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Published April 16, 2012, 08:39 AM

What's real and what's obscene?

FARGO, N.D. — The “pink slime” controversy brings to mind my days growing up, and my re-education about food at Brookings (S.D.) Middle School. It was there in the late 1960s and early 1970s that I first ate school lunch.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — The “pink slime” controversy brings to mind my days growing up, and my re-education about food at Brookings (S.D.) Middle School. It was there in the late 1960s and early 1970s that I first ate school lunch.

My take on “pink slime” is that it has a profoundly unfortunate name. I think lean, finely textured beef may not be an appetizing mental image, but it is an effort to avoid wasting nutritious food. Its nutritional profile is about the same as traditional ground beef, about 5 to 10 percent fat. The “ammonia” gas exposure is for food safety, and isn’t much like the lemon-scented cleaners under our kitchen sinks.

It’s a bit mysterious, but we’ve had “mystery meat” for a long time. Our middle school principal, Floyd “Lefty” Johnson, got on the intercom every day, and announced the menu to the sixth, seventh and eighth graders. “Today’s Jell-O is — red,” Johnson boomed.

No flavor designation, just a color.

School food was certainly different than home. Mashed potatoes were all from flakes — nothing like we had at home. Vegetables at school tended to be overcooked and limp.

My Dad, who worked for the Extension Service as an agricultural editor/writer, was big on garden produce. We planted sweet corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, peas, carrots and onions. Growing up, we ate a lot of it seasonally, but what we didn’t eat, we buried in below-ground root cellars. Apples were something that came from Grandma’s trees, and were either wrapped individually in newspaper and placed into boxes to be eaten fresh through the year, or cut up by hand to be frozen and made into desserts or apple sauce.

Meat at school was never in whole cuts — always hamburger or some kind of turkey loaf or pork loaf. There wasn’t anything bad about it. It tasted okay, but some of it was greasier than it was at home. Kids jokingly referred to some of it as mystery meat, which didn’t trouble me. I assumed it was safe

At home, we often ate meat that Dad bought from some farmer.

We’d hear that he’d bought a quarter or a half a beef cow and was having it cut at the local Artz Locker store. We’d go down there from time to time and collect packages of hamburger. Eventually, we bought a chest freezer and stored all of it there. We knew what beef cattle were, because we’d travel to Philip, S.D., to my aunt’s ranch and helped with the cattle drives and spring branding. We realized that the cattle eventually would end up in those packages that kept our family alive.

Our family ate beef tongue sandwiches, cooked in a pressure cooker. Most Saturdays, we had liver as the main course with stewed tomatoes for a side dish. Sometimes, we ate beef heart. Dad didn’t have time for hunting, but sometimes, my Mom’s cousins offered us a deer.

My exposure to the work involved in food production gave me a healthy respect for food. School was the first time I saw food wasted, and that revolted me more than anything. Some of the kids dumping their plates were the same kids that seemed to have money for candy, soda pop and the burgers at the local joint.

To me, the industrialized butchering of animals is a necessity when so many people live in cities, so far away from the experience of producing food for themselves. That the industry takes lean bits of beef and markets it for food may be objectionable to some people, but not to me. I think it would be more obscene to waste it.

Editor’s Note: Mikkel Pates welcomes comments about his column. Mail comments to him at 714 Park Drive S., Fargo, N.D. 58103. Email him at mpates@agweek.com or phone him at 701-297-6869. Pates is a staff writer for Agweek.

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