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Prime Steaks

John Mariani
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 4)

A History of Steak

Beef was a negligible part of the American diet until well after the Civil War. For one thing, cattle aren't indigenous to the Americas; Native Americans depended on wild game and buffalo for their meat. Domesticated cattle didn't arrive in the New World until the Spanish introduced them into Mexico in 1540. Spanish longhorned steers were brought in 150 years later in the territory that is now Texas, but with the abandonment of the missions, the cattle went wild and bred themselves into the first American breed, known as the longhorn.

Permanent Spanish settlements in the 18th century fostered ranching, and in 1779 the French initiated cattle drives from San Antonio to New Orleans. But it was not until the late 1860s, when the railroad made the transport of cattle feasible, that longhorns were driven in large numbers from Texas and Oklahoma up the legendary Chisholm and Shawnee trails, with 600,000 head making the journey in 187I. The drives' heyday fizzled quickly: during the bitterly cold winter of 1886-'87, 90 percent of the herds were wiped out and the cattle drives were soon abandoned.

Technology, animal husbandry and barbed wire had already changed the industry, however. The introduction of British breeds like Angus, shorthorn and Hereford bolstered the American stocks and made them better beef animals. The longhorn was a breed whose namesake prongs were difficult to ship and the breed was pretty much phased out. In 1871 a Detroit meat packer named G.H. Hammond brought refrigerated railway cars west, transforming an industry that only had to set up slaughterhouses in the Midwest for shipment of carcasses back East, where a roaring appetite for beef started building. And the invention of barbed wire was revolutionary--now the range could be easily fenced off and cattle, which used to lose enormous amounts of weight on the cattle drives, stood around and quickly got fat in feed lots.

In 1894, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) summed up for all time the universal and irresistible appeal of beefsteak to an American.

In A Tramp Abroad, he wrote:

[It was] a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample country of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in place.

By the turn of the century, Americans had constant access to beef (though pork was still the more common diet staple), and the publication of Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel The Jungle in 1906 led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Law that regulated the industry for sanitation and disease-free animals.

After the Second World War, beef became a symbol of American prosperity: we were gobbling up 62 pounds per person annually by 1952; 99 pounds by 1960, and an all-time high of 114 pounds in 1970. Then consumption started to slip, not out of favor so much as out of fashion (we've always eaten much more beef than pork, veal and lamb combined). Yet despite health concerns over too much animal fat and cholesterol in our diet, the richest of all meats--U.S. Prime--is selling as fast as it can be butchered. Even McLean Deluxe--McDonald's low-fat burger--was a disaster at the low end of the food scale.

Making the Grade

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