In vitro hamburgers? Not on my backyard barbecue

Chicago TribuneAugust 17, 2013 

In the hideous and foreseeable future, let’s consider a columnist who loves to barbecue.

He wants to put on an authentic pork roast for his readers in the middle of August, eat with them, talk with them, drink with them. Just for the sake of argument, let’s call it Cooking with Kass.

Rather than visit a butcher shop or packing house, he enters a laboratory. There he grabs a couple of giant tubs of in vitro meat grown from stem cells and colored with red beetroot juice.

Onto the spit he forms that horrid goo into the shape of a pig. Or he might fashion it into the shape of a recognizable political figure, or even some creepy children’s action figure.

Then he lights the coals, roasts the in vitro meat, and voila, an “authentic” pig roast.

This is the way the world ends.

“In the future, if that ever does happen I would advise people to run, just run as fast as they can,” said chef Louis Dourlain of Kendall College.

But we’re talking Cooking with Kass.

Not Cloning with Kass.

Dourlain and the students of Kendall are helping me with a roast for my readers Aug. 17.

We’ll serve beer and wine, pork and sides, and answer questions from readers. Two colleagues who help me with the column — William Lee, aka “Old School,” and editor Mark Jacob — will be there to blackmail me with my embarrassing secrets.

We’ll have whole real pigs on spits, pigs that once walked the Earth, not pigs from a glass tube “birthed” by some scientist sows.

As Dourlain and I discussed the work ahead — brining the whole real pigs in cider and brown sugar and molasses and starting the coals long before dawn — the subject of Frankenstein meat came up.

Surely you’ve heard about this abomination funded in part by Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google.

Scientists in a London lab took stem cells from cows and turned that into muscle strips. Now they hope their glop may one day feed people without all that earthy livestock business.

But before their sick dreams are realized, I hope I’m dead, because I refuse to live in a world without spits and coals and tasty real critters.

“When I’m thinking roast pork, the words ‘stem cell’ don’t excite me in the least,” Dourlain told me. “Synthetic pig? At no point should that sound like something you’d ever want to eat.”

Of course, chef. But we’re in a death spiral, with synthetic meat and synthetic life. It’s all part of some grand evil plan to replace real life with virtual life. The involvement of the Google master only confirms this terrible truth.

If you only opened your eyes to see, you would witness virtual life replacing that old-fashioned “real life” thing.

Virtual sports on video games. Virtual dating over the Internet. Virtual love on Twitter, even an app signaling you that a potential date is within 50 feet of your position. Virtual women of ill repute. Virtual gambling. Virtual voter registration — yes, that’s the law now in Illinois, pushed by ethically pristine Cook County.

And now, virtual meat.

If they can do it with beef, they can do it with pork, they might even be able to vitro a chicken with a beer can up its behind.

Naturally, we called the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to see if they would advocate boiling the scientists in oil, or perhaps just braising them.

Instead, the NCBA merely issued a statement saying that beef lovers would prefer the real thing over the mad scientists’ stem cell beef from a petri dish seasoned with salt, egg powder, red beetroot juice “and saffron to make it look like red meat.”

“While we think this is interesting research and finding ways to provide a growing world population with protein is important, we don’t think in vitro burgers will replace the real deal,” responded Chase Adams, director of communications for the NCBA. “The process of creating an in vitro hamburger is cost-prohibitive and does not provide the same eating experience as a farm-raised hamburger.”

In vitro burgers.

They’ll say it tastes just like chicken.

Happily, there are still some red-blooded men who will fight the diabolical powers.

True men, proud men, uncompromising men:

Butchers.

Men like Tom Truver and Eddie Montalvo, master butchers at Casey’s Market in Western Springs, Ill.

“It’s a sign of the apocalypse for sure, and I’m not kidding,” said Montalvo. “You’re always looking for signs, and fake meat is a good enough sign for me. Apocalyptic.”

“You wonder what the future generations will say, what they’ll miss about the ‘old days,’” said Truver. “Will they say, ‘I remember meat on the bone?’”

Meat on the bone. Not meat in a test tube.

There was a science fiction story I barely remember, about old men who’d sit around post-apocalyptic fires and recite litanies of such stuff to future barbarians, telling them of almost mythical candy bars and canned peaches and shaving cream.

“Remember the food-foam fad?” said chef Dourlain. “That was disgusting too. So I don’t want to know about this in vitro meat. Let’s have better ingredients, more organic, let’s eat local.”

When are we cooking those spit-roasted pigs?

“Early,” he said.

Up before dawn, the way it’s been since the dawn of time.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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