Complicated. And not just steak itself, but all of the factors associated with it.
Amid many meat-related events, including a meat processor convention, a beef safety workshop, and a culinary conference, I was able to squeeze in just enough of Mark Schatzker’s STEAK to want to carve a notch out of the weekend to finish it. I did, and it was a thought provoking read on many different levels.
It was enjoyable to read a writer’s take on the variability of the World’s steak, entertained by both a “literary” explanation of those things that I do day-in and day-out, and by the assertion that making great steak is a complicated undertaking, impacted by many factors – which it is! Moving beyond the nuances indicative of the writer’s past livestock and meat experiences, such as the spelling of Ralgro® with a “w” or by the spelling of Shorthorn with a lower-case “s” (which gives me all the more reason to appreciate this man’s effort) I applaud the author for writing about his BeefQuest adventures and his accurate illustration of steak’s extreme complexity. To read that marbling isn’t everything (I, too, don’t subscribe to the “ USDA Prime is best” maxim – I’m not a big fan), that eating quality of grass-fed beef is extremely variable, and that policy (and an underlying abandonment of the agricultural social contract, perhaps?) seems to have just as much to do with the quality of the beef we consume as do the farmers who produce it, was refreshing. Emerging zealotry affiliated with the certain flavors of beef raising was discussed, and in my view, appropriately dismissed as being overly simple. I also greatly enjoyed reading a popular-press book that mentioned meat science, a profession for which its community’s dogma and inquisitiveness it seems, as per STEAK, may vary as much as the eating quality of grass-fed beef.
Many passages of the book kindled “that’s what she said” moments, she being Carrie Oliver, a person on a similar mission to Mr. Schatzker – exploring and understanding steak to hopefully create a new vocabulary for it. Since 2005, Ms. Oliver has been exploring beef in atypical ways, in the most simplistic sense teaching that beef can have terroir. This intrigues me. Yet, there are differences among Ms. Oliver’s and Mr. Schatzker’s approach to steak exploration. Ms. Oliver advocates the celebration of steak diversity, never heralding the clear winner, and recognizes the extremely critical role that a talented butcher plays in getting the perfect steak from farm gate to your plate, whereas Mr. Schatzker seems (this is my perception after reading STEAK) to be searching for the elusive Grail of Steakdom and concentrated heavily on farms, ranches and feedlots and much less on the “beef” end of the overall “cattle industry.” Conicidentally, both currently reside in Toronto. Of course, this is my take – one person.
STEAK “follows one man’s search for the tastiest piece of beef” – which is according to his palate – and provides an introduction to the very complicated matrix that winds up as steak. I think it’s pretty darn cool that people are thinking more about beef as if it can be an “Artisan” –type product, because it can be (this in no way means that high-throughput beef production does not have it’s place – it certainly does in the “big picture”) and perhaps this book will ignite a gastronomic exploration of your own. It seems like the perfect pre-reading to #MeatCamp, a Twitter chat where likeminded meatitarians gather, as well as an educational experience of the same name that can be had by attending a steak tasting with Carrie Oliver.