varieties of hot sauce on his shelf.

The meat cook is most at home when grilling, so when I charcoal grill, I try my best to get in touch with my inner meat cook. If you try to charcoal grill like a pastry cook, you’re just asking for trouble. Meat simply won’t react the same way every time, nor will your grill attain the same temperature in the same amount of time. The same cut of meat, cut to precisely the same thickness, will still vary enormously depending on what sort of life the animal it came from lived. The same weight of fuel under the same grill will burn markedly more or less efficiently depending on how carefully it is piled, whether it is actively or passively ventilated, what the humidity is, and so on. There’s no way to control all of these factors; you just have to go with the flow.

With this philosophy in mind, my roommate and I decided, for our first barbecue of the season, to commune as much as possible with the flesh we would eventually serve. The actual killing and slaughtering we knew we should leave to the professionals, but we thought we could at least handle our own butchering. We opted, therefore, to turn a leg of lamb into shish kabobs, armed with only a hacksaw, a sharp knife, a couple of YouTube videos, and the meat chef’s constant aide—the lust for animal blood.

We could have chosen an easier mark. Lamb leg butchery, as it turns out, is a more delicate art than you might at first suspect. The shank must be sawed off sufficiently close to the knee to separate the tougher shin meat from the more delicate thigh meat, but not high enough to waste any delicate thigh meat either. Next you have to deal with a deucedly difficult little piece called the “aitch bone,” which corresponds vaguely to the bony, sticky-outy part of your hip. It’s very difficult to do, but by following along the edge of the aitch, you can wiggle the tip of your knife right through the connective tissue of the thigh joint to free up the ball joint itself, which will then pop free. Now you can get a much better sense of your lamb’s fat content and flavor profile, having exposed the prime thigh meat for inspection. All that remains is the delicate process of separating the various leg muscles from each other by cutting along the seams of viscera running through them until the pile of meat on your butcher block begins to look just like the shrink-wrapped packs at the supermarket.

Incidentally, besides attuning you more closely to your meat, butchering your own leg of lamb also yields dividends economically: Out of one $40 leg, we produced maybe thirty portions, not counting three excellent bones for the dog. But the point isn’t economy. If economy is your goal, pastry cookery will trump almost every time. You’re not going to waste anything when you measure every step of the way. Chewing on our kabobs, though, we knew exactly where they came from, why they were shaped the way they were, why their texture varied from batch to batch, and so on. Meat cooking is all about relishing those caveman details, reveling in the blood on your hands. Everyone who eats meat should man up every now and then and give it a shot.