“I don’t know, Brad. Veal? I’m not really sure how I feel about eating it.”
My friend Andy is an avid meat eater, but he wasn’t exactly raising an issue that I hadn’t heard before.
“Look dude,” I told him, “a lot of the anti-veal stuff you’ve heard isn’t true. The industry has changed in the last few decades.” This coming from someone who knew exactly nothing about the veal industry. But I like to argue, and missing facts never kept me from plowing ahead.
“You know, they even have free-range veal now,” I told him, randomly generating facts to support my argument.
“Bull. How the hell could free-range veal work?”
“I, um, think that they might tow the pens around the pasture behind a golf cart.”
It was at that point that the conversation ended. Well, it ended after Andy called me an idiot. But, as it turns out, my fiction had some truth to it: the veal industry has changed (I think it pretty much had to), and there actually is such a thing as free-raised veal. Calves roam freely in pastures and are given no hormones or antibiotics. And this is a good thing, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
For a large chunk of my young-manhood, I lived near Yorkville, a heavily German neighborhood in Manhattan. Despite being a German/Irish mutt myself, I wasn’t actually aware that the area was German; my family paid little attention to lineage, I never heard the language spoken, and they’d thankfully stopped having German American Bund parades back in the late 30s.
Still though, there was some German influence in the neighborhood, particularly in the area of food. My first life-changing German-influenced food experience was delivered courtesy of Papaya King, a small hot dog joint on the corner of 86th Street and 3rd Avenue. Originally opened in 1932, Papaya King was a simple tropical juice stand until owner Gus Poulos married Birdie, a young German-American. In love with not only the woman but also her meats, Poulos started serving hot dogs at Papaya King in 1939.
But not just any hot dogs. Poulos told customers that “Papaya King frankfurters are tastier than filet mignon,” and to a young man hopping off the subway after an evening spent celebrating the Irish part of his heritage, they certainly were. Two dogs perfectly grilled, served on toasted buns and striped with mustard, when paired with a 16 ounce Coconut Champagne, made a far better nightcap than a Rusty Nail ever could (well, maybe not far better).
So my first lesson in great food pairings came to me at a hot dog stand in the middle of the night, a little island of light and bright colors and late night city dwellers, while I stood at a counter weaving slightly and hoovering hot dogs and tropical drinks. And it’s still one of my favorites. The crunch of the toasted bun, the snap of the casing, the bite of the mustard; nothing on the planet sets up the sweetness and texture of a fresh papaya or coconut drink better.
And there’s no place better to enjoy it than a noisy, crowded street corner in Manhattan at 3 AM, with your ears still ringing from a live show at CBGB (now sadly no longer) or one of the other clubs I frequented back then.
There’s one other major culinary event for which I have the German neighborhood to thank: it’s where I discovered Wiener Schnitzel. Of course, Wiener Schnitzel isn’t actually a German dish: it originated in Austria (the Germans annexed the recipe sometime prior to 1945 – perhaps that’s why then name is protected by law in Austria now). But Heidelberg Restaurant, a local Bavarian joint, served a wicked version, and from the moment I bit into my first lightly-breaded veal cutlet, I was hooked. I don’t care who you are, or how much you struggle with ethical issues around eating veal: you’re just going to have to admit that there’s pretty much nothing as delicious as a properly cooked veal cutlet.
So since so few say it, allow me: it’s time to come home to veal. If the goateed roller-blading and recumbent bike-riding set can make their peace with sausage, the rest of us can certainly enjoy veal again. It tastes great, it’s lower in fat than many meats, and it’s pretty easy to whip up a delicious platter-full.
Just pound some cutlets to about ¼-inch thick, flour, egg, and bread them, then fry in hot lard for tradition’s sake, or oil if that bums you out. Squeeze some lemon over the golden brown beauties and your ethical dilemma will be a thing of the past. At least until the beers wear off.