The story of the cow from four-legged co-worker to shrink-wrapped cutlet.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Jan. 2 2009 7:10 AM

Well Done, Rare, or Cryovacked

The story of the cow from four-legged co-worker to shrink-wrapped cutlet.

Steak.
Steak

In War and Peace, Tolstoy's Prince Andrei describes a woman who swoons at the sight of a calf being slaughtered: "She's so kind, she can't bear the sight of blood, but she eats the same calf in sauce with great appetite." This anecdote is really a metaphor for war, but it works just as neatly for, well, meat. Most of us carnivores are that lady, keeping the steer in the pasture mentally separated from the beef on our forks without too much consideration for how one becomes the other. In the past, this mental distance between the dinner table and the farm yard wasn't so easy to maintain; 19th-century Manhattanites, for example, might well have been confronted with the noises, smells, and sights of the unlicensed butcher in the tenement next to theirs slaughtering cows in his cellar. Over time, however, we've grown more and more alienated from how our meat gets to the table. In the grocery store, we choose from vast swaths of shrink-wrapped cutlets that seem to come from nowhere. How did this happen? Three recent beef-centric books help piece the story together.

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Betty Fussell's American Steak takes a picaresque approach to the American beef industry, examining through character sketches the story of American beef both light (how to cook carne asada) and dark (what happens inside a beef processing facility). In Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World, Andrew Rimas and Evan DJ Fraser take a longer-term look at bovines—examining the history of cattle, their co-evolution with humans, and their deep significance in mythology and culture. And in the academic collection Meat, Modernity, and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse, edited by historian Paula Young Lee, several scholars examine the modern invention of the slaughterhouse as a dark countermelody to the history of urbanism.

As Rimas and Fraser point out, before the modern era, bovines were symbols of power, wealth, and fertility, and occasionally, as in Zeus' come-on to Europa, the embodiment of deities themselves. Cattle were valued for their farm labor, milk, and fertile dung perhaps more than as a source of meat. Ordinary farming families would probably kill a cow for food only once the animal was too old for labor.

The industrial and agricultural revolutions changed the cow's existence from four-legged co-worker to so much beef "on the hoof." Innovations like improved plows and, eventually, tractors made animal muscle less necessary for farm work. Meanwhile, the growth of huge cities vastly increased the demand for meat. With this appetite in mind, pioneering British agriculturalist Robert Bakewell developed new feeding and breeding methods at the end of the 18th century to raise tanklike "Dishley longhorns." These bovine behemoths, Rimas and Fraser explain, were not really suitable for milk production or field labor but amazing for sheer beef poundage. While Bakewell's ideas did not take hold immediately, his writings were highly influential for 19th-century British beef farmers as they ramped up production to feed a hungry empire (whose very symbol was the beef roast).

As our beef cattle grew bulkier, our approach to slaughtering these cattle became less intimate. Before the modern era, cattle were generally killed by the very butcher who would sell you your meat. Centralized slaughterhouses emerged first in post-revolutionary France. In 1807, Napoleon himself ordered four central slaughterhouses built to get the messy business out of Paris' streets. Not only was the act of slaughter consolidated in (or at the outskirts of) large cities, but it was also concealed in plain sight, with purposely forgettable architecture. It became easier and easier to avoid reflecting on how many animals need to be killed in order to feed a metropolis.

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