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Meat and Fowl
Consider how ancient man exercised himself to bring food sources under control. Imagine yourself in a hostile world. Plants were around--but were tough, spiny, and poisonous as often as not. All things considered, animals were a safer bet...especially when they viewed you as an equally viable food source.
So, the domestication of animals--that is, of a steady, reproductive food source--was surely a top priority. And not very easy to accomplish. Consider the time line:
Where did beef originate?Most breeds of cattle go back to the wild Bos primigenius, the stone age cattle that were painted on the cave walls at Lascaux, France. To see them, click here.
So why is veal pale? Beef, red? Why do chickens and turkeys have white and dark meat?The pink or red coloration of meat is NOT due primarily to blood and its oxygen, carrying hemoglobin. Rather, it is due to oxygen-storing myoglobin, which is located in the muscle cells proper and which retains the oxygen brought by the blood until the cells need it.
The muscles that require a lot of oxygen have greater storage capacity than those that need little, so they are consequently darker red.
Chickens and turkeys do a lot of standing around and strutting, but they hardly ever fly--so their breast meat is white and their legs dark.
Wild duck and game birds, by contrast, spend more time on the wing, exercising their pecs--so their breast meat is quite dark.
Speaking of chickens, part I: Where'd they come from?The Romans actually developed the first distinctive breed of chickens, but the originals most likely derived from the red jungle fowl in Southeast Asia--and were tamed in prehistoric times, perhaps in India. Ancient records show them being raised in China in 1400 BCE. Eventually they arrived in Europe (hence the Roman breeds)--and on to the New World on the ships of Spanish explorers in the 1500s and of English settlers in the 1600s.
Speaking of chickens, part II: Isaac Newton, distractedLouis Figuier tells the following story about a classic Newton dinner party: "Newton's friend Dr. Stukely came to dinner with him. After waiting a long time for him to come out of his study, the doctor decided to help himself to some of the chicken that was already on the table. When he had finished, he left the remains of the bird on the plate and covered it with the silver cover. At the end of several hours, Newton finally made his appearance, saying that he was very hungry. He sat down at the table and lifted the cover from the chicken, but when he saw the carcass, "I thought," he cried, "I had not yet dined. I see I was mistaken."
Speaking of chickens, part III...a tragic storyIn March of 1626, while riding in a coach from his rooms in London to the suburb of Highgate, Sir Francis Bacon decided to take advantage of an fresh snowfall "to try an experiment or two, touching the conservation and induration of bodies." He stopped at a cottage, bought a chicken, and stuffed it with snow to study the preservation effects of freezing. In the process, he caught a chill and died of bronchitis two weeks later.
What about turkeys?These birds were New World creatures--and were raised as food by Native Americans as early as 1000 AD. There are two kinds: the brilliantly colored ocellated turkey (native to Guatamala and Mexico's Yucatan peninsula) and the North American turkey (native to the United States and parts of Mexico). It was the latter type in the wild that Benjamin Franklin wanted to designate as the American national bird, not the bald eagle.
And how'd they get their name? In a VERY roundabout way. When guinea fowls first came to England, they were called "turkey cocks" and "turkey hens" because they'd been shipped there by Turkish merchants in the spice trade. The same name was then used to designate the New World big birds, as they tasted the same and were equally exotic.
Poetical geese?English poet laureate and Lake Poet Robert Southey had these fine thoughts "To a Goose":
If thou didst feed on western plains of yore;
When is a veal not a veal?No precise ages standards are set to differentiate veal from beef, oddly enough, but the term usually means the meat from a young calf that is 1 to 3 months old. Lots of places sell meat from animals up to 9 months old, though--and the darker the meat, the older the calf...and the more likely it was fed on grain or grass. "Milk-fed veal," of course, is the creme de la creme, with firm delicate flesh that is creamy white with a pale gray-pink tinge. In soup, it shouldn't be paired with strongly flavored ingredients, lest it be completely overpowered.
The glory of porkPigs, which descended from wild boars in Asia and Europe, were not so easy to domesticate. They couldn't be driven out into the sun to forage, like sheep. They didn't give milk. They couldn't digest grass, leaves, or straw. In fact, they ate human food--and competed with humankind for whatever was digestible.
Nevertheless, they were incredibly good to eat. Consider the Norsemen, who led such a scrappy existence they had to fan out as Vikings over Europe looking for food: their fantasy conception of Valhalla included a divine hog called Saetherimni, who allowed itself to be killed and eaten every day, obligingly coming back to life on the morrow to be killed and eaten again. And consider the unbelievably silly "Dissertation on Roast Pig," written by Charles Lamb (1775-1834).
Then again, it was Launcelot in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (III, 5) who said: "This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs: if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals, for money."
It was around 7000 BCE that the intrepid natives of what is now Turkey succeeded in domesticating the brutes. To this day there are only two basic varieties: the longbacked Chinese pig and the heavier European/Danish pig--which last was introduced to America by early settlers. But a key breeding breakthrough occurred in 1760 when Robert Bakewell of Leceistershire crossed the fat Chinese pig with the lean pigs of West England.