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.
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.”
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.