Author pens passionate defense of eating beef
By TED ANTHONY
You may think you don't need to read a whole volume about one man's quest for succulent pieces of a cow. Maybe you think that yet another book about yet another guy's deep obsession with yet another small corner of human existence is simply too much.
You'd be wrong. "Steak" is well worth reading, and not just for those of us whose mouth is set to watering by a cover that depicts four pieces of perfectly broiled steak skewered on a fork.
What Schatzker has done here, in this trip around the planet by a peripatetic carnivore chasing a meaty McGuffin, is nothing less than offer an impassioned, cogent, even humble defense of why the steak -- and, by extension, meat in general -- is worth eating.
Railing against "commodity steak" and wringing his hands about grain-fed vs. grass-fed cattle, Schatzker moves flawlessly and fluidly between his personal gastronomic quest and the more sprawling canvas of global steakness.
One minute he's talking about ancient cave paintings (of cows), the next nutritional information (humanity's obsession with fat), and then he's on to social mores (some societies' women won't have sex with men who don't bring home meat). He views the world with a kind of a meat determinism, at one point referring to the Mesozoic asteroid that did in the dinosaurs as the event that "put the world on course for steak."
We get to join him as he attends a steak tasting that resembles a wine tasting, with gradings for texture ("fibrousness" and "connective tissue"), flavor ("caramel" or "nut") and aftertaste ("wet earth" and, heaven help us, "furniture").
And we walk alongside him when he offers this kind of hard-broiled prose during his trip to Italy -- something that might have been set to paper in the 1930s had Raymond Chandler ever written a cookbook: "The center was red and barely above room temperature, the exterior was nearly black, and infinite points lay in between."
But Schatzker is sneaky. Gonzo his writing may be, but there's a wealth of reporting here, a lot to learn. And as you read "Steak," a strange thing happens: Through all his vivid descriptions of bull semen, cattle tension and the stench of manure, your outlook on steak begins to mature.
If you're a member of any generation born since the mid-1960s, your primary interface with steak has involved foam trays, plastic wrap and supermarket meat cases. Most of us are at least a generation removed from the slaughterhouse or even the neighborhood butcher.
But through his passion and intellectual curiosity and sheer power of description, Schatzker builds a narrative that reveals a deep relationship between him and the animal whose flanks and haunches and loins he is so fond of consuming.
So when he tells us that his rib-eye steak was descended from a particularly famous cow who belonged to a venerable breed -- one from, say, the 19th century -- it forces the contemplation that what we're eating was a living, breathing creature.
In fact, that's where Schatzker's gustatory quest through the beeves of the American heartland, Scotland, Japan, Italy and Argentina eventually leads him -- to a cow named Fleurance, whom he purchases, pampers, regales with apples and "finishes" with the intention of making her into a really succulent steak.
It is quite poignant to watch the obvious care that Schatzker offers to his meal-to-be. He immerses himself in his DIY project, and his attention to Fleurance reveals another, more hidden truth: For most of us, eating the cow you've raised -- such a common pursuit for so long in human history -- is today alien and almost uncomfortably intimate.
Ultimately, though, Schatzker's entire journey is intimate -- in an ecological way.
When he eats steak in "hay sauce" in Europe, he describes the taste as "sweet and resonantly beefy, the distilled essence of the cow and the fields it lived in." And in fact, his holy grail is, as he puts it, "the idea that you can taste geography." For him, steak is a way to encounter the world, an entry point to history, culture, even biology and agronomy.
"Steak" is an adept mix of passion, obsession and what Kipling called "satiable curiosity." It is thought-provoking for everyone from the steak obsessive to the vegetarian, and it is as likely to reinforce carnivorous tendencies as it is to overturn them completely. Schatzker may be a culinary carnivore, but when it comes to accumulating knowledge, he's pure omnivore.
To accomplish so much in the context of steak alone is -- begging your forgiveness here -- truly rare.
At a glance
"Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef" (Viking, 304 pages, $25.95), by Mark Schatzker
When you're writing an entire book about steak, the opportunities for opening lines are legion. But it's not likely many of us would have thought of these particular three, offered by Mark Schatzker in the opening pages of his beef-soaked odyssey, "Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef":
--"No one ever celebrated a big sale by saying, 'How about chicken?'"
--"Competitive meat judging can start as early as seventh grade."
--"A marbled steak goads the mouth into joining in the festival of juiciness."