Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Meat" is hard to beat

When I asked Tom Schneller, a friend and former colleague at The Culinary Institute of America, to lend me a copy of his latest book, Meat Identification, Fabrication and Utilization, so that I could review it here, I realized that I was asking to put myself into the odd situation of asking readers of A Hunger Artist to accept a review of one friend by another. Then I wondered what I would do if the booked sucked. Would I have the courage to say so publicly or be a wimp and write a whitewash?

Well, it turns out that I had nothing to worry about because Meat is very good.

Meat is essentially a textbook that appears to cover most of the curriculum of the CIA's meat ID and fabrication program. The first chapter, which teases the reader with a title that asks a Socratic question (What is meat?), is actually a miscellany of information about grading, equipment, knife techniques and Kosher and Halal meats. Subsequent chapters (Beef, Veal, Pork,Lamb and Game) contain straightforward utilitarian information about breed, grading, primal, subprimal and market cuts. There are terrific charts that give the North American Meat Processor's HRI (Hotel Restaurant and Institution) product codes for all of the standard North American cuts, information about how they are typically fabricated and suggested cooking methods.

But where the book really stands up -and why I wish I had had something like this in my library when I set out to learn butchery- are the original CIA-produced photographs.

There are terrific photos that illustrate all of the primal and subprimal cuts and most of the American market cuts plus fabulous exploded views of all the primal cuts with all of the muscles arrayed as if they had just fallen apart on the butcher's table. Some of the best photos are the process shots that clearly explain how to break down primal sections into subprimals and finally, market cuts. I'm not sure if I have seen process photos as good as these since Jacques Pepin's La Methode and La Technique.

I would like to have seen process photos that show the breakdown of whole carcasses instead of the not-too-helpful generic diagrams cum text that were given. I suppose that Tom and his publisher recognized that the target market of this book, like the staff and students at the meat room at the CIA, was more likely to be working from primal and subprimal cuts and not whole carcasses. So the omission of detailed discussions of the earliest stages of butchering, though lamentable. is understandable.

I do have another minor gripe about this book (and it's companion volume Poultry Identification, Fabrication and Utilization) that appears to have nothing to do with any decision made by the author.

A three-page section at the beginning (of both books) titled About the CIA, is a discourse on the merits of the CIA and its program at Hyde Park and elsewhere. While there is nothing unusual about including a shout out for an author's place of employment in a book, such things are more tastefully placed at the end of a book.

Listing at $74.95 ($49.10 at Amazon) Meat it is not a cheap. However, when you consider that the NAMP Meat and Poultry Buyer's Guide-which unlike Meat has no "how to" information and nothing about offal- is over $79.00, Meat is a pretty sweet deal.

The bottom line is that Meat is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to take a truly comprehensive approach to cooking and add serious butchering to their resume.


Simon said...

Can you briefly go through what is standard North American cuts? Because living in Quebec, most of our butchers are grown into the French tradition of butchering and the cuts are definitely different than what I see on cooking shows and books from the US and English Canada. For example, I have not been able to explain short-ribs to my butcher even by showing him on the chart where it is.

Ulla said...

I need this book! Looks awesome thanks for sharing.
BTW: i like your blog because I know you are friends with real chefs(your are one yourself if coarse) but it so cool to hear about the chef world through you!

Jessika said...

The different standards are a pain sometimes. The cut Tafelspitz (available in Austria, most of Southern germany and in some cases Switzerland) is not at all available in the rest of Europe. Tafelspitz is a hard sell to those that don't eat tafelspitz but a different cut can improve taste and use. I'm trying to find someone that can give me tafelspitz and another cut, so far in vain. There are sub ins but the originals are originals.

natalie sztern said...

Simon, so nice to meet another Quebecer..if u live in Montreal, try going to a kosher butcher or the IGA or Loblaws and in the meat section they are called 'beef short ribs' in the kosher section called 'flanken'...Korean is a whole other story...I don't know the area of Quebec but yes, I don't think it is a french cut of meat.

Bob, what took so long for this book: i'm getting old ya know..i needed this book twenty years ago...so now I will have to buy it for the children.

Bob del Grosso said...

Good question. I'll bet the CIA is asking the same thing.

Im sorry but can't briefly describe all of the standard American cuts here.(I know I wrote N. American but I forgot about Quebec. Sorry!) Doing so would take more time than I have right now.

The best thing to do is to buy a copy of this book or, if that is too pricey, an older version of the NAMP Guide. You don't need the newest version and I think you can get one for 20 dollars at Amazon.

tyronebcookin said...

Hey Bob,

How would this compare to say the 'River Cottage Meat Book' (...I have it somewhere but have not had the time read it yet) or maybe you haven't read that?

Thanks for the review on this book.

Sandy Smith said...

I was on the fence about whether or not I needed to add this one to my shelf, but clearly, it's a must. Thanks for your insightful review!

IdahoRocks said...

I am very interested in both your review book as well as other books regardng "foreign" cuts of meat. Being able to read both German and French, I've searched in vain for charts, and although I've occasionally found general, large cut charts for different countries, I've yet to find something to what you've reviewed.

For example, living in north Idaho, we do have a USDA butcher in Sandpoint, ID, but getting them to cut the lamb breast is impossible at best. I can get a pork jowl, but pig's feet can only be bought uncleaned. Anything ressembling schnitzel never turns out like what I bought in Germany. Pork hocks are somewhat more negotiable...but they do wonder what I'm going to do with raw hocks.... A butterflied leg of lamb reveals something that never matches CIA photos, and the list goes on.

I would dearly love to have American (your review has made that possible), Canadian, French, Italian, German, Austrian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. charts for meat cuts. I think this is very important for anyone who seriously cooks international cuisine. Should such a book become available, I would certainly begin to butcher my own meat.

So, Bob, would you even consider putting such a book together? You must have the contacts?

Thanks for the review. Terrific!

Bob del Grosso said...

It took me a while to respond because I first had to find a copy of The River Cottage Meat Book. The RCMB is great but very different in that it is much more "chatty" and not as narrowly focused on the "what is" and "how to."

You are right, the world needs a book that covers those forms of butchery. I don't know how to cut Canadian, German etc. -not now anyway- but your suggestion is compelling.

IdahoRocks said...

Hey Bob,

I hope you feel very compelled because in this day and age I think it would not only be filled with information that many people would want, but I also think it would sell as well as, if not better than, Charcouterie by Ruhlman and Polcyn.

So if you're reading this Ruhlman, Bob has first dibs...

CrimsonFancy said...

Chef, I have this one, and the Seafood one, on my Amazon wish-list.
I reckon you've convinced me to make the purchase and add 'em to my collection.
After all these years, you still influence me.