“How can you possibly grow this to have the right texture and flavor?” April asked. She took another generous bite of tenderloin. It was red in the middle and charred on the outside, but hot all the way through. The little cup of steak sauce with it was built on a butter base with mustard, thyme, garlic, salt and a dash of Cajun seasoning, but no tomato. It was an heirloom recipe from Dr. Ames’ grandmother. No surprise anyone nicknamed Jelly would come from a family of cooks and appreciative eaters. The fact April was ignoring the sauce didn’t bother him at all. He took it as a good sign the beef stood alone just fine with only a little salt and pepper.
“I’ll tell you if you’ll agree to strict nondisclosure,” Ames offered. “I intend to keep the process secret as long as possible. Heather is agreeable to allowing me to keep the production in physical isolation with very few people knowing the entire process. She offered to start issuing patents, but I figure the Earthies wouldn’t respect that even if she does. If you’re going to invest in it I understand why you’d need more details.”
April chewed and swallowed. She looked at the hunk of meat in wonder, and perhaps resented a little bit needing to stop eating and speak with Jelly.
“Of course,” April agreed, readily. “I’d do that much for friendship, not just business. I think you’re right, the Chinese especially, will have factories set up cranking this stuff out in a couple months if you let it be public knowledge. And you’ll never see a plastic Yuan coin for it. I just don’t understand how you can grow this without…the cow.”
“Tissue culture is nothing new. Even growing it to a certain shape is not unheard of. We can grow some complex organs easier than bulk muscle tissue. I can grow chicken chunks, nuggets, pretty easily. People will buy those. But with beef it’s hard to market it in small pieces. They don’t sell very well, even for kabobs. The shape and texture are not what people expect,” Ames lamented.
April took the opportunity to slice off another bite while he was talking.
“There are difficulties both in getting a large mass without vascularization to oxygenate it and to provide nutrients…”
“Where do you get the nutrients?” April asked around a full mouth.
“The first experiments used Bovine blood fractions, the same as a cow. Obviously that’s not cost effective,” Ames said, “even on Earth. But you can create bacteria to produce the proper nutrients by altering them genetically. So far we haven’t been able to get everything we need from less than five separate cultures.
“You process them, add electrolytes, add a few extracts we obtain from food plants, and introduce it as a nutrient bath. The culture is started on a platinum plate and grows from it along a grid of very thin tubes with microscopic orifices which release the nutrients. It’s also done at higher than normal pressure, and with additives in the mix which have no function but to increase its oxygen carrying capacity.”
“But doesn’t it have a bunch of holes through it then?” April asked, making a repeated gesture with her straight fingers. “I don’t see a grid of holes in my steak.”
“The tubes are very thin, Think of a ultra fine hypodermic needle. One of the ways they tenderize natural beef is to stab it repeatedly with fine needles,” he said, copying her gesture. “You won’t see holes from that process either. But when the culture is mature you slide it off the grid of needles and it appears a solid mass. Then you sterilize the apparatus and start a new one. It takes about two weeks to grow a quarter kilo filet. Electro-stimulation hastens that and is a factor in giving it the proper grain.”
“Just like Gunny had ‘trodes on each one, making his fingers grow faster inside the clamshell when they grew him a new hand?” April guessed.
“Very much so, but I’d avoid bringing that up when marketing the product,” Ames suggested.
“I know people are squeamish. Don’t worry. Even if I invest, I know better than to interfere with things for which I have no talent, like selling,” April promised.
Ames nodded appreciatively. For all of his professionalism he was squeamish, but he’d rather not admit it to April. Ames let her eat. The steak was selling itself better than anything he could say.
April was chewing, but thoughtfully, looking off in the air trying to visualize something.
“Why do you have to keep starting and stopping?” she finally asked. “A batch process is always less efficient than a continuous production. Just grow the meat and trim it off. As long as you keep monitoring and your nutrient bath stays clean and doesn’t spoil it could run a long time.”
“The tissue will degrade once it grows past the ends of the needles,” Ames explained. “It needs the oxygen and nutrients continuously. Just like tissue in a cow needs constant circulation.”
“Oh…” April appraised the height of the filet on her plate. “Have the needles six or seven centimeters long. When the steak has grown out near the ends have the needles retract five centimeters and slice it off. Then push them back out to full length.”
Ames looked distressed. “You’d have to anchor the remainder of the culture to the base…or hold it in place with a sort of fork temporarily, while the needles come back out. I can think of several ways to do that, actually. What made you think of that?” he asked, a little irritated.
April borrowed a phrase from her good friend Barak. “I’m not sure. It seemed obvious.” The look of consternation on Ames face didn’t make her enjoy the steak any less at all.