Artisan Beef: A Small Target
Aug 08, 2010
What is that makes people who write beef books, even friendly beef books, feel they must dis the way it’s produced?
Knowing that many of us are looking for alternative markets, I have been meaning to get around to reviewing a couple of such books for a while and here we are.
The more recent of the two is Mark Schatzker’s “Steak—One man’s search for the world’s tastiest piece of beef. Its predecessor is the 2008 “Raising Steaks—The life and times of American Beef” by Betty Fussell.
I would suggest any student of the beef industry read both. But do so with a dash of salt. Or other steak seasoning, of course. You can find the books at Amazon.com
Both of these authors are steak lovers. They speak lovingly of the sort of steak they like. But they are both steak snobs, much too sophisticated to enjoy a simple corn fed Porterhouse from Morton’s.
These folks want every steak to be an adventure and they’ve got the bucks to pay for it. Lucky them.
Both provide long, mostly accurate if imperfect, histories and descriptions of the beef industry and cattle production. They both visit with beef scientists and come away unconvinced that beef scientists know what they’re researching about and end in the thrall of niche, grass-fed beef producers with beef to sell and beliefs as evidence of the merits.
Both tell us that feedlots smell bad. Both report on visits with Temple Grandin and both grudgingly admit that—as Schatzker quotes Ms. Grandin, the cattle “aren’t unhappy” in feed pens.
Both seem a little distrustful of commercial beef production, but neither attacks it outright. Except for the way fed beef tastes, of course.
Mark Schatzker—regular readers will recall our recent exchange and my vow to finally review his book—provides the liveliest read because he is such a writer and so into the work of it all. You’ll laugh out loud a time or two. Too bad he starts out by telling us how bland generic beef is—after sampling it in tourist traps—and complaining about the smell of feed yards.
That bit of bias—I mean what did he expect? Ice cream?—colors the rest of the book. From there, he’s off to Argentina and Japan and Europe, finding beef more to his liking every time he steps off the plane.
My wife and some friends drag me occasionally to California wine country, and through the years I’ve learned that there are a lot of variables in wine. I lack the palate and training—or, for that matter, the interest—to discern and describe all the subtleties. But I, as they say, know what I like.
And that generally runs like $90 a bottle, which is about $87 more than I like it.
Schatzker and Ms. Fussell both crawl all over the wine analogy when they discuss beef. I’ve eaten wheat pasture beef. I’ve eaten South American grass-fed beef. I’ve tried European beef. I’ve had all grades of U.S. beef. I am ready to admit that background has a big impact and there is some insipid steak in the nation’s meat cases and eateries.
I have no reason to demur when Mark quotes one of his European interviews saying grass-fed beef “is like wine. There are hundreds of flavors. You never know what the next one is going to bring, and that makes steak exciting. It makes me wonder what I’m going to have tonight.”
Fine. If you’re into adventure. Which some people are.
These books skim across an emerged trend among well-to-do eaters. A small industry has sprung up around “artisan” beef tastings. Not surprisingly, you’ll find several of them in that
Napa-Sonoma wine country. Carrie Oliver’s “Oliver Ranch” isn’t a ranch at all. Ms. Oliver has simply found a series of small beef marketers and can overnight some of their products as a sampler “taste package” so that you or I can throw a taste-testing party for a few of our hoity-toity friends.
Maybe throw in a few wines, some sea salts. A couple of cheeses with odd names and odors. I mean bouquets. You can find her at http://www.oliverranch.com/shopcontent.asp?type=tasterspack.
That is great. It sounds like fun. It helps give a few cattle producers an alternative market, albeit with a carbon footprint about the size of Delaware.
Still, I have to whine a bit when Ms. Fussell asserts that “What the (beef) industry attributes to consumer wants is what the industry wants to produce: cheap beef.”
Listen, guys. That oaky and fruity appellation stuff is nice, but we have a living to make out here. And a lot of people to feed. You may be able to enjoy the best Fed Ex offers, but most people can’t. Even if we could all agree on what constitutes “best.”
Taste test after taste test tells us that well-marbled fed beef has universal appeal. It is also affordable. Most beef will continue to aim at the most common—not the least--common denominator. At least as long as it is—unlike those nice wines—a dietary mainstay and the biggest sector in American agriculture.
Not to argue there’s anything wrong with approaching beef as an aventure culinaire. There is that sliver of the population that constitutes a market for some niche producers. It will never be a big market, but neither is the high-end wine business and the latter, at least, is lucrative.
So if you are among that minority of beef consumers willing to pay whatever it takes—in money and shopping time--to find gourmet beef and wine, get busy hunting it. There are dozens of niche marketers out there, just as there are dozens of wine makers. Sample them all. Find what you like and open your wallet.
But I think, and most of the people I know think, beef is pretty darned good. Yes, we get one every now and then that isn’t as great as the others.
That said, both of these books are worth the read, just for the beef business background. Ms. Fussell even wanders off into beef industry politics without apparently understanding much of it. (She, not shockingly, seems to side with those who deplore technology and generic beef production. She stops just short of predicting a mad cow epidemic and universal food poisoning. But that’s all to be expected. You can’t sell books without being politically correct.)
Anyhow, as you work through these, leaven their message with a visit over at the Sustainable Beef Resource Center at www.sustainablebeef.org. There, you’ll find the facts and stats to show just how important all this corn and new technology is in helping provide affordable food to a growing population.
There’s a place for fine wines, awful smelling cheeses and specialty beef. But it will never be a big market. If you’re inclined to aim for it as a producer, aim carefully.
It’s a small target.