Well Done, Rare, or Cryovacked
The story of the cow from four-legged co-worker to shrink-wrapped cutlet.
Nowhere did the bovine business become more efficient than here in the United States. Thanks to the development of refrigerated railway cars at the turn of the 20th century, Chicago meat kings like Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift could process vast quantities of cattle in a single location and then ship processed meat, rather than live cows, across the country. To keep up with the volume of meat being butchered, they converted the packing house into a sort of factory disassembly line—a system still basically in effect today. (Though these days such factories are even more remote from major cities, in places like Amarillo, Texas, and Greeley, Colo.) The line was mechanized where possible, but since cows' bodies are stubbornly variable, Fussell writes, echoing historian Roger Horowitz, "workers themselves had to become machines"—each one performing a single or limited series of repetitive tasks to carcass after carcass.
We've also lost touch with our livestock at a retail level. As any viewer of the Brady Bunch surely remembers, the butcher used to be a stock character in American culture—kind of sweet and burly, and maybe not so bright, but his trade has been in serious decline since the 1960s. The butcher provided service as well as meat: selecting animal carcasses or at least big quadrants, then dry-aging, cutting, and trussing these and, most importantly, schmoozing with customers. As Rimas and Fraser put it, "they were a human link between people and the animals they ate, a shortening loop in a chain that's grown longer as we've distanced ourselves from our food." Now real butcher shops are a luxury—they've been replaced by grocery stores with grab-and-go meat. Beef is broken down into parts at the packing house and Cryovacked in plastic, which despite the euphemistic name "wet aging" doesn't help meat develop flavor.
As Fussell points out in one of her liveliest chapters, the butcher's craft has been reincarnated as meat science. She profiles Bucky Gwartney, a meat researcher whose job it is to mine the lesser-loved parts of the cow carcass for new, potentially marketable cuts of meat and thus increase the value of each animal. Through advanced computer modeling, Gwartney's Web site makes the beef corpse look like a systemic AutoCAD plan of a building. Not only have centralized slaughterhouses allowed us to be ignorant of how animals are killed for our food, but increasingly, retail packaging makes it possible to avoid touching uncooked meat. Companies like Hormel offer "refrigerated entrees"—bags of precooked meat that can be jazzed up by the weeknight cook with a dash of soy sauce or a dollop of tomato sauce. Cutting boards are not necessary.
The forces of culture, commerce, and, yes, consumer squeamishness have done much to make us forget that the little brown patty we eat at cookouts and fast-food restaurants was once a cow, who was probably not treated with a great deal of dignity. Recently of course, there are signs that these connections are being made. Best-selling writers like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have managed to get us to ponder the fate of feedlot-bound animals. Last year, a Humane Society video of feedlot workers dragging sick cows to slaughter forced the largest beef recall ever. And, most incredibly, Californians passed a proposition in November that will regulate how farmers raise their chickens and pigs and veal calves. If we want our meat supply to become safer and our relationship with animals to become less heartless, we need to keep examining—like Fussell, Rimas, Fraser, and Young—the long, strange path between lowing cattle and low, low prices on ground chuck.
Photograph of steak by Digital Vision.