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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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."