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").

By the mid-1800s, most of the processing came to be centered around the Midwest and the Ohio River valley. According to Horowitz, "In the 1860-61 packing season, Cincinnati exported 70 million pounds of cured pork and bacon," earning the city the dubious nickname "Porkopolis." But eventually this shifted to Chicago, thanks in part to the expanding railroads and the entrepreneurship of Philip Danforth Armour, a commodities trader who earned millions selling pork to the Union armies during the Civil War.

Of course, given a choice between fresh pork and fresh beef, Americans have traditionally preferred the latter. But in the pre-refrigeration era, beef did not cure as well as pork. As a result, cattle had to be shipped live from the farms to the cities where the slaughtering would occur. By the 1840s, New York had over 200 slaughterhouses, creating an unsanitary environment. Horowitz notes how the city's board of health decried conditions that "allowed blood and other animal refuse to pool or sink into the soil and give off 'offensive odors.' Further, parts of the animal 'not destined for human consumption' were 'separately disposed of' by 'petty tradesmen' who, by carting these animal parts to their marginal establishments, conveyed the 'sickening stench' of the meat business throughout the city." The slaughterhouses were eventually pushed to the waterfronts on the east and west sides.

But, with advances in refrigeration and refrigerated railcars, beef would eventually surpass pork as America's favorite meat. In 1878, patents for such cars were obtained by former meat market owner Gustavus Swift. Two years later, Swift's beef, also produced in Chicago, was being sold on the East Coast. By 1909, explains Horowitz, "total beef production (including veal) topped pork products for the first time in American history with more than 4 billion pounds of fresh beef leaving the nation's slaughterhouses, a 44 percent increase in ten years." The massive growth in volume also led to more affordable cuts of meat, such as flank and chuck roast. By 1965, says Horowitz, two-thirds of all American families enjoyed at least some amount of steak as part of their annual diet.

Butcher Thomas De Voe is quoted here complaining about "the preference of New York shoppers who 'would rather pay their last dollar for half as much meat in an expensive steak or chop' than purchase inexpensive cuts." That was in 1867, although this sentiment rings true today.

The Department of Agriculture grades beef, from highest to lowest, as prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner. Most supermarkets now offer choice as the best cut a consumer can purchase. In fact, only 2 percent of U.S. beef is considered prime and is usually found only in restaurants. But on a recent trip to the mammoth Wegmans supermarket in Rochester, I discovered prime dry-aged ribeyes in the meat department's display case. They were selling for $21.99 per pound.

Butcher Bill Gamer says his primes sell well: "No one really asks how much," he told me. "They just buy them. During the holidays, customers will pick up eight or nine [steaks], no problem." Gamer comes from a family of butchers and fits perfectly Joseph Mitchell's description of a "well-nourished man." He added that New York strips sell the most at this particular Wegmans, though his favorite cut is the ribeye.

"Just look at the fat on it," he said with an approving grin.

Less popular than either beef or pork throughout the 19th, and part of the 20th, century was chicken. Until the late 1960s and early '70s, most chickens were sold whole, posing a problem: Either families were too large, so the chicken was consumed too quickly, or families were too small and spent the rest of the week bored out of their wits trying to finish the bird. This all changed largely because of the industry's pioneers, Maryland farmer Frank Perdue and John and Don Tyson, a father-and-son team from Arkansas.

Perdue followed the path of Oscar Meyer by name-branding his birds. The Tysons, particularly Don, innovated "market differentiation," selling different parts to different people at different prices. When the McDonald's Corporation unveiled the Chicken McNugget nationwide in 1983, Tyson became the chief supplier. Perdue, meanwhile, achieved success by understanding consumer preferences such as yellow-hued chickens, adding marigold petal extract to the feed.

"[Perdue] tapped into the way consumers rely on visual signifiers to evaluate meat's quality," writes Horowitz. "For consumers, the yellow in chickens was like the red in freshly cut beef, an ineffable feature testifying, in some intrinsic way, to the product's wholesomeness and value." By 2002, "Americans ate 83 pounds of chicken annually, significantly more than their beef consumption."

While the chicken industry hasn't had to worry about the impact of Mad Cow Disease, it has had its share of headaches due to salmonella and, now, avian flu. Nevertheless, consumption of chicken has continued unabated, and even risen. During the early 1990s, Horowitz points out that "when stories of chicken contamination saturated the news media, per capita consumption increased almost 15 percent to 69 pounds annually" and, as such, "consumers seemed to respond to exposés . . . by being more careful in their handling and cooking of chicken, rather than changing their eating habits." The reaction is similar to the public response to The Jungle.

In the spirit of Sinclair's novel, the 2001 bestselling Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser also aimed to change our diets and affect the industry by describing in graphic detail modern-day meat processing and the dangers posed to both meat workers and consumers. Schlosser's book is truly compelling, and his vivid account from inside a slaughterhouse, as well as his detailing of the effects of E. coli on children, require the reader to take pauses for deep breaths.

This month, the movie version of Fast Food Nation will be in theaters across the country (the film is fictionalized, though the company in question is called "Mickey's"). Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has already called it "the most essential political film from an American director since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11"--though even he acknowledges "it may not turn you into a vegetarian." In other words, we may be appalled at various aspects of the industry, but at the end of the day, we will not be deterred from ordering a medium-rare cajun ribeye.

"Meat remains a sign of the good life, the American life, and a valued item in our diets," says Roger Horowitz, "even as Americans remain skittish about the wholesomeness of our food system." To a certain degree, our continued willingness to eat meat will also be tied to our accepting what it is that has been slaughtered.

"One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast," writes M.F.K. Fisher in How To Cook a Wolf. She goes on to describe her first encounter with tête de veau:

The main trouble, perhaps, was that it was not a veal's head at all, but half a veal's head. There was the half-tongue, lolling stiffly from the neat half-mouth. There was the one eye, closed in a savory wink. There was the lone ear, lopped loose and faintly pink over the odd wrinkles of the demi-forehead. And there, by the single pallid nostril, were three stiff white hairs.

At first I thought the world was too much with me, and wondered how gracefully I could leave it. Then what I am sure was my good angel made me stay, and eat, and finally ask for more.

America's passion for meat is enduring--albeit peculiar. Sometimes we are disturbed by what we eat, though the industry is quickly adapting: Whole Foods Market (aka "Whole Paycheck") will soon be selling meat with the label "animal compassionate" to assure us the cow was treated well. Until it was butchered, that is. At other times, our appetite for meat seems insatiable. As I concluded my interview with Klaus Fritsch of Morton's, I couldn't resist asking him about the largest piece of meat his restaurant ever served. It was a whole strip loin weighing 10 pounds. As a gimmick, it was served to former Chicago Bears defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry, who at the time was working for Sears.

Alas, Perry only managed to eat half the loin. But even worse, lamented Fritsch, "the guy ordered it medium-well."

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.