The Gastronomic Case Against Eating Baby Animals

No, this isn't the usual oh-it's-so-inhumane argument. This is about the quest for bold flavors and the fight against bland

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It’s odd, given American meat eaters’ sporadic bursts of conscience, that as a nation we are so O.K. with infanticide. Veal cutlets, suckling pigs, spring lambs, game hens — with or without the euphemisms, I know that I’ve made my peace with eating very young animals. But it’s hard not to be struck by the peculiar blindness of people who fawn over puppies and kittens and devour their barnyard analogs.

I don’t have much to say on the subject of morality, and wouldn’t presume to offer advice to fellow sinners even if I did, but I can say this: if you want a good reason not to eat baby animals, consider the fact that they really don’t taste that good.

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Animals, like most everything else in nature, grow stronger as they move from infancy to adulthood: they develop more fat, more muscle, more everything. They’ve eaten more food, and the food they’ve eaten changes them; it makes them taste like their food, which can be a very good thing indeed. I am against eating baby animals on gastronomic principle alone. The flavor of all immature animals is uniformly bland. The real taste of sheep isn’t to be found in lamb, but rather in mutton; no teensy little 4-lb. chicken is ever going to have the flavor of a fat old hen.

So why, then, do we persist in eating babies? One reason, though not the real one, has to do with texture. Baby animals don’t taste great — really, they don’t taste much like anything — but their flesh is tender and so satisfies a country where the greatest compliment any meat can receive is that “you can eat it with a spoon.” Yes, baby animals are “like butter,” but so what? Take an old tom turkey, or the shoulder of a 250-lb. hog, and cook it for many hours in a heavy pot, a slow oven or a sous vide bag, and it’ll be “like butter” too.

No, the real reason we eat a lot of baby animals is much cruder than any misguided preference for tender meat. Here’s the thing about raising meat: Americans don’t like to pay a lot for it. The longer an animal lives, the longer its owner has to shelter it and feed it; so every day it’s allowed to live makes it less profitable. That’s why the ribs at Burger King are the size of dominoes, and the chicken at Popeyes is barely bigger than quail. It’s not pure evil on the part of the producers; even small farms can’t afford to keep many animals alive for many years.

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Which is sad, both for the animals and for us. I was in Italy last week, and, as you might expect, I ate a lot of good things (spaghetti, obviously; there was spaghetti flying at all four walls). But the thing that made the strongest impression on me was probably the single ugliest thing I ate during the whole week: a plate of braised wild boar in Montalcino. That boar tasted powerfully of pork. Not sage, not smoke, not soy or mustard or red-pepper vinegar. No, it tasted like pork. If you had a pork chop like that in Chicago or Atlanta, your first thought would be that it had gone bad. It was “gamey,” a catch-all adjective that we use to describe meat tastes that aren’t mellow and sweet.

But that’s O.K.; grownup people should like grownup tastes. In any case, the art of cooking is supplied with a lot of strong flavors to complement and support big, bold tastes. “I like tastes that know their own minds,” wrote A.J. Liebling, one of the all-time great gastronomes, in 1959. “The reason that people who detest fish often tolerate sole is that sole doesn’t taste very much like fish, and even this degree of resemblance disappears when it is submerged in [sauce].” Liebling thought such indifference to intrinsic flavor was a sign of weak-mindedness, and he thought that it also explained the popularity of such things as Golden Delicious apples, American cheese and vodka cocktails.

If you want to taste what meat really is, then don’t eat lamb: eat mutton. You already know how much better a great steak is than a thin, wan piece of veal, so wouldn’t it follow that that steak would taste even better another year down the road? Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten is still talking about a 10-year-old draft ox he ate a couple of years ago in Spain. Maybe I’ll go there on my next trip.