Volume 12, Issue 2 ~ January 8-14, 2004

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Burton on the Bay

Who’d Want to Eat Brains, Anyway?
If you’re afraid to die, you’re afraid to live.

I can’t recall who first penned those words, but methinks they’re appropriate for those who are getting skittish about feasting on beef as mad cow disease breaks into the headlines. This is not to advise whetting appetites for a lunch of beef-brain sandwiches. But turn down a king-sized slab of prime rib? No way.

No Fish Eyes in My Stew
In the first place, count me out on a brain sandwich. Just reading about them in a Chicago Tribune wire story the other day turned me off big time. As I’ve written previously, I’m not one for so-called delicacies such as head cheese, tripe, kidney stew, blood sausage, mountain oysters, woodcock brains, fish eyeballs or any other dishes involving the head or digestive tract of fish, fowl or any other critter from farm, ranch or elsewhere.

I’ll walk a mile for a platter of shad or yellow perch roe fried or broiled plain or wrapped in bacon. Nothing can keep me from the caviar at an upscale buffet. Thin slices of beef or pork liver, and heart of beef or deer fried with bacon and onions are other favorites, and I’ll readily accept pickled pig’s feet. But somewhere a line must be drawn.

I read some 35 years ago in an off-beat cookbook that the eyeballs of a fish not only dressed up a stew but were a tasty and nourishing delicacy. That was advice I couldn’t go along with, though as a gag I added a pair to a fish chowder I prepared for a gathering of colleagues at the old, beloved Evening Sun. To my astonishment, the late Mike Adamovitch, the paper’s resident gourmet, snatched both of them from the pot and popped them into his mouth as fast as that rockfish had taken the bait.

Right then and there, I decided never to try one of Mike’s seafood stews, bouillabaisses, chowders or anything else that could conceal a fish’s eye or perhaps a tidbit of an eel, which doesn’t rate far above an eyeball in my book. I’ll concede the cheeks of a bluefish — cut out, flavored with Wye River black seasoning and quick and hot fried — are quite tasty. But I don’t stray that far in the fish department. Calamari, not in a million years: I’ve used squid too often for bait.

As with brains of beef, they’re gray, and I’m committed to turn my nose up at any food that shade — also blues or in greens other than in traditional colors of spinach, Swiss chard, kale, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and such. But we’re getting off the subject of the week, mad cow disease.

Mad Cow Is Among Us
In recent years, mad cow disease has at times been big news especially in England and Europe. Bovine spongiform encephalophathy, as scientists call Mad Cow, infects the brains, tonsils, spinal materials and lower intestine of beef. It can be deadly for those who dine on tainted beef, and it can be economically devastating for those who raise and market cattle. For the first time, it has been documented in the USA. Now we’re wondering where it will go from here.

All those prominent headlines were made by just one single sick cow who birthed a toddler bull just before slaughter. It matters not whether that Holstein was imported to the state of Washington from Canada. The bottom line: The disease is here. It has been documented beyond doubt, and the hunt is on to determine if there is the possibility other cattle could be contaminated. The livestock market is rocking with shock waves complicated and embellished by the bad press the fatal malady has got on the other side of the Atlantic.

Before it’s all over, we’ll probably see more consumers switch to pork, lamb, chicken, or maybe even turn vegetarian. Surely and sadly, many hundreds of innocent calves, steers and cows will be killed as a precaution. Tougher inspections will be implemented. The price of domestic beef might go down, and the nation’s exports of beef products will tumble. So those who raise and market cattle will take a hit in the pocketbook.

Mad cow disease is serious business, but perhaps I have more faith in the U.S. Department of Agriculture than do most consumers. I’m confident the utmost precautions will be taken. Brains, intestines and spinal materials are the only culprits involved, so keeping them out of the food chain means we need have no fears.

Chronic Wasting in the Wild
The situation brings to mind something akin to all of this a few years back. If you’re not a big-game hunter, chances are you’ve never heard of it.

In 2002, a single sick deer was observed at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. An autopsy confirmed it had chronic wasting disease, something akin to mad cow disease. Wildlife managers were alarmed, not primarily because of the diagnosis but because the missile range was about 600 miles from the nearest game farm.

Other incidences of chronic wasting disease had been reported previously, but all were associated with game-farm animals, in particular cervids, cud chewing wildlife, the males of which often have antlers or horns. Chronic wasting disease was then primarily associated with deer and elk in captivity. Cases were reported in six states and in a Canadian province or two. The list has since grown appreciably.

Like mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease is also deadly and is contagious among big game. Also, the only route to diagnosis is to kill an animal and check the brain or spinal stem. Wisconsin wildlife officials promptly announced an estimated 15,000 deer in a 287-square-mile area would be killed in an effort to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Though disease reports hailed from the Midwest and West, Maryland among other East Coast states immediately made plans to check its deer, and our state has since autopsied several hundred deer in each of the past two hunting seasons. As expected, there were no positive results. Maryland has no big game farms. As yet, no one knows where the chronic wasting disease contamination is headed. It takes several years or more before symptoms are obvious.

Yet some hunters and their families to this day turn their noses up at venison. Some wear plastic gloves in dressing out their kills though the edible flesh is not contaminated.

Reasonable Caution
While on the subject of those wary about what they eat, let’s not overlook those who’d rather not eat rockfish of the Chesapeake because a small percentage of them have unsightly red blotches. I even know a few anglers who no longer fish the Bay for fear of exposing themselves to who knows what — though as yet there have been no problems. DNR’s fisheries scientists are working on the problem, but little headway is reported thus far. If a fish looks questionable, throw it back.

Beef, venison and rockfish, what will be next? Sure, caution is advised, reasonable caution, but people can’t — or shouldn’t — go through life fearful of everything they eat. A little common sense and abiding by the guidelines of government watchdogs can put concerns to rest. We can’t be so afraid that we miss out on the best things in life.

I’ll take my prime rib medium rare, thank you. Enough said.

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Last updated January 8, 2004 @ 1:27am.