One week to the day after he won the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump slipped away from his handlers — as well as the journalists assigned to cover him — for an off-the-books dinner at 21 Club in New York, where he ordered a steak, cooked well-done. Three months and an inauguration later, the 45th President’s habits don’t seem to have changed much. He’s still ditching his press pool to go out for dinner — Trump’s Saturday night dinner at BLT Prime, the steakhouse in his eponymous DC hotel, was not announced — and he still prefers his pieces of cow with their proteins fully denatured. Independent Journal Review reporter Benny Johnson was tipped off in advance to Trump’s dinner plans, and reserved a table where he could observe the President’s order of a $54 dry-aged New York strip well-done — not to mention confirmation from an anonymous server that the leader of the free world doused the whole thing in ketchup.
Trump’s insistence on well-done meat has been extensively documented; it’s now as much a part of the man’s mythology as his sine-wave hair and preferred female silhouette. “It would rock on the plate, it was so well done” is how Trump’s butler described his employer’s preferred preparation to the New York Times. In February of last year, at a New Hampshire steakhouse, it’s how Trump ordered a bone-in ribeye. Do you know how long it takes to cook a bone-in ribeye all the way through? It takes a long time. You need to really want it.
The President of the United States insists that his steaks be cooked well-done. Unfortunately, that’s a big problem.
For almost every person in the world, it’s totally okay to prefer your steak cooked all the way through. It’s totally and completely fine. Fully one quarter of America prefers their steak well done or medium-well, in fact — which, again, is fine. My own line on matters of food preference — the line of anyone, I think, who understands that finding pleasure in what we put into our bodies is a matter of great intimacy and individuality — is: Whatever. Make yourself happy. Do whatever you want. You’re not hurting anyone by eating your steak cooked all the way through, except yourself.
This is a simple matter of science: Steaks with even a little bit of red in them are better than steaks without. This is a fact, a chemical and physical truth, the result of an alchemy of fat and protein and salt, and the way matter transforms when exposed to heat, and the way our bodies connect the chemicals of taste to the chemicals of pleasure. I’m not saying that cooked-through meat is always bad; in fact, it can be wonderful — just look at pot roast or short ribs, cuts of meat that are at their best when fully cooked — but when you order a tender, excellent cut (say, an aged New York strip or a bone-in ribeye), eating it well done means you’re robbing yourself of the quantitatively greater happiness that a pinker middle provides.
Back to my food-preference maxim of “Do whatever you want”: There’s always an unspoken second half to the sentence. That first part is an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each person’s pleasure, the individual balances we measure between what we’ll do and what we’ll get, the private relationship between the steak and your mouth and your (metaphorical) heart. But there’s a but, and even if it’s not uttered, it can’t be struck: “Do whatever you want, but you can’t avoid the consequences.”
Sometimes the consequences of indulging our desires are large and material. Skip work, get fired. Be unfaithful, get dumped. Suck all the natural gas out from under Pennsylvania, toxify millions of gallons of drinking water and reintroduce earthquakes to regions that had been geologically stable for millennia.
Other times, the consequences are more minute. A consequence of most things done in public, for example, particularly if you’re a public figure, is that you’re seen doing them, and the people who see you form judgments about your character, informed by our collective heuristic experience of human behavior. You’re free to eat your steak however you like, but I’m free to see your choice and understand that it reveals something fundamental about you.
Here’s a truth about being a human in the world: At their core, all our experiences are transactions, and all transactions come down to two axes of belief: How much do I believe that our interaction will harm me, and how much do I believe that it will better me? When it comes to new experiences, two new variables enters the model: trust and risk. Are you trying to harm me? Are you trying to better me? What do I have to lose? What do I have to gain?
All our choices, quotidian and life-altering alike, from picking socks to having a child, boil down to this calculus of trust and risk. The great salesmen of the world wield them like weapons — what is charisma, after all, but a smile that says Trust me, there’s no risk? But the true masters of these materials are artists, creators, hawkers of pure experience. People promising a reward for your risk that isn’t anything fungible at all, just personal, experiential pleasure. The risk is, at minimum, time and money: You can’t see the play before you’ve seen it. You can’t read a book before you read it. You can’t taste the steak before you raise your fork to your mouth. The trust is that the risk won’t turn out to be a risk at all, that you’ll like what you experience, that your life will be better for having experienced it. The sales pitch of art is this: Trust me, there will be a reward.
