Take your own food if you're going to China 2015.07.08


Since you’re reading this, I have to assume you survived any July 4th cookouts you may have attended. I know they don’t celebrate Independence Day in China, and after reading a recent New York Times article, I would be hesitant about eating any meat served there, no matter what holiday it may be.

In June, Chinese authorities confiscated over $480 million worth of smuggled frozen beef, pork and chicken wings. Why? Because some of it was as much as 40 years old. Still hungry?

This is just the latest food scandal in China, following a few years that included  “watermelons that exploded from the misuse of a growth accelerator chemical, pork soaked in a detergent additive, steamed buns tainted with pesticides, and 15,000 dead pigs drifting down the Huangpu River in Shanghai.” If I lived in China, I’d have to consider leaving the country just to eat.

Although details of where the elderly meat originated from are scant to unknown, it apparently made its way to Hong Kong, then was shipped to Vietnam, “where traders would smuggle the product across the Chinese border without declaring it to customs officials or going through required inspection and quarantine procedures.”

Once inside China, “criminals would often transport the meat in unrefrigerated trucks to save costs and refreeze it several times before it reached customers.” One customs official said he “almost threw up when the door opened” after participating in the seizure of 800 tons on frozen meat in June.

Smuggled meat was sold to supermarkets and restaurants all over China. On Chinese social media, many people claimed to be “considering vegetarianism.” That might work, it they can stay away from those exploding watermelons.

When I read about this problem, I immediately remembered a story I heard back in the 1980s when the Chinese meat in question was barely one decade old. A gentleman who worked at one of my advertising accounts shared it one fall as Thanksgiving approached.

He had enlisted in the Navy in his younger days and was trained as a cook. On an extended mission one November, it fell to him and his fellow cooks to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. Checking the inventory in their huge deep freezers, they found an apparently long-forgotten supply of turkeys.

How old were they? According to their date codes, over 20 years old. He said the turkeys they initially discovered had a large amount of freezer burn, but the ones hidden behind the exposed ones seemed to be fine. With no fresher supply available, they decided to defrost them and check for problems.

Once thawed, the turkeys showed no evidence of trouble, so they chose to keep their mouths shut, prepare them and hope for the best. At this point, I was expecting a sad ending to the story, but that wasn’t quite what happened.

For days afterward, sailors raved about the turkey, many calling it the best they had ever eaten. Some of them even asked if they could have turkey for Christmas, too. Unfortunately, the hidden stash of ancient, but delicious, turkeys had been exhausted.

I wouldn’t have guessed that frozen turkeys could improve with age like wine, nor would I ever try any meat that old if offered. In fact, aging doesn’t always help the flavor of wine, either, as a recent obit I read pointed out.

Back in May, long-time wine merchant William Sokolin passed away. His biggest claim to fame was a bottle of wine he didn’t sell. In 1989, he was attempting to peddle a bottle of 1787 Chateau Margaux. The wine, over 200 years old at that point, had once supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson and had some provenance supporting that claim.

 Sokolin hoped to sell it for over $500,000, that is, until he decided to show it off at a party. Unfortunately, Sokolin’s wine and a metal table had a collision that punched two holes in the bottle, spilling much of the wine onto the carpet. Several guests stuck their fingers into the bottle to steal a taste of the wine. Consensus was that it had spoiled and was unpalatable.

Anyone who previously had been  considering purchasing the wine had to be happy they didn’t. With the money they saved, not only could they buy some good wine, they’d have enough left over to get some fresh meat, too.