He sat across the table from me at a fancy San Francisco restaurant.
We had just finished a hefty lunch of steaks and mashed potatoes when I told him I recently read that meat fixed on a grill was hazardous to one’s health.
I meant it as an amusing aside. But his face contorted like a man who had just taken a large bite out of a lemon.
“That’s it,” he said, “I can’t take it anymore. First, they take away our tobacco. Then they want us to give up martinis. Now, we are to forgo the pleasures of a good steak fixed properly? I won’t do it. A man must have few vices to enjoy.”
The flummoxed speaker was a well-known journalist/author who happened to be my boss. The year was 1964.
A half century later, we are still being told that, when it comes to dining, what’s good is bad.
The most recent shot across our culinary bow came in the form of a study that found people who said they ate the most grilled meat — red meat and chicken alike — had a higher risk of kidney cancer, according to the journal Cancer.
It is 1964 all over again.
Oddly enough, this study came out of the University of Texas. Last time I checked, Texans embraced barbecue, beer, bullets and Baptists.
So warnings notwithstanding, you can bet your sweet brisket that this study isn’t going to make a dent in the barbecue business in the Lone Star state.
In fact, one media outlet in Texas pointed out that in the city of Lockhart, known as the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” has a lower than average cancer rate. And that Texas as a whole has a lower cancer rate than most states in the U.S.
Researchers couldn’t have picked a bigger target. More than 10 million barbecues are shipped each year. Markets sell $450 million worth of barbecue sauce each year. Americans consume the stuff by the ton, be it beef or pork ribs, brisket or tri-tip.
Besides, humans have been cooking meat over an open fire since, well, since they started cooking meat. From those primitive times, it has come to mean fellowship, warmth, camaraderie, all wrapped up in the saliva-inducing aroma of grilled food.
And now, I’m being told that the next time I have friends over for a barbecue, I should throw broccoli florets on the grill?
If that’s not bad enough, this admonishment to toss our barbecues into the recycling bin came on the heels of a recent World Health Organization warning that we should avoid all manner of processed foods, saying they classified bacon and hot dogs in the same category as tobacco and asbestos.
True enough if you ate nothing but hot dogs and bacon. But more importantly, we would think the World Health Organization would focus on providing food and clean water to the millions on this planet who have neither instead of declaring war on bratwurst.
So should we taking these warnings with a grain of salt?
After all, the North American Meat Institute called the WHO report "dramatic and alarmist overreach."
The National Cattleman's Beef Association said that cancer is too complex to be blamed on any one cause, like meat.
The answer, of course, is moderation. It’s a life style many of us have learned over the years. The era of the three martini lunch ended at long time ago. And with its demise, American’s life expectancy has grown.
As for grilling, the Texas researches conceded that they only found a link but did not find concrete evidence that it can cause cancer. Further research needs to be conducted. In addition, they do not say that consumers should stop eating meat but rather serve it in moderation while recommending that we avoid charring or burning it.
As for me, while I appreciate all the concern for my well being, I will continue to barbecue in the traditional way. I will grill the occasional hamburger and tri-tip and cook up a mess of baby back ribs.
After all, my boss who vowed to keep eating steaks and drinking martinis, lived to be in his 80s.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.