The Raw and the Cooked – What is “Doneness” ?

TheRawAndTheCookedThe Biergarten bar in Wayward Pines, Idaho has a problem. (Other than THOSE problems.) When Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) visits the bar, he orders a burger – “bloody no onions” from the bartender, Beverly. From the time she heads to the kitchen until she returns with the burger, 33 seconds have passed. (Talk about “bloody!”) And therein resides the Biergarten’s problem.
According to the FDA’s Food Code – section 3-603.11 – the Biergarten’s menu should contain the disclosure that “Consuming raw or undercooked MEATS … may increase your risk of foodborne illness.” Of course Ethan never looks at the Biergarten’s menu. But shouldn’t Beverly have verbally disclosed the potential danger to Ethan? (Even though probably the least of Ethan’s problems in Wayward Pines is a foodborne illness.)

The question of “doneness” is one we deal with frequently at our Cooking School. It can be a daunting one for new cooks. (Butterball’s Turkey-Talk Line gets 100,000 calls during November and December each year.) Cooking steaks to everyone’s requested temperature can make a BBQ a stressful event for the cook. (Chef Linda Martin, who teaches Sweet Basil’s 12-week Essence of Cooking Class teaches the “touch” method based on “the feel of the meat for steaks and recommends an instant read thermometer.)

Many of us won’t even attempt to cook fish at home fearing safety issues if it is under-cooked and disappointingly dry if it is overcooked. Meat and fish are only the beginning. Vegetables get just as many questions: the answer runs the gamut from raw to al dente (firm “to the tooth” when bitten) to mushy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I recently ordered a vegetable enchilada at a popular Mexican restaurant and the carrots were like Ethan Burke’s burger – cooked for about 33 seconds. Fine for a salad or crudités platter but not an enchilada.

The title for this post actually comes from a book by an anthropologist. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 1964 The Raw and the Cooked about the mythologies of Amerindian tribes in Brazil. In a New York Times article Larry Rohter summarized one of the book’s chief themes: “In a metaphoric sense, a cook is a kind of mediator between those realms (of nature and human culture), transforming an object originally from the natural world into an item fit for human consumption.”

Except for believers in the raw food movement, that would exclude Ethan Burke’s 33 second “bloody no onions burger” and the raw carrots in my enchilada. I’m sure even Bugs Bunny, who never met a crudités platter he didn’t like, would balk at a raw carrot in his cake.