Some time ago I read a book called ‘Gul’ by Mary Roach, the author of ‘Bonk’, ‘Stiff’ and ‘Six Feet Over’. It was a jolly journalistic canter through what happens in our brains, mouths, nasal passages and gut when we eat, and is packed with delicious titbits of information. I was particularly taken with the history of Horace Fletcher and the fad for Fletcherism – extracting the maximum nutrition from a piece of food by chewing and chewing and chewing – at the beginning of the 20th century. Franz Kafka, among others, was a devotee of Fletcherism, to the extent that, according to Roach, quoting historian Margaret Barnett, Kafka’s father hid behind a newspaper at meal times ‘to avoid watching the writer Fletcherize.’ It is cheerfully reminiscent of some of the more bonkers dietary crazes of our own day. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Now, I’m not a Fletcherist. It seems our digestive system is so efficient, it makes little difference whether or not we chew or swallow our food whole. However, I do have a theory about chewing, and the way in which it effects flavour.
One of the statements that is most likely to throw me into a spluttering rage is the observation ‘Ooo, that steak (or whatever piece of meat you choose) just melted in the mouth, it was that tender.’ Ye gods and little fishes! I want ice cream to melt in my mouth, and butter and chocolate, but not meat. Quite apart from the idiotic inaccuracy of the statement – meat doesn’t melt in the mouth ever; it can’t melt; it’s not made to melt – it’s the idea than extreme tenderness is the highest criteria by which we should judge meat. It is a sign of our debased age.
Think about it for a moment. The flavour of meat is directly related to, among other things, a) how much fat it carries; and b) how much work that piece of meat has done in the animals life time. It’s no surprise that the tastiest bits of meat are the toughest because they’ve been working out in nature’s very own gym. I’m talking about cheek, shin, breast, skirt and neck here. The preferred ‘primary cuts’ – loin, fillet – have had a pretty idle time of it. Consequently extremely tender and free of fat. Thus, when you come to eat them, a couple of chews and they’re gone, not melted, but swallowed in gobbets, taking most of the flavouring juices with them.
Now, take a piece of meat with a bit of resistence to it, a close-knit texture, a certain density. Start chewing that. Your teeth bear down on it, squeezing and tearing. As the squeezing an tearing goes on, the flavour-carrying fats and juices in the meat fibres are pressed out, releasing those splendid rich, caramel-and-blood, mineral-and-mulch flavours. That’s what you miss when meat is melt-in-the-mouth tender.