Another truth about the world: Raw meat is an acquired taste, both in our mouths and in our brains. It’s one of those foods that requires a little bit of a nudge before we’ll take a first-ever bite. Humans cook our meat for a reason, and to step beyond millennia of animal instinct we have to put our faith outside ourselves: We have to trust. Trust the cook, trust the kitchen, trust the friends telling us that this new thing will be better than what we’ve had before. We have to trust that people are looking out for our happiness, not our harm. We have to trust that risks will lead to rewards.
Adults who won’t eat pink-hearted steaks might lean on any number of reasons for their position, but almost always it comes down to an aversion to risk, which is at its core an unwillingness to trust the validity and goodwill of any experiences beyond the limited sphere of one’s own. It is — and we’re talking about steak here, so don’t get huffy — a confession of a certain timidity, a defensiveness, an insecurity. It’s not just a fear of change, it’s also a bone-deep fear that the way you’ve always done something — the way that, without outside intervention, you might continue always do it — will turn out not to have been the best way for you after all. The risk of that private humiliation can easily outweigh any benefit that could come from your new, better way. It means that when presented with a risk, you make the choice not to trust.
(This is, it’s worth noting, the same lack of trust leads to thinking every contract worker is cheating you, and the same terror of being proven wrong that leads someone with no foreign policy experience to say his number one foreign policy adviser is himself. It manifests itself in other ways, too: The kind of person who traffics in loyalty rather than friendship, who considers challenges to be attacks, who twists every loss into a victory, who assesses every gesture and every act not in terms of how it will better or worsen the world overall, but how it will better or worsen the world for himself.)
It’s possible that President Trump has very good reasons for preferring his steak well done. Maybe he makes a yearly practice of trying a medium-rare ribeye, just to make sure that his preferred doneness is truly a matter of subjective preference, and not some damning psychological tell. But his other eating habits, even in the context of his reported germophobia, speak to a gastronomic risk aversion — a fundamental lack of trust — across the board. He prefers fast food, and rarely varies his order. His favorite dish at Mar-a-Lago is the meat loaf, and that’s not even some inspired chef’s creation, it’s the meat loaf of his childhood, his mother’s own recipe. He has a well-documented aversion to eating with his hands. When he dines at Jean-Georges, the three-Michelin-star restaurant in the Trump International Tower in New York, he asks for a personalized order — ”the special thing you made for me,” Chris Christie recalled him requesting of a server — rather than the innovative, creatively constructed dishes on the menu. Donald Trump is not a man who likes to try new things, and that says a lot about him.
Again, for those out there who like their steak cooked all the way through: Your preferences are fine. It’s fine that you persist in this, despite the urgings of your steakhouse chef, your well-intentioned server, your friends, your family, your critics, thousands of magazine articles, hundreds of cookbooks, and the entire collective wisdom of thousands of years of gastronomy, all of whom are saying Try it, you’ll like it. They’re not setting you up to fail: They truly believe that you will like it, and that it’ll make you happier. They just want you to be happier. They do, in fact, have your best interests at heart, but you’re under no obligation to listen to them.
But if you’re Donald Trump — the President of the United States of America, the man who is, now and for the foreseeable future, the most powerful figure in the world — categorically rejecting external input can be catastrophic. It may just be steak, but it’s also everything: It’s a choice to silence experts who suggest a different path, to dismiss their course corrections, to reject the very premise that expertise outside his person can have value. A person who won’t eat his steak any doneness but well is a person who won’t entertain the notion that there could be a better way; a person who blankets the whole thing in ketchup (a condiment that adds back much of the moisture, sweetness, and flavor that the overcooking removed in the first place) is always going to fix his problems by making them worse. A person who refuses to try something better is a person who will never make things good.