Food writer, historian and “full red-blooded carnivore” Fussell (Masters of American Cookery, 2006, etc.) finds beef, specifically steak, to be the most American of foods.
It is, like us, “mobile, improvised, casual, egalitarian, reliable, raw, bloody, and violent,” she writes. Yet within the world of late-19th-century beef production, the fantasy of an autonomous cowboy freely riding the range rounding up the stray calves had little to do with the reality of an industry reliant on technology (the refrigerated railroad cars that transported butchered meat) and the division of labor in its vast meat-packing plants. Today, the author reports, 30 million cattle are harvested each year, held in feedlots holding 100,000 or more steers. They are fed corn—or candy bars, pretzels, whatever is available—quickly slaughtered and dismembered within automated systems, wrapped in Cryovac (which keeps the meat pink no matter its age) and sent to market. It is a secretive, largely unaccountable process that robs us of any sense of human connection with the animals we eat. This troubles Fussell, as does the rush to fulfill America’s insatiable demand for beef that may expose us to such dangers as mad cow disease and the E. coli virus. Her thesis is not new, but the author displays a captivating gift for capturing the essence of places and people. Though she clearly admires maverick ranchers who eschew feedlots and still graze their herds, slaughter and market locally, this is no mere jeremiad against industrialized beef. Fussell explores with humor and obvious pleasure the culture of cattle as well: the rituals of the rodeo, how to buy just the right cowboy hat, the joys of a good steakhouse and a fine steak. She even provides tips on how to cook the perfect steak and shares some favorite recipes she has collected along the way.
An engaging, eclectic examination of the role of beef in the formation of American myth and reality.