Meat and You: Partners in Freedom

Feature: Reflections on National Meat Month

January 17, 2015

In the summer of 1977, I asked my mother the question on everyone’s mind: "Why did Elvis die?"

"He had a heart attack," she replied. Being a four-year-old, I asked another question: "Why did he have a heart attack?"

My mother did not want to get into narcotics abuse, so she simply said, "He ate too much meat."

I pictured the King taking a bite out of a big, juicy cheeseburger. It saddened me to think this had done him in.

Though drugs did play a large part in Presley’s death, the singer’s daily intake of four pounds of bacon didn’t help. Meat, not entirely unfairly, gets a bad rap because of the amount we consume, not to mention the treatment of animals, the impact on the environment, and the quality of the meat itself.

(The latter calls to mind a scene from The Great Outdoors. Roman, played by Dan Aykroyd, is grilling lobster. He pokes fun at his brother-in-law, Chet, played by John Candy: "How about the gourmet here, you know what he wanted? Hot dogs! You know what they make those things out of, Chet? You know? Lips and assholes!")

In 2012, National Public Radio cited analysis from the Journal of Animal Science showing what it takes to produce one quarter-pound of hamburger meat: 6.7 pounds of grains and forage, 52.8 gallons of drinking water and irrigation for feed crops, 74.5 square feet for grazing and feed crops, and 1,036 BTUs for feed production and transport. Last year’s cattle herd numbered 87.7 million. Does this mean we are currently on our way to Interstellar? Is it time to look for a new planet?

Oh, forget it: January is National Meat Month. Let us pause to reflect on our enduring love for red meat.

It’s worth noting the U.S. cattle population is actually in decline—it’s currently at its lowest level since 1951. Beef, which surpassed pork as America’s favorite meat in 1909, is now in second place behind chicken. And according to Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, the amount of water needed for beef is only slightly more than the amount needed for rice.

Two percent of greenhouse gases supposedly come from cattle (in the form of methane emissions, if you will). But as Niman recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, "Australian research shows that certain nutritional supplements can cut methane from cattle by half. Things as intuitive as good pasture management and as obscure as robust dung beetle populations have all been shown to reduce methane." More important, "Research by the Soil Association in the U.K. shows that if cattle are raised primarily on grass and if good farming practices are followed, enough carbon could be sequestered to offset the methane emissions of all U.K. beef cattle and half its dairy herd."

So by eating grass-fed beef, you’re helping the environment!

As for concerns over the treatment of cattle, if you’ve read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation—or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, for that matter—it’s not pretty. Or perhaps The Simpsons episode "Lisa the Vegetarian" comes to mind, with its Meat Council documentary, Meat and You: Partners in Freedom, hosted by Troy McClure. ("It all starts here in the high-density feedlot. Then, when the cattle are just right, it’s time for them to graduate from Bovine University!")

But gains are being made. Food writer Michael Ruhlman interviewed farmer Keith Martin, whom Ruhlman described as so caring that "when a farm hand failed to keep the animals’ bedding dry, he made the farm hand lie in the urine-soaked hay in order to make his point." Ruhlman recalls Martin telling him, "I spend a lot of time with these animals. I watch them get into that truck. I see their eyes. I know they’re good with it. They know, and they’re good with this arrangement."

The arrangement, Ruhlman said, is that "Martin takes good care of them, and their children, and they go willingly into the truck, stress-free, to the slaughterhouse. This he believes."

With regard to the role of meat in our diet, Ruhlman, a New York Times bestselling author, explained in a blog item titled "Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat":

As the Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, the cooking of food may well have been the mechanism that tripped our ancient genes into our current human ones. He suggests convincingly that consuming calorie-dense food (attainable only by cooking it) grew our brains, gave our ancestors the health needed to spread their genes, and socialized us (cooking food required cooperation, which led to small societies that could organize and protect themselves). Meat was a main source of this calorie-dense food.

To put it as simply as possible, then, to give up eating what made us who we are possibly endangers us genetically and socially.

