As someone who grew up overseas, one of my least understood American foods is the Sloppy Joe. Sure, every culture has its own version of grinding meat into a distractingly flavorful sauce, but as far as I know, America is the only country to turn it into such an obvious soup sandwich. While everyone else clearly admits that their version of meat sauce is, well, a sauce, America likes to put it between halves of a bun as if globs of soupy meat could ever hold together without making a mess.
And what a mess they have made! But that’s the beauty of a good sauce, isn’t it? You can take any hunk of off-putting speech — I mean meat, oops — and give it your own flavor so that your readers — I mean eaters, silly me — never bother to wonder what the real thing tastes like. Even vegans know that a good sauce goes a long way in making the most undesirable foods palatable.
As someone who grew up poor, I can see why we sometimes feel the need to make a goopy treat out of our meat dish. Sometimes meat can be tough to swallow and needs to be ground up to become easier to chew. Sometimes the meat is not quite abundant enough and needs to be stretched and shared a bit. Sometimes meat has a disagreeable taste and needs to be covered with a more generally appealing flavor.
The beauty of turning meat into a sauce is that you can take all the most unseemly parts — all the cuts that are hard to chew, swallow and digest — grind them up and give them your own personal flavorful twist that will be appealing, at the very least, to people with the same tastes as you. Once it is the sauce and not the meat that is being criticized, then there turn out to be two kinds of people in the world: people who like your sauce and people with taste buds so defective that they can’t possibly understand the complexities of your particular flavor. And the world is so much simpler when people divide into neat little categories, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, the downside of feeding people sauce-drenched meat all the time is that they forget what plain old steak tastes like. They become so accustomed to the sugar, anger, onion powder, shock and disgust, corn starch, amusement and outrage that they can no longer eat meat without it. When they take a break from whatever sportsball they like to watch, they want to be greeted by the sweet, smoky and spicy aromas of a saucy Sloppy Joe, not the simple, savory umami of straightforward meat.
So what are chefs to do? Is it better to block out the more disgusting meats with the complicating flavors of adjective-rich sauces or let people try them and figure out for themselves how unappealing they are? It’s not that I don’t enjoy a well-made Sloppy Joe every now and then, it’s that whenever I see meat drenched in a sauce, I can’t help but wonder what the chef is trying to hide and what the meat would’ve tasted like without it — for better or for worse.
Of course, there’s a difference between poor quality meat and downright rancid poison, but I like to think that most people can tell the difference and should be able to decide for themselves. I agree that there’s no simple answer, but I find it unlikely that the solution is to keep some meat away from consumers without even letting them catch a whiff of its potentially unpleasant odors.
Readily available meat is not a right that all cultures value, but a privilege that we have paid and continue to pay a high price for. As a veteran, having witnessed firsthand the slaughter that’s involved with making free speech available to every man, woman and child in this country, I think it’s important that we show respect for it even in its more distasteful forms.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.