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The gourmet view: Variety's under an attack of the clones

It seems that duplicated DNA is designed to bring forth duplicated meat with duplicated flavors. But what about the spice of life?

March 04, 2007|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

My first reaction when I was asked, as The Times' Food editor, to taste cloned beef was a visceral one: ick. But that didn't come from a belief that there would be something qualitatively wrong or immoral with cloned meat.

Cloning is a matter of duplicating DNA, and that doesn't bother me. I'm happy to drink wine made from cloned grapes.

My queasiness came from a feeling that cloned meat is a huge, important issue, and we don't even know the proper questions to ask about it.

But as we all sat at Campanile that Sunday evening, laughing and joking as the meat made its way around the table, I wasn't at all uncomfortable about tasting it.

I served myself half a burger labeled "A" and half a "B" burger. Knife and fork poised above my plate, I hesitated. A or B?

I sliced a piece from A and inspected it. Cooked medium-rare and juicy, it looked like any other unadorned burger. I took a bite. It tasted ... like a burger made from meat that had been frozen, which it had been. Executive chef Mark Peel was clever enough to have thought of freezing the control beef when he learned the cloned beef was frozen.

I tasted B. It was pretty close in flavor and texture. Neither was great. They were a little too lean to be great burgers. The steaks might tell more, though they had been frozen too.

Over the last decade, as "foodie-ism" has grown and huge numbers of Americans have become more devoted to great cooking and the best products, the most significant leaps in the quality of what we eat have come from small farms. It is the movement away from factory farming and giant agribusiness that has brought us such wonderfully flavorful foods as Kurobuta pork, heritage turkeys, American Wagyu beef, and heirloom tomatoes and apples.

Go to the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market and you'll find beautifully speckled, nutty-flavored Forellenschluss lettuce at the Coleman Family Farms stand. Over at the Weiser Family Farms stand you'll find German butterballs, purple Peruvians and Russian bananas, all varieties of potatoes.

It's marvelous to be able to choose something other than iceberg and russets. Small farmers are keeping these old varieties alive, largely thanks to the demands of chefs and others who shop at farmers markets. Experience tells us that the most delicious stuff is what we get when farmers go for something different.

I sampled the steaks -- porterhouse A and porterhouse B. Again, both were expertly prepared, and again, I found no discernible difference in flavor or texture. Both were fairly tender, with acceptable flavor, but they suffered a kind of dullness that must have come from freezing.

Steaks, of course, vary wildly, depending on how the meat was raised, how much marbling it has and other factors. Therefore, none of us imagined this tasting might tell us anything definitive about the flavor of cloned meat in general. This was just one steak against another.

The rationale for cloning beef is to put more of the very best meat out there by copying the very best animals. Sounds like a good idea -- on the face of it.

But historically, technical innovations in food over the last 100 years have almost always been about increasing hardiness or yield, not about improving flavor.

Are the cloned bulls winning prizes for the flavor of the meat their offspring produce? Or is it about something else?

Do we really want things to taste more and more the same? I think not.

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