In the changing agricultural landscape of the 21st century, Americans are rediscovering their connection to food and how it’s produced. In the process, they are also discovering a desire to hear the stories of the visionaries, farmers and ordinary people guiding how food is produced so that it better reflects our values and ideals. The stories are out there—books and films that chronicle the people and events vital to ensuring safe, humane, nutritious food reaches every table. Animal Welfare Approved is pleased to be launching a new section of its website dedicated to finding and reviewing the books and films that inform, educate and inspire. We're kicking off our reviews with a look at Nicolette Hahn Niman’s Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. Published last year, it’s already a classic in the field.
“What makes a good steak?” asks Mark Schatzker in his new book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef (Viking, 2010). Schatzker is a man who loves steak, unambiguously and with abandon, and he makes the perfect guide for an adventure filled with cowboys, cattle and rib eyes. His devotion to his favorite food and his interest in how steak comes to be steak—good and bad— kicks off an always fascinating, often hilarious, around-the-world search for the best steak ever.
More than just an excuse for the author to eat a variety of steaks of varying degrees of fabulousness, Steak is an exhaustive, highly entertaining study of the traditions and science of steak. In America, steak has a cultural reputation as weighty as Tiffany’s: both are symbols of prosperity and opulence. But like so many once-revered emblems of the good life, the quality of steak in the United States has steadily diminished, even if its reputation hasn’t.
Determined to get to the bottom of this increasing deterioration of his favorite food (“What makes the meat so bland?” Schatzker asks. “And what could account for those rare standout steaks?”) Schatzker travels the globe to talk genetics, grass and marbling. Along the way he buys and slaughters his own cow, visits the vast feedlots of the United States, eats the closest thing possible to an ancient aurochs (the wild precursor to domesticated cattle, now extinct), and samples steak from six different countries.
Tellingly, Schatzer’s research tells us that most of the farmers producing steaks that can make a man cry are raising their cattle in a way familiar to AWA supporters. They limit transportation to reduce stress on the animals. They keep the herds intact. They don’t confine their herds to feedlots. They believe in pasture rotation. They feed grass not grain. They believe breeding cattle for faster weight gain is negatively affecting quality and taste. They respect their land and their animals. They let cows be cows. Steak reinforces farming practices based on animal welfare and health of the land as the best way to raise cattle and produce great beef—something that comes as no surprise to AWA or its farmers.
Schatzker’s experiences with American feedlot steak are uniformly bland and uninspired. It’s not until he reaches Idaho’s Pahsimeroi Valley, and the family owned and operated Alderspring Ranch, that he reaches the meaty holy grail of his quest. There, from a cow raised on grass grown in the mineral rich soil of the American West, a cow who would never see a feedlot, Schatzker experienced beef nirvana—a steak with flavor that “reached deep into my subcortex and uncorked a sensation that bubbled up and drowned out every other thought, concern, and anxiety….”
Steak is a book for anyone who reveres great steak—that most quintessential of American foods—and for anyone who cares about our food system in general. Schatzker is a witty and engaging writer, but he never lets his storytelling instincts overshadow the basic truth of his mission: the American obsession with cheap steak has led to an overall deterioration in quality of life for cattle and quality of taste for steak eaters. Luckily, Schatzker’s travels show that while the feedlot system still has the upper hand in the United States, there are those who know that an authentic pasture-based, grassfed system for raising cattle will be the way to return steak to its original beefy glory. And they are gaining in number every year.