Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Raising Steak

This is a review I wrote for the June issue of the Radcliffe Culinary Times.

When I began my graduate research on cattle ranching in Texas, I thought it amusing that most ranchers I spoke with talked a blue streak about their desire for independence and self-reliance, yet they all dressed, drove, and drank the same. Meanwhile, they eyed those few among them who challenged conventional ranching methods with deep suspicion.

Betty Fussell examines the same dynamic in her wonderful, sprawling Raising Steak, an investigation into the economics, culture, and gastronomy of American beef. How can a good steak symbolize rugged cowboy individualism when its producers are terribly afraid of sticking out from the herd?

The conundrum troubles few people, if the exploding popularity of steakhouses is any guide. Fussell gets right at steak’s raw patriotic appeal, writing, with typical strength and directness, “Real American men, women and children eat steak because it’s red with blood, blood that pumps flavor, iron, vitality, and sex into flaccid bodies. For women, steak is better than spinach. For men, it’s better than Viagra. With steak, it’s easy to get carried away.” I’ll say!

Fussell dates the blossoming of America’s lust for beef to the second half of the nineteenth century, when railroads and industrialism made cheap beef available to the urban masses. Cattle replaced buffalo on the Great Plains, completing the defeat of the Indians and establishing its American bona fides. The actual period when cowboys drove cattle north to the western railroad terminus was a brief interlude, “yet those twenty years [1867-87] had etched a schism in the American imagination…the sudden, invasive presence of the urban Machine created a deep nostalgia for lost Wilderness, which our stories often presented as the conflict of Eastern capitalist against Western cowboy.”

It is a sad commentary on American culture, and particularly masculinity, that our diet is so symptomatic of unfulfillment, but Fussell aptly concludes, “Images eat reality, and we feed our hunger for power and glory more than our need for nutrients when we eat steaks.” Yet despite its many unsettling revelations, Raising Steak is generally upbeat, sustained by Fussell’s infectiously enthusiastic voice.

She is fascinated by the characters inhabiting the world of beef. Crisscrossing the country indefatigably, she interviews an impressive, even bewildering array of sources, from the plucky lady who purchases meat for Peter Luger Steakhouse to Temple Grandin, an autistic animal scientist who designs half of the country’s animal handling facilities. Down-to-earth and witty, she makes the hefty text a fun read, though the vastness of information needs a more systematic presentation than it gets with her travelogue approach.

Fussell, born a Westerner but now residing in Manhattan, is somewhat of a paradox herself, which becomes problematic as she turns from the cattle industry’s history to its present situation. If Michael Pollan brings “an Easterner’s view to the West,” this Westerner is too indulgent toward ranchers. She details how the big meatpacking companies, assisted by the USDA, run their industry as a virtual oligopoly, driving down prices at which they purchase cattle, but fails to note that many rich hobby ranchers often sell cattle at a loss, hurting full-time producers who operate on a narrow margin. The reflexively macho and anti-government rhetoric common among cattlemen only makes truly independent ranchers more vulnerable to exploitation and wary of sissy solutions such as cooperatives. Fussell finds plenty of inspiring exceptions, but I am skeptical that the cattle industry can willingly reform itself without some massive cultural shifts among ranchers as well as packers.

When Fussell does get hot, she is forceful and eloquent. The USDA and the corporations it enables receive much warranted criticism, particularly for their despicable handling of Mad Cow Disease. Isn’t it funny how industry studies have a way of showing that consumers want whatever is cheapest for industry to produce? Money, mixed with a bit of cultural resentment, greases the industry wheels, and towards the end of the book, Fussell’s tone becomes reminiscent of muckraker Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation. She does not outline how she would reform production—her issue with the current system seems to have more to do with its execution and oversight rather than its inherent structure, and she implies that feedlot, corn-finished beef has its place in America.

Fussell is at her best when describing the cultural and culinary habits surrounding steak. She concludes with her own evaluation of the various cuts of beef—a section for which I am particularly grateful—and offers a series of recipes to describe the standard approach to cooking steak among major beef-eating cultures. Ultimately, steak, whatever its cultural and economic meaning, is awfully tasty, and we should honor it for its ability to sustain and nourish us, no matter what our reasons for eating it.

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