Frank Bruni is a conundrum to me. I truly enjoy his writing and at times I feel he does an exceptional job of putting into words aspects of restaurants that are often most charming or most annoying. I would not call Frank’s talent one for insight or consistency (as great as Little Owl and Gilt are, it is inconceivable that they share the same rating of 2 stars). In order for me to make sense of his reviewing, I have kind of settled into the acceptance that Frank doesn’t rate restaurants on their actual execution but rather on how they make him feel. Like a rich person buying this season’s fashion trends, Frank cares whether the shoes match the bag far more than if they are well made.
As much as I enjoy Frank’s restaurant reviews, I have been loving his blog. Every now and then I jump on and take a poke at him; for no good reason the forum brings out my best and worst. But generally, with his hair down in the looser blog format, Frank can dwell on minutia and he tends to be more insightful, and in some cases catty, which rules.
Recently, though, in his blog Frank has written an article on medium-rare pork that in my opinion shows him to be very uninformed and lacking in a most basic understanding of food, which I think may be dangerous to his readers or at least encourage the blissful ignorance of the American food consumer I hate most. Frank’s assertion that pork may, and probably should, be eaten medium-rare is in fact true; his reasons are buffoonish.
The truth is if you go to the USDA website it will inform you that they recommend as a safe guideline an internal temperature for pork of 160° Fahrenheit. The base reason for this is a type of roundworm called Trichina worm, which can live in pork and causes a parasitic disease in humans called Trichinosis. Through a brilliant evolutionary trick, the larvae of these worms have a protective layer that dissolves in our stomach acids allowing them to start growing. They then go on to find their way into muscle tissue, making people sick. This happens to twelve people annually in the entire US, so this is currently a disease affecting .00000004% of America (largely this vast epidemic is blamed on hunted game poorly prepared by the home cook).
So if we were in so much danger of a worm taking up residence in our muscle tissue, why would Frank be so willing to throw caution to the wind? He doesn’t really say. He quotes Chef Campanaro as saying, “If the pigs are raised properly, there’s no reason to be afraid.” Which makes perfect sense: to Frank.
The good news is that you can and should take Frank’s advice to heart, but you will be much safer if you know two things: medium-rare means that the meat maintained an internal temperature of 145° for five minutes, and that the larvae of Trichina worms die at 144°. I am not sure how or why the USDA came up with their 160° guideline, or the CDC their 170°. What I can tell you is there is obviously little requirement to understand food to work at the USDA, the CDC, or to review restaurants for the New York Times for that matter. (I keep reminding myself these jobs are ensuring open markets for US agricultural products, preventing disease, and reviewing restaurants (not food) respectively).
The result of the USDA’s guideline was that cooks in the past were only given the message that pork must be cooked well or it will hurt you, which somehow translated to crucify it. Of course, once it was inured that pork needed to be cooked beyond tasting good, it was easy for it to become tasteless in the first place through CAFO farming practices. The truth is no one has ever worked to identify which pork does or doesn’t have worms; the problem was solved in cooking (these worms are tiny little things that translate to little more than protein once they are dead).
You should eat pork medium-rare because it is far juicier and more flavorful. If you don’t want to believe me (I wouldn’t, I am little more than a blowhard with a blog) keep cooking your pork to 160°. If you are seeking out pork from better pigs from more artisanal producers (breeds ironically often dependant on your consuming them for their survival) it will have some of the fat that has been bred out of industrial pork in the interest of marketability as “the other white meat.” This pork with more natural levels of fat will tolerate the higher temperature better; you can also hedge your bets by brining (especially with leaner cuts like the tenderloin).
In the end what is best, I find, is to presuppose the government is lazy and assumes you are stupid. Then find out what is behind their directives. Once you evaluate the actual threat and the available solutions (you can also just freeze pork for three days at -4°F as long as the pieces are smaller than 6 inches thick, probably the real reason only 12 Americans a year are affected by Trichinosis), apply this knowledge to your decisions. If you only do this by following up on this post and fact-checking my claims, then confidently cook your pork to 145° rather than either brutalizing it with heat out of fear or tradition. Worse would be striving for some random theoretical level of pinkness as our man at the Times suggests. You will at least have greatly improved quality of life when it comes to Pork.