Steak is a part of the same sanguine mythology as wine. It is the heart of meat, it is meat in its pure state; and whoever partakes of it assimilates a bull-like strength. The prestige of steak evidently derives from its quasi-rawness. In it, blood is visible, natural, dense, at once compact and sectile.1–Roland Barthes, Mythologies.
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, our family was taught to prefer our meat rare—that is, bloody. We understood that to dine on beef or lamb which was still red inside, warm but not steaming, was somehow more sophisticated than serving the gray or charred slabs favored by some of our neighbors. The blood that oozed from the carver’s knife indicated a refined urbanity that counterbalanced our new little house on its quarter-acre lot, purchased through the largesse of the post-war GI mortgage.
A small paradox: if for Lévi-Strauss raw = uncultured (culturally unelaborated), and cooked = cultured (culturally elaborated), then our less-cooked meat meant more culture. Raw was cooked and cooked was raw.
Eating meat rare suggests a finer, more tender cut that those that require longer cooking. You can’t eat brisket or pot roast rare. We were no more prosperous than anyone else on the street; perhaps our portions were smaller. We probably had to chew longer than they.
The blood was never called blood, rather plate juice, as we sopped it up with bread or potatoes or, on celebratory occasions, Yorkshire pudding. The French word for rare meat, as Barthes reminds us, is saignant, bloody. The English avoid this crude reference—rare or pink do not suggest hemorrhage—except when dining in fancy French restaurants. (Crude, of course, is another word for raw, and Lévi-Strauss’s title is Le Cru e le cuit.)
But aside from plate juice, we never ate blood itself; no boudin, even if it was French; no Blutwurst, even if our forebears were German; no blood pudding. Too coarse.
And here’s the rub: the bloody emanation wasn’t blood at all, but water tinged with myoglobin, the main protein found in muscle, rich in iron, ergo red. Sometimes called purge—not to be confused with purgation, purgatives, or Purgatorio.
About the Author
Charles Bardes practices and teaches internal medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. His books, poems and essays have been widely published. He leads the Humanities section at TBP. Click here to learn more.