The Essence of the Animal: Mobility from Muscle

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

What is it that makes a creature an animal? The word comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to breathe,” to move air in and out of the body. The definitive characteristic of animals is the power to move the body and nearby parts of the world. Most of our meats are muscles, the propulsive machinery that moves an animal across a meadow, or through the sky or sea.

The job of any muscle is to shorten itself, or contract, when it receives the appropriate signal from the nervous system. A muscle is made up of long, thin cells, the muscle fibers, each of which is filled with two kinds of specialized, contractile protein filaments intertwined with each other. This packing of protein filaments is what makes meat such a rich nutritional source of protein. An electrical impulse from the nerve associated with the muscle causes the protein filaments to slide past each other, and then lock together by means of cross-bridging, or forming bonds with each other. The change in relative position of the filaments shortens the muscle cell as a whole, and the cross bridges maintain the contraction by holding the filaments in place.