Earlier this week, the World Health Organization announced that its panel of international experts determined that eating processed meat and red meat raises the risk of colon cancer. At my house, we unintentionally commemorated this news by dining on choucroute garni, the definitive Alsatian dish of heaps of sauerkraut braised with a vast assortment of cured pork products: smoked chops, knackwurst, bratwurst, kielbasa, and half a pound of bacon for good measure. Usually I make it for Christmas dinner, but I needed to test the recipe for a story assignment I’m working on. And also, hey—why not? You don’t eat choucroute garni every day, and that’s the entire point.
The past few days since the WHO report have set the media happily scrambling. Such a sensationalistic topic is a dream for reeling in page views. Bacon! Red meat! Cancer! Let the comments fly. A lot of them fall into two camps. There’s the “I told you so” crowd, who smugly reminded us we’ve known this all along (quite true; the Center for Science in the Public Interest ran a cover story in 2013 in their magazine, Nutrition Action, which came to the same conclusion as the WHO). Then there’s the “My alcoholic, chain-smoking grandfather eats bologna every day and is 91 and kicking” faction. The bacon-lovin’ public does not like to have their favorite emblem of cutesy excess cast in the same light as shared hypodermic needles and glue-sniffing.
Cured meats in particular have taken a public relations hit in the past decade, leading to a proliferation of “uncured” bacon and frankfurter variations in the deli case. These are a big hit with concerned parents who want to provide their kids with more wholesome hot dogs, though I hate to break it to you: the celery salt extract often used as a replacement for straight sodium nitrite inherently contains nitrite, as does sea salt. In fact, nitrate and nitrite are naturally occurring in meat itself. And yeah, nitrates and nitrites are carcinogenic, and thus not good for you. And I’m not going to stop eating them, whether it’s in our annual choucroute garni or my seasonal vice of braunschweiger on toast with slices of ripe tomato.
If there’s one thing our society is not great at, it is embracing moderation. Either because we don’t have the willpower or because a message of having a varied and balanced diet is just too boring. Meat—whether it’s red or white, cured or uncured—is not an “every meal” food, but a sometimes food, from both a sustainability standpoint and a nutritional one. The average American diet typically includes twice as much protein outlined in the recommended daily intake by the Food and Nutrition Board. Besides, there’s a lot of other ways to get protein than from meat: beans, grains, even (gasp!) vegetables. You can mix and match.
But, as Vincent Vega immortally said in Pulp Fiction, “Bacon tastes good.” Using small amounts of high-quality processed meats in recipes as strategic flavor hits makes the meat go further: a smoked ham hock in split pea soup, a few slices of chorizo over a plate of stewed chickpeas. And like a rockstar with a heroin habit, I don’t want to mess around with the street junk. I want the quality junk. That’s why I cure my own pancetta, and lest that sound braggy, know that it’s insanely easy to do, and only involves having a dark and humid spot to let a tightly-rolled pork belly hang for a few weeks. I consider it a hobby, one I practice with enough infrequency that our pancetta stockpile in the freezer is doled out with precision.
So we go from that—the effete rockstar processed meat habit—to the lunch served at my daughter’s public elementary school. Pepperoni pizza and hot dogs are frequent and well-received. It’s safe to assume none of those pigs ran wild in the forest, fattening themselves up on acorns and roots—or, if they’re all-beef hot dogs, I’m sure the cows spent their life in a mucky feed lot that we won’t see on a commercial any time soon. Crummy processed meats are cheap, and if you’re on a fixed income, a package of chipped ham or a can of Vienna sausages might be all you can afford. As for those school lunches, a not insubstantial number of my daughter’s classmates get their main meal of the day though the school lunch program.
It’s hard to know where that leaves us. The WHO study looked at those who consumed processed meats (defined as “”meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation”) daily. And sure, some people do just that, but not everyone. We tend to receive these reports mainly through screaming headlines, headlines that feel like a blanket proclamation: EAT BACON, DIE MISERABLY. It’s easier to get messages across that way, but they don’t always stick. (This red/processed meat Q&A with CNN’s reliably reasonable medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta was refreshing.)
There are a lot of flawed aspects to how we eat now, to put it mildly, but we’re sort of making it up as we go along—remember back in the 1980s, when eggs were thought to be the spawn of the devil? We’ve got Big Food and lobbyists and Gwyneth Paltrow and Chipotle and Michael Pollan all battling to fix a car as it’s barreling down a highway at 75 miles per hour. And if I’m on that car, I’m going to enjoy the ride. That might include a grilled bologna sandwich from time to time, but it’ll be a while. We’ve got a lot of leftover choucroute garni, and once it’s gone, we’re going to stick with brown rice and kale for a good spell.
Sara Bir’s website is www.sausagetarian.com, just in case you were unsure of her devotion to processed meat. Tip: if you call it “charcuterie” it doesn’t seem as dangerous!