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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To be sure, Beef would not be complete without accounts dealing with beef itself, as opposed to the animals from which it comes. Piatti-Farnell describes the “ageing” process used to tenderize freshly slaughtered cattle, the “primal” (meaning very large) cuts separated from the carcass during the first stages of butchering, and the various cuts taken from them (chuck, rib, shank, and plate). She does not neglect raw beef, which “more than any other types of meat, can be enjoyed.” Nor does she omit cured beef, the best-known type being corned beef. Finally, in her chapter on cooking, she explains dry-heat and moist-heat methods, the meanings of  “rare,” “medium,” and “well done,” and the techniques of roasting, grilling, broiling, and stewing. 

A rather marbled topic, no?

About grilling, Piatti-Farnell rightly observes that “it finds its most common and well-known incarnation in the barbecue.” She captures an important cultural nuance in pointing out that, while many types of meat can be barbecued, “the propensity of Texans to prefer beef” is so strong that barbecue served in Texas is always assumed to be of the beef variety. Not surprisingly, a few weeks ago, Texas Monthly created and filled a new position of “barbecue editor”—which, it is not yet clear, may come with its own grill. 

Beef has long had a variety of cultural associations, and Piatti-Farnell treats some of the more notable ones, including Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef and Hogarth’s Gate of Calais, while also recording literary references in Shakespeare, Dickens, and Byron, among others. Piatti-Farnell is alert to more recent examples as well—including Lady Gaga’s “meat dress”—and she notes the longstanding advertising campaign of Chick-fil-A, in which three cows hold signs imploring humans to “Eat Mor Chikin.” 

Then there is Wendy’s 1984 advertising campaign featuring the question “Where’s the Beef?”—which has probably been asked in thousands of contexts since it is a splendid way of questioning “the substance or quality of a product or idea.” Yet Piatti-Farnell misses its remarkable political resonance in the 1984 Democratic presidential primary. With Gary Hart rising in the polls, Walter Mondale told him in a debate that “when I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?’ ” Mondale’s line is generally credited with casting doubt on Hart’s “new ideas” and helping the ex-vice president earn his party’s nomination.

In the concluding chapter, “Beef Controversies,” Piatti-Farnell offers an even-handed treatment of issues involving the slaughter of cows, Mad Cow disease, the “rendering” of cow organs into cattle feed (now banned in the United States), and the use of artificial beef hormones. She also reports, skeptically, on environmental concerns about the beef industry. 

As for recent health concerns about eating beef—which arise from consuming hamburgers, mostly sold at fast-food places—she implies that those worries would diminish if better-quality beef, and less-fattening cooking methods, were used by such eateries in making their burgers. (Hamburger, not incidentally, is one of the books in the edible series, which explains why the greatest of sandwiches makes only occasional appearances in Beef.) 

Should you eat the meat? Piatti-Farnell’s answer is that lean beef consumed in small quantities is a “great health benefit,” providing “minerals and protein that are essential for a healthy diet.”

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.

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