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

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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.

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.

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