The Magazine

Here's the Beef

Prime cuts, from the Chisholm Trail to Walter Mondale

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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This is the latest in the “edible series” of books put out by Reaktion Books, each of which explores the history and cultural associations of a particular food or drink. Written by Lorna Piatti-Farnell of the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, Beef is number 33 in the series, its predecessors including Apple, Caviar, Chocolate, Lobster, and Rum

'Good beef for hungry people.'

'Good beef for hungry people.'

Everett Collection

Beef comes from bovines, especially cattle, and, as Piatti-Farnell points out, it “seems virtually impossible to discuss the global history of beef without first talking about cows.” The earliest ancestors of today’s cow, she writes, were “aurochs,” a type of wild and ferocious cattle. In Western Europe, prehistoric cave paintings of hunting scenes testify to the importance of aurochs as a source of meat. Domestication of cattle began around 8000 b.c., with cows used for meat consumption as well as dairy production. 

“Today,” writes Piatti-Farnell, “cattle are present virtually in every country, on every continent in the world, and the consumption of beef forms the basis of many diets for hundreds of cultures,” with cattle breeds—such as the Aberdeen Angus in Scotland—“developed over the centuries specifically with beef consumption in mind.”

Indeed, Western Europe is the scene of key episodes in the history of beef. The Romans were not big eaters of the meat, and only after the fall of the empire did beef gain “an incremental favour among many European populations,” especially those in the British Isles. By the Late Middle Ages, the meat had taken a “convoluted etymological journey” involving the Latin bubula and the French boef, eventually finding “its own seating within the English language” as, yes, beef. Even so, it trailed fish, chicken, and pork in popularity, if we are to credit historical records. 

In 1540, conquistadors brought the first domesticated cows to the shores of the New World; more than a century and a half later, cattle began to be systematically raised for their meat by North American colonists of Spanish, French, and British origin. “As the new American country grew,” writes Piatti-Farnell, “so did its infrastructure, allowing early American examples of the cattle industry to blossom, develop and fortify.” That infrastructure included stockyards and slaughter-houses, built in Kansas and Missouri, and new refrigeration methods that facilitated swift transportation to all parts of the country.

Oddly, the author leaves out of her account of the American cattle industry the Chisholm Trail, which was used in the years after the Civil War to drive cattle overland from ranches in Texas (then, as now, home to more cattle than any other state) to stockyards in the Middle West. The trail involved no “infrastructure” as such, but it was the place of stories about the drivers of those cattle—cowboys who faced bad weather and deep rivers and rugged terrain, as well as threats to their lives from rustlers and Indians.

The trail lives today in cinema, most spectacularly in Red River (1948), about the first cattle drive to use the Chisholm Trail. One critic described Red River as “a surprisingly great 134-minute tribute to beef.” It starred John Wayne, whose character famously says: 

I’ll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country. Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make them strong, to make them grow.

Red River’s unabashed tribute to beef reflected its rise to the top of the meat preference rankings in the United States, ahead of chicken and pork. By 1952, Americans, on average, consumed 62 pounds of beef a year. That number has climbed since then, with small declines in recent years. Meanwhile, the United States continues to be the world leader in beef production. 

Piatti-Farnell identifies other countries with notable cattle industries. They include Argentina, which has “a reputation for producing very high-quality beef”; Japan, which is the originator of Kobe beef; Australia, which is one of the largest and most successful exporters of beef in the world; and New Zealand, where the cattle “are primarily grass-fed and not fattened on grain”—on account of which, the author’s home has become “an ambassador [abroad] for [its] farming excellence.” 

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