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Barbecue:
The New Health Food

I SUPPOSE I should have been happy upon learning that one of my favorite summer foods is actually good for me. But one of the great joys of summer is eating poorly.

Who doesn’t love a grilled cheeseburger, especially one made from ground beef so fatty it resembles the pink and white complexion of an elderly Englishman’s cheeks? And we hold dear the classic hot dog, a glorious tube of chemical-laden mystery meat.

But perhaps the most cherished of all summer foods is barbecue. For some, that means pork ribs; for others, pulled pork. For me, it means slow-smoked Texas-style beef brisket.

I’ve extolled the virtues of barbecue in general — and of Texas barbecue specifically — many times in these pages. This time, I am extolling its vices.

You don’t typically see smoked beef brisket as a daily requirement on the food pyramid. If you’ve ever eaten smoked brisket, you know why. It’s so rich, it makes steak taste like tofu.

But eating it only hints at the sin you figure you are probably committing. To understand the depth of the complete disregard you have for your health, you have to actually see a brisket in its natural state.

Its natural state is in a Texas supermarket’s refrigerated case, wrapped in Cryovac, usually on sale. A big ol’ hunk of meat, it ranges in weight from about eight to 15 pounds. An average 12-pounder measures roughly 20 inches long by 10 inches wide.

It has a sloping, rugged shape, not unlike the hills in the Texas Hill Country, where smoking a brisket is part competitive sport, part competitive art form. Except, unlike those hills, the brisket lies beneath an avalanche of white. That would be fat. So thick is the fat and so integral to the meat is it that it has its own name — aptly, the fat cap.

Some folks, if they are braising a brisket or using it in its guise as corned beef, neither want nor care about the fat cap. But if you are going to smoke a brisket, the fat cap is desirable and necessary. It melts through the meat, tenderizing it over the 12, 18, even 24 hours of indirect smoking and giving each thick slice its characteristic toothsome, robust meatiness.

A responsible doctor would counsel against ingesting any foodstuff with something called a fat cap. Or so I would have thought.

But a recent university study shows that the fat in brisket is akin to olive oil. (Warning: The next sentence gets all sciencey.) In her master’s thesis, Texas A&M graduate student Stacey Turk revealed that brisket fat contains a goodly amount of oleic acid, a beneficial monounsaturated fatty acid that can raise levels of good cholesterol and lower total cholesterol. (Breathe easy: Sciencey stuff is over.)

In other words, you can melt the fat cap and dress your salad with it.

So the good news is that, apparently, the fat in brisket is healthy. The bad news is that, apparently, the fat in brisket is healthy.

Part of the fun of summer is feeling like you are doing the wrong thing — staying out too late, lazing around too much, doing things you wouldn’t do during the productive seasons.

The food of summer is the fare of teenagers: pizza slices, wings, ice cream. It is bad food. Bad-for-you food. Which is to say, fun food.

Healthy food is good for you. It may even be good, period. But it’s not fun.

What I thought was the world’s most decadent meat, a thing so wrong I felt a little like confessing after consuming it, has turned out to be a health food. If eating brisket was wrong, I didn’t want to be right.

I am still getting over the last time Texas A&M messed with food. The year was 1982. A story in the papers at the time reported that Texas A&M researchers had tamed the jalapeño.

They genetically altered the fiery food to make it mild. But what they did was emasculate it. They turned a German shepherd into a French poodle, transformed Genghis Khan into Emily Dickinson.

Heck, I’ll concede that the world would likely be a better place if we had more shutin poets and fewer fierce warriors. But the world doesn’t need more green bell peppers.

And that is what they basically made of the mighty jalapeño: a green bell pepper in a jalapeño shape.

And I’ve never forgiven them for it.

Now comes this brisket business.

I guess I should be happy. I can have my brisket and my health too.

But a part of me wishes I didn’t know the truth.