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.