Second, eating meat is a pleasure, and in a stressful uncertain world, pleasure is good, for mind and body.

Third, our eating animals is good for the animals. They exist because we care for them, and we care for and raise their offspring. If spit-roasted dodo bird had been delicious to eat, I’d wager the dodo bird would still exist.

So now that we know it’s our duty to eat red meat, how should we enjoy it? In the 1939 New Yorker essay "All You Can Hold for Five Bucks," Joseph Mitchell chronicles in mouthwatering detail beefsteak dinners held throughout New York City.

"One chef was slicing the big steaks with a knife that resembled a cavalry sabre, and the other was dipping the slices into a pan of rich, hot sauce. ‘That’s the best beefsteak sauce in the world,’ Wertheimer said. ‘It’s melted butter, juice and drippings from the steak, and a little Worcestershire.’"

Another chef told Mitchell, "Then comes the resistance—cuts of seasoned loin of beef on hot toast with butter gravy. Sure, I use toast. None of this day-old bread stuff for me. I know what I’m doing. Then we lay out some baked Idahoes. I let them have paper forks for the crabmeat and the Idahoes; everything else should be attended to with fingers. A man who don’t like to eat with his fingers hasn’t got any business at a beefsteak. Then we lay out the broiled duplex lamb chops. All during the beefsteak we are laying out pitchers of refreshment. By that I mean beer."

Keep in mind those steaks were vastly different from our current cuts since they came from purer breeds. Today’s crossbred cattle are said to be meatier but less flavorful. One can only imagine the cuts savored at these beefsteaks from purebred Charolais, for example, or British Hereford.

The only issue, with regard to our enjoyment, might be the use of steak sauce. In an article for the Washington Post, I addressed the matter since more and more places seem to be offering condiments these days. Shouldn’t the superior quality of today’s beef not warrant a sauce?

"Probably with the advent of chef-driven steakhouses, I think this is why [the proliferation of sauces] happened," celebrity chef Tom Colicchio told me. "I think part of it is, I do a steakhouse, Emeril does a steakhouse, Charlie Palmer does a steakhouse," he says. "I think people are looking for just a little more than a perfectly cooked piece of meat on a plate."

Leaner cuts might benefit from a sauce, as long as it’s not ketchup. "I don’t even know how to spell the word ‘ketchup,’ let alone want to put it on a steak," joked Wolfgang Puck. "Catastrophe!" was French chef Michel Richard’s reaction. "It is too sweet—I don't put sugar on my steak. The only exception is Teriyaki sauce, but only a little bit!"

Michael Ruhlman’s ideal steak? In an email, he said, "I get asked all the time what my last meal would be and I always answer the truth. Since we never know when the inevitable catastrophe of death will strike, it's important to have your last meal as often as possible. Mine: Steak frites with a big California zinfandel. On the meat, I want some shallots and butter. I don't want any fucking yuzu kosho mustard sauce. I want to taste the meat, hot-seared on the outside, bloody and raw on the inside, a little sweetness from the shallot and extra succulence from the butter, but nothing that distracts from the chewy juicy muscle of beef."

As for the best cut, Andrew Rimas and Evan D.G. Fraser, the coauthors of Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World, look to the short loin: "Rich and flabby, this is the pampered king of all cuts, from which porterhouse and filet mignon descend. The meat is buttery and dense with juice, but not with filament. When cooked rare or medium, it splits at the whisper of a knife. Ordering it well done is gross vandalism."

That said, the coauthors, like many other chefs and butchers I’ve come across, make the case for the ribeye, "arguably more flavorful than the porterhouse due to its thick marbling of fat. It’s almost as tender as the pricier loin, and most chefs prefer it for its stronger taste. For roasts, the standing rib cut is the pinnacle. Without needing so much as a scent of garlic and herbs, prime rib surpasses even lobster or caviar as an animal luxury."

So go ahead and order the Old ‘96er.

And Happy National Meat Month.