Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

“[Boxer’s] answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’ ”George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Years ago, I attended a function in a 30th floor apartment on the Upper East Side, one of those places that astonishes because it isn't unique in that Big Bad City, despite the tiny balcony off the corner of the living room -- the building's bowsprit, where you could stand and watch the snow swirl up the canyons of Third Avenue. My memory of the evening brushes past brown kitchen appliances, along an olive-shag carpeted hallway lined by sagging bookshelves: Was this a retirement party? An 80th birthday? Couldn't tell you without a hypnotist. But I do remember snacking on appetizers built around the Ritz cracker, and striking up a conversation with another partygoer; the Chardonnay must have gone to my head, because I usually run a bit shy. I can also remember feeling rather clever at the time, because I was living in NYC and working as a w-r-i-t-e-r, a species that shares the same astonishing ubiquity in that town as 30th floor apartments.

"So what are you working on?" she had asked, after I'd tipped my hand, revealed my brilliance, etc. "Well," said I, sipping Ernest and Julio's finest, "I'm working on a piece called, 'Gelatin: the Other White Meat.'" I beamed. Although work on said piece had progressed only through the arduous process of coming up with a catchy name, I felt ready for Letterman. And then, in one of those coincidences that simultaneously evoke two feelings -- being happily swaddled in Zeitgeist, and a claustrophobic, almost fatal kind of self-boredom -- she revealed that she was a writer, too, and her last project had been a Jello™ Cookbook.

Well. You can imagine.

She was helpful and encouraging, but I wasn't ready to do much more than continue in the same vein in which I'd started: reading ingredients lists and feeling a sense of delicious dread when I spotted gelatin. Boy, talk about ubiquitous: lozenges, gummi candies, sauces, marshmallows, low fat ice creams and yogurts....

But let's step a little farther back in time, back to the day my relationship with gelatin really bloomed: Middle of June, 1980. Maybe '79. Down the road, across the valley and up a winding road from our little mountain neighborhood tucked into the foothills west of Boulder, there was a cluster of "abandoned" barns -- the galvanized roofs were rusted, the pine boards were silver and splintery, but the barns were still used to shelter three thick-coated, semi-wild, geriatric horses and their hay, an admirable solution to an equine problem usually solved with a quick call to the glue factory. The barns were on an expanse of land that had belonged to Ernie Betasso until 1976 when he'd sold the land to Boulder County to be preserved as Open Space. A true cowboy, the last of the lot, Ernie'd continued making his daily rounds until he died. The Betasso Preserve became the backdrop for all sorts of childhood hijinx, and there are gullies over there that should have been, by rights, the final resting place for my clumsy young bones.

The Betasso Preserve was my destination on that long-ago summer day, and after I'd hung up the heavy white receiver and untangled myself from 13 feet of phone cord, I announced I was going to play with my friend Heather. Snacks were an important part of these excursions and I had my eye on a new treat, an act of undiluted brilliance, an indulgence in my ultimate fantasy: Instead of water, or Country time, or red 5-Alive, I'd bring peach Jello™ its liquid form.

Oh, how I looked forward to cracking the seal on my lukewarm dissolved-protein-sugar-water beverage! How I longed for that first, slightly viscous sip! The only thing missing was a hand-crafted crayon and magic-marker label reading Tepid & Tasty, or Gee, Your Drink Smells Terrific.

Heather was not impressed. Which was fine. More for me! I wonder, though, would I remember that day with such clarity if Ernie himself hadn't discovered us in one of the barns, where we were determinedly pulling a hay-bale apart? Maybe beside the point, but I sure froze up when that old cowboy walked through the barn door. I don't know who among us was the most surprised, but to this day, the smell of peach Jello™ brings on a suffuse guilt and an urgent need to pee.

I have other reasons for avoiding gelatin. Hospital food flashbacks from an early childhood bout of dehydration, my father's jokes about fast-food milkshakes (clutch chest, look at beverage with horror, gasp: "Flicka!"), the Summer 2009 menu's house-made marshmallows for the s'mores -- nothing smells more like a barnyard than hot gelatin mixed with corn syrup at high speed until opaque.

But is gelatin empirically nasty? Can a substance used to create the fragile diamond-paned windows for gingerbread houses be that bad? How can something associated with such beautifully old-fashioned words like "hartshorn" (deer antlers) and "Isinglass" (the swim bladders of fish) smell like a pig-wallow?

The answers are roughly the same for the first two questions, namely, it really depends on how you look at post-slaughter rendering processes, what your personal tolerance for horror is like, and how you decorate for Christmas. Without such processes in place, there would be no pots of paste for people to eat during sieges, no sense in licking wallpaper while the Germans try to get in. Without Germans there would be no gingerbread houses. Without our history of boiling bones and skin to extract collagen, there would be no humor in jokes about eating shoes. None at all.

The third question requires a little light parsing, but, basically the answer lies in the molecular structure of gelatin. Okay. So, think about your favorite sweater. If it’s old enough, there is probably a dangling piece of yarn you really want to pull but you don’t because you know the sweater will unravel. Take a closer look at the yarn: it’s made up of several long strands of wool spun together; if you really wanted to, you could tease it apart into a woolly pile. Don’t. Instead, now think of collagen – a tightly woven, fibrous connective-tissue protein that provides strength and elasticity to bones, tendons, skin and other animal bits. That collagen is made up of long strands of gelatin (chains of amino acids) which form a sort of yarn twisted into a triple helix. These three strands knit themselves together to form collagen, and like most proteins, they can be “unraveled” by heat. Unlike other proteins, however, gelatin doesn't curdle or break as it heats and cools. Instead, the strands group themselves into a loose, “woolly” pile that is remarkably stable, translucent, wiggly-jiggly, and – an added bonus to the cook – these bonds will dissolve again at a temperature roughly approximate to the inside of your mouth, releasing liquid and flavor along with a difficult to duplicate “mouthfeel.” Both hartshorn and Isinglass are collagen-y and were used back in the day to create sweet and savory gels, but the reason the powdered gelatin we used to make homemade marshmallows smells so amazingly, awfully porcine is because today’s gelatin is made not from antlers or from swim bladders, but mostly from pig skin. Along with the skin and bones left over from cattle slaughter and the odd, unlucky horse. But mostly pig. So, from that one animal we happily harvest bacon, ham, pork chops, and cafeteria-style desserts. It's going to be hard to change that system.

Substances like agar agar, pectin, and carrageenan will behave sort of like gelatin, but are actually carbohydrates, not proteins, so, you know, they’ll act a little differently, too. A story for another time. Which, perhaps, begs the question, why a gelatin story at all? Why now? And I think about writing, and living in New York, and a childhood in the mountains, and the answer becomes clear: three strands suddenly gelled.