I know I'm presumptuous in thinking I know a lot about beef. I've come a long way since I fell in love with White Castle's tiny onion-infused steamed "sliders." Now, at the opposite end of the spectrum, I want not a generic filler, but the wonderful flavor of beef in its purest state. Is that arrogant? The steaks we cook two or three times a month are in league with the best I've eaten anywhere -- as good as famed New York steakhouses like Peter Luger, The Palm and Ruth's Chris, back when they were the Meccas of meat. I was on board when carpaccio became fashionable in the ’80s, and when sashimi was expanded to include Kobe beef in the ’90s.
If America grew up on pork, beef was competing with it by the Civil War. Anthony Trollope wrote in 1861 that Americans ate twice as much beef as the English. And by the 20th century, beef had won the contest, and, ever since, has accounted for well over half the meat consumed. As the population boomed, however, a source for cattle was needed; no longer could each village or plantation supply all the forage land for beef. Food historian Waverley Root tells of a heavily loaded Union Army ox train that had to be abandoned in blizzards, the oxen freed as drivers abandoned wagons to save themselves. Returning in the spring, the soldiers found the animals alive and healthy, having wintered on wild forage.
Soon, the Western plains became home to vast numbers of cattle; every year, herds were rounded up and driven to railheads like Dodge City and Abilene, thence to the stockyards of Chicago. Texas had already learned this lesson, with railways to El Paso, Ft. Worth and San Antonio. Major rail lines crossed the prairie: Rock Island, Southern Pacific, Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe. Cattle stock were bred from wild herds of Spanish longhorns, a breed that thrived in harsh terrain, subsisted on weeds, cactus and brush, ranged days away from water, and could survive both the scorching Texas summers and sub-zero winters of Montana. The meat from these animals was lean and tough, so when they arrived in Chicago, they were transferred to what came to be known as "feed lots," where large quantities of grain, and no exercise, contributed to a more easily marketable meat.
Between 1865 and 1900, approximately 400 million livestock were butchered within the confines of Chicago's Union Stock Yards. By the turn of the century they were producing 82 percent of the domestic meat consumption.
At one time Humboldt ranches produced meat, milk, butter and cheese, and the verdant land along the Eel River grew wheat. For many years small farms raised and slaughtered their own livestock. A couple of years ago, first the Co-op then Murphy's Markets began carrying "Humboldt Grass-Fed Beef," local hormone- and antibiotic-free beef. The steaks were lean, with virtually no fat, particularly the "marbled" interior veins that contribute to tenderness and flavor. So while they tasted OK, they simply didn't impress us. The meat was blah. When you are treating yourself to a steak dinner, blah is not what you are looking for.
So. Did exclusive grass feeding -- "as nature intended" -- mean we could no longer get great-tasting steaks? Fortunately, we already had a source of natural beef, from an organic farm collective in Wheeler County, Ore.: "Painted Hills" (available at Murphy's Market). Their cattle are also raised on grass, and without chemical additives. But the tenderness and flavor are far superior. After a few attempts, we abandoned the local grass-fed. Why improve on perfection?
But there's a larger picture here. Why is "Painted Hills" better, when both are raised on grass? I spoke with Gabrielle Homer at their headquarters in Fossil, Ore. She said their cattle are grass fed for 14 months, then sent to one of three feedlots to "finish," where they are fed a special diet of grains for 3 to 6 months, producing marbled fat. Raised without hormones or antibiotics, these cattle have to be segregated from other animals, and the costs translate into higher retail prices. By comparison, most U.S. commodity beef cattle are shipped to feedlots by 6 months of age.
All beef is grass-fed, because all cattle eat grass -- at least for the first few months of life -- but to call meat "grass-fed" and comply with the American Grassfed Association and the USDA's official definition, the animal must only eat mother's milk, grass or hay for its entire life. This takes more time and more land, so relatively few farmers are doing it. And it too has a higher cost.
Last September, the Arcata Co-op set aside several local beef ribs for "dry curing," to sell as "prime rib" over the holidays. The cure, which allows enzymes in the beef to break down muscle fiber, is a traditional practice at expensive city steakhouses and boutique butcher shops. But again, because of the time, storage space and weight loss, it costs more. At $18 a pound, we couldn't afford a big roast, so we got a one-and-a-half pound rib, searing it in a 450-degree oven to keep the interior rare. The flavor was noticeably better, but the meat still tough. (I spoke to Kevin Reed in the meat department, and he said that because of the extreme leanness of the beef, they recommend only slow cooking, even for steaks. But it's nearly impossible to sauté a rare steak. Prime rib's altogether different.)
Free-range cattle fed on a grass/plant diet, unavoidably, are going to be leaner, hence tougher. Remember those Texas longhorns? Their tough meat was one reason for the rise of chili: minced lean beef, spiced and cooked with lard. On cattle drives, cowboys almost never ate beef -- they would slaughter a calf. Milk-fed veal is the ultimate in tenderness, and in fact their luxury meal was "son-of-a-bitch stew," which contained not just the meat and offal, but the "margut," or "marrow-gut," a tube between two of the calf's stomachs, filled with a cheesy substance resembling marrow. Texas historian Francis X. Tolbert says the chuck-wagon cooks got this idea from the plains Indians.
There's a book that addresses all this in detail: Betty Fussell, a self-described "mad carnivore," spent months visiting stock shows and ranches, talking with meat scientists and cattlemen, and getting to know environmentalists and feedlot operators. Her often surprising conclusions are in Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Love the idea of cattle romping in open pastures and munching on special, additive-free grains? Beware. As with much food marketing, "natural" means virtually nothing, simply that the meat product contains no artificial ingredients or injected brine. "Naturally raised," on the other hand, indicates a set of USDA-approved practices.
But exactly what it means depends on the brand. In the end, because the food industry is not yet monolithic, there is a lot of variety, even within "naturally raised" beef. And other things influence taste besides marbling: breed, diet, stress on animals (like humane methods of slaughter -- as Bill Niman says, fear creates adrenaline, which is never a good flavor), and regional differences all over the spectrum. Better to think of it the way we think of wine, offering choices to the educated consumer.
E-mail Joseph Byrd at email@example.com