Where's The Beef? One Man's Search For 'Steak'

Steak
Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef
By Mark Schatzker
Hardcover, 304 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

Each year, on his birthday, my mother asks my father where he wants to eat. "The Chan," my father usually replies, the smile already spreading across his face. He's referring to House of Chan, a red-lantern Chinese restaurant turned high-end steakhouse in Toronto, famous for thick cuts of tender beef, broiled, buttered and brought to the table already sliced. "Certain occasions call for steak," writes Mark Schatzker in Steak: One Man's Quest for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef, released earlier this summer. "No one ever celebrated a big sale by saying, 'How about chicken?' "

Schatzker, a lifetime steak lover, is disappointed in the steaks he's eating. They simply don't taste as good as he remembers, and the author, a journalist who writes regularly for Conde Nast Traveler, makes a call on the cattlemen of the world to find out why. We are taken from feedlots in Texas, where the wind carries dust storms of dried feces, to French cave paintings of prehistoric cattle. We smell the dewy grasses of the Scottish highlands, chase rare breeds in Italy and enjoy charcoal-grilled rib tips on the Argentine pampas. In each spot, the author meets the men and women trying to raise the best steaks they can, as he consumes what can only be a gout-inducing quantity of beef, all in the name of research. Back home, he even attempts to raise his own cattle, hand-feeding it apples and taking it to the slaughterhouse himself, watching as one "dropped to the ground with the abruptness of a sack of flour pushed off the edge of the table."

Much has been written about red meat in books like Betty Fussell's Raising Steaks, Beef by Andrew Rimas and even parts of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. But Steak stands apart because of Schatzker's fun, accessible style and his willingness to slay the sacred cows of what supposedly makes great steak. He debunks the notion that more marbling equals better-tasting steak, taking down Japan's overhyped Kobe beef in the process, a meat so overly fatty that he "craved undressed salad" to revive his taste buds. Grass-fed beef, all the rage with environmental and health advocates, may be more environmentally sound, but as the author finds out, it sometimes tastes like "an old, atrophied, abscessed organ left in the trunk of a car sitting in a Miami parking lot for two weeks in July."

Mark Schatzker i i

hide captionCanadian-born Mark Schatzker is a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Fred Lum
Mark Schatzker

Canadian-born Mark Schatzker is a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Fred Lum

As millions of backyard chefs prepare for Labor Day barbecues, the focus will be as much on the experience of preparing that steak as the taste of the meat itself. Comprehensive as Schatzker's analysis is, it would have been nice to read more about the actual cooking of steak. This final step not only alters steak's flavor and texture but is the most fun part. A few pages of cooking advice tacked onto the appendix is but a tease.

I read Steak during my honeymoon to Spain, and on our second night in Madrid insisted we order a giant rib eye. It arrived tableside nearly raw, pre-sliced, accompanied by a hot iron plate atop a blue Sterno flame. I placed that first sliver of dark red meat on the scalding surface, and we watched it transform into a splattering, searing, smoking piece of theater. It was consumed without sauce, sides or even plates. Just steak. As it should be.

Excerpt: 'Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef'

Steak
Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef
By Mark Schatzker
Hardcover, 304 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95

The Problem With Steak

Of all the meats, only one merits its own class of structure. There is no such place as a lamb house or pork house, but even a small town may have a steak house. No one ever celebrated a big sale by saying, "How about chicken?" Bachelor parties do not feature two-inch slabs of haddock. Certain occasions call for steak — the bigger the better.

Steak is king. Steak is what other meat wishes it could be. When a person thinks of meat, the picture that forms in his mind is a steak. It can be cooked, crosshatched from the grill and lying in its own juice in a pose suggestive of unmatched succulence, or it can be raw, blood- colored and framed by white fat, the steak that sleeping bulldogs in vintage cartoons dream of.

Steak earns its esteem the old-fashioned way. People don't eat it because it's healthy, because it's cheap, or because it's exotic; it isn't considered any of these things. People love steak because of the way it makes them feel when they put it in their mouths. When crushed between an upper and a lower molar, steak delivers flavor, tenderness, and juiciness in a combination equaled by no other meat. The note struck is deep and resonant. Steak is powerful. Steak is reassuring. Steak is satisfying in a way that only the pleasures of the flesh can be.

The best steak my father ever ate was one of his first. The year was 1952, and the steak was served at an establishment in Huntsville, Ontario, called MacDonald's Restaurant. (Not to be confused with McDonald's, the world's largest fast-food chain.) At $3.95, it was a high-priced item, considering that my father would earn all of $35 that summer as assistant director at a boys' camp. An immigrant kid bent on med school, he found himself with money in his pocket for the first time in his life. On his first day off, he hitchhiked into town and bought himself a steak. It arrived sitting next to a pile of fried mushrooms, and it was huge: a sirloin, an inch thick and a foot wide, its edges drooping over the side of the plate. Nearly half a century after eating it, my father is still moved by memories of the experience. He calls it "the fulfillment f my gustatory dreams."

The best steak my cousin Michel Gelobter ever ate was in the Sierra Nevada during the summer of 1980. He was working at a pack station high up in the mountains, living in a small shack with two other guides. Farther down the slopes, horses and cattle were grazing the summer pastures. He saw the cow alive before it became his meal. It was an unusually tall black-and-white castrated male — a steer — standing in a corral, where it was getting fat on hay, sweet sagebrush, and grass. A few weeks later, his boss delivered meat up to the cabin, and the men started with the tenderloin, which is known in fancy talk as the filet mignon. They put it in a pan with salt and pepper, then placed the pan inside a propane stove set to broil. Michel doesn't remember cutting the steak or chewing it, but he does remember the flavor. "It tasted buttery," he says. "It was just slightly tougher than pâté and unbelievably juicy." The steak brought all three men to the same level of extreme astonishment. "I don't think any of us had ever had anything like it," Michel recalls. "It felt like a freak of nature. It was the best steak we'd ever had." When the steak was finished, Michel went over to inspect the remaining raw beef. It was a dark brownish red, with lots of streaks of white in it. Since then, my cousin has been searching. He has eaten "a fair amount of steak," some of it very good, but none of it equal to the Sierra Nevada steak of 1980.

The best steak I ever ate gave way between my teeth like wet tissue paper under a heavy knife. There was a pop of bloody, beefy steak juice and I had to close my lips to keep any of it from escaping. The problem is, this steak lives only in my imagination. I haven't actually tasted it — not yet, anyway. It's a false memory, of the culinary variety.

There have been, certainly, remarkable steaks in my past, most notably one at a Peruvian chain restaurant in a suburban mall in Santiago, Chile. It was served on its own plate, separate from the French fries, allowing the juice to pool in a manner that seemed premeditated. It was not the most tender steak I have ever eaten, but its deliciousness floored me. When I was done eating it, I raised the plate to my mouth, tipped it up, and gulped the juice in one long, excellent sip. I was ready to order another one, but I had a plane to catch.

Steak came to me the same way consciousness did. One day I woke up, and it was there. My father started grilling it when I was around nine, as I recall, which is to say that's when he started sharing steak with his youngest son, because he had been buying it and cooking it regularly ever since the trip to MacDonald's Restaurant. By the age of eleven, I knew the difference between a New York Strip and a T-bone (the bone). When my parents visited their three boys at summer camp, they would bring cold steak, black cherries, and icy cans of Coca-Cola.

Excerpted from Steak: One Man's Search For The World's Tastiest Piece Of Beef. Copyright Mark Schatzker, 2010. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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