The Magazine

Here's the beef

The great American appetite for flesh.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Putting Meat on the

American Table

Taste, Technology, Transformation

by Roger Horowitz

Johns Hopkins, 192 pp., $19

Despite having spent much of his life in the kitchen, Klaus Fritsch is not a large man.

He is neither rotund like Mario Batali nor in need of a cane like Paul Prudhomme. This is not to say, however, that Klaus is a lousy cook. In the 1970s, he worked at the Playboy Club in Montreal. One day his colleague Arnie Morton entered the kitchen, demanding to know who had made his burger. Klaus took the credit and was told it was the best burger Morton had ever tasted (the secret is tomato juice). The two went into business together and opened the first Morton's steakhouse in Chicago in 1978. I recently met Klaus at the Morton's in downtown Washington. And in the midst of our jovial discussion, I asked him a sensitive question:

You're with a group of friends at a restaurant. One of them orders a steak and tells the waiter he wants it well done. What do you do?

Klaus suddenly sprung from his seat, grabbed my arm, and exclaimed in his thick German accent, "I tell him, you son of a bitch, order a pot roast!" He said he's only joking, but added, "Honestly, if you want a steak well done, I really recommend you get a pot roast. Why ruin a great piece of meat?"

Indeed, Americans take their meat very seriously. And despite reports that red meat can lead to heart disease, or that Mad Cow and E. coli contaminations have led to some horrific deaths, we remain undeterred. In the first six months of this year, the Morton's chain generated more than $161 million in revenue. The company now operates 71 restaurants around the world, all with identical menus: Large pieces of prime meat, baked potatoes the size of Nerf footballs, and not a single butter knife to be found.

The concept is quite basic but may well outlast other trendy cuisines such as New American. At least that is Klaus's belief.

"It is over," he de clares. "You know, two ounces of fish and two flowers, and on your way home you stop at McDonald's for hamburgers because you're hungry. People figured this out and it was over, so they go back to their steak and potato."

Fritsch considers steak in America to be something ordered on festive occasions: "It goes all the way back to the fatted calf."

Not that we need to go that far back. In a 1939 essay for the New Yorker entitled "All You Can Eat for Five Bucks," Joseph Mitchell chronicled the famous beefsteak dinners thrown by political honchos throughout New York City. Mitchell witnessed one chef "slicing the big steaks with a knife that resembled a cavalry sabre and the other was dipping the slices into a pan of rich, hot sauce. . . . A waiter would go to a table and lay a loaded platter in the middle of it. Hands would reach out and the platter would be emptied. A few minutes later another platter would arrive and eager, greasy hands would reach out again."

Mitchell says that, at beefsteaks, "Waiters are required to keep bringing platters until every gullet is satisfied; on some beefsteak menus there is a notice: '2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc., portions permitted and invited.'"

What needs to be noted is that Mitchell's tales of gluttony came more than 30 years after the publication of The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair's novel exposing the cruel conditions (for both man and animal) in the Chicago stockyards. Though Sinclair hoped his book would lead to labor reform, the major piece of legislation related to The Jungle was the Pure Food and Drug Act. Readers may have been bothered by the hard life of meat cutters, but it seems they were first and foremost concerned with the quality of meat that arrived at their dinner tables. Sinclair was quoted as saying, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Looking back, this shouldn't surprise us, considering the centrality of beef, poultry, and pork in the American diet. Over the centuries, however, each of these types of meats has taken turns at the top of the list. Roger Horowitz explains why these shifts occurred. Technological innovations such as the gas stove, refrigeration, and cellophane were crucial. Meat companies have also successfully influenced consumer preferences (getting us to love hot dogs) as well as vice versa (getting them to make better bacon).

Until the early 20th century, the predominant choice of meat in America was pork, and largely as a matter of practicality. In its cured form, pork could last through an entire winter--hogs were traditionally slaughtered in late fall. And while the affluent were able to procure ham, poorer Americans managed to get by on salt pork preserved in barrels (hence the term "bottom of the barrel").