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Author travels far and wide for the perfect steak

Patrick Beach
Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Beef Mark Schatzker Viking, $25.95

Now more than ever, meat is complicated and controversial. And at the top of the meat heap is the celebrated steak, the subject of journalist Mark Schatzker's tasty and entertaining "Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef." Why steak? As he puts it in the first paragraph, "No one ever celebrated a big sale by saying, 'How about chicken?'"

The book's arrival is timely. With Memorial Day just behind us and Father's Day looming, these are the days of grilling. But let's be honest: What carnivore hasn't come home from the store with a package of steaks aquiver with marble and promise and cooked them on a grill or a cast-iron skillet only to be disappointed? Where did the beef flavor go in the beef? As Schatzker, a writer always on the lookout for a funny line, puts it, steak has "become the culinary equivalent of the weather in England: occasionally beautiful, but on the whole depressing."

In his quest, he travels many tens of thousands of miles. He eats Limousin in France, Angus and Highland in Scotland, Chianina and Podolica in Italy. He eats a sauce made of hay — hay! — in France. He attends to Beef Sensory Evaluations with white-coated meat scientists at Texas Tech University. At home in Canada, he buys his own heifer, a fetching lass named Fleurance, helps raise it, watches as it is slaughtered and butchered, and eats it. He watches as semen is collected from a bull. He visits a Texas feedlot cattleman who swears that, given a choice, cattle will eat grain over grass and another who calls grain "the atomic bomb of the American food system."

This grass-versus-grain furor is particularly troubling to me. I come from Iowa, the land of corn, and grew up believing we were feeding the world — when in fact we were giving the world, Americans in particular, diabetes and heart disease. Cattle weren't built to eat corn, which is why feedlot cattle are dosed with antibiotics. You can't argue with the economics, however: Corn-feed beef is ready for slaughter much more quickly, it's cheaper and more tender than grass-fed, by and large, and it's consistent — consistently absent of the flavor our parents or grandparents associated with steak. Because of what commodity beef is fed, it lacks what wine lovers call terroir, which for purposes of this discussion we can define as the taste of a place: "The flavor of steak today is not the flavor of beef. It is the flavor of mass-produced seasoning blends and sweet and sour sauces."

As our guy travels more miles and fills up reporter's notebooks with interviews, answering the question the book's subtitle raises becomes pretty complicated. He learns that dairy cattle, the Rodney Dangerfields of bovines, actually taste good but they have skinny butts, so the yields aren't there. He eats a feedlot steak in Argentina, the land of gauchos and grass. It's also a place that has surprisingly low levels of diet-related disease even though "By the end of February of any given year, a typical Argentine male has already eaten as much steak as a Japanese man will eat that entire year." In Japan he finds that steaks from breeds such as Wagyu, which enjoy beer and massages, satisfy fat hunger but not meat hunger. He moans over a Highland steak in Scotland: "To someone standing and listening just outside the door, the meal would have sounded rather like an orgy," he writes. He notes of the Angus breed that "only Scotch whisky has achieved a similar level of transcultural penetration." But then he discovers that U.S. Certified Angus beef cattle aren't so designated by genetics; it's more of a marketing thing. Those cattle simply must be at least 51 percent black and, according to the American Angus Association, "exhibit Angus influence." (I'm at least 51 percent white and exhibit no discernible Angus influence, so I guess that prized certification is out for me. Moo. I mean boo.)

"Steak is a far bigger subject than I ever realized," our stuffed and weary correspondent allows in the acknowledgements. You got that right, pal. And the act of eating meat of any kind has never been more political, the ethics of the act hotly debated. If you eat cheap commodity beef, you might be making your monthly grocery budget but paying for it with your and your family's health. Meat from corn-fed cattle has more bad fat and less good fat than meat from grazing cattle, Schatzker notes. But if we all switched to grass-fed tomorrow, where would all that pastureland come from? That dilemma is bound to produce a heavy and uncontented sigh in any carnivore.

Should we then cut out beef, or meat altogether, and lead morally superior, longer, healthier and utterly meaningless lives? Get real. Schatzker thinks not: "Despite the veggie-friendly urgings of lentil-eating university coeds and the grumblings of bearded vegans who lurk at the edges of cocktail parties, there is zero doubt that humans are designed to eat meat." I'm with him and Michael Pollan on this — humans were built to eat everything.

What else? You can get to know a local farmer. You can buy a cow, or a share of one, and watch how it's raised and slaughtered, as Schatzker did. You can, at the very least, develop a relationship with a butcher and "get to know each cut as intimately as your pillow." Far and away the most important step in cooking a great steak, as Schatzker says in a detailed recipe at the end, is starting with a great piece of meat. That slab of animal protein on your plate died for your dinner, and you owe it a little more thought than dashing into the local grocery for coffee, tampons and prime strips (when they're on sale).

So how to celebrate that big sale you made today? How about chicken? Oh, wait — chickens, by and large, have it even worse than most cattle.

Let's make it a salad, then. But be advised: If your dressing is store-bought, it almost certainly has corn in it.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603