Most of what I gathered goes into the book, but I want to post here some of the memorable outtakes and photos from these trips. So first up, we have South Dakota.
In the early spring I met up with legendary cattleman Jim Woster. He may be my friend Sara's father, but he's known across the state as an advocate for beef and ranching, and I couldn't have found anyone more qualified to lead me on a tour of South Dakota beef. Jim grew up on a ranch in Reliance, South Dakota and worked in the Sioux Falls Stockyards most of his adult life--first as a cattle buyer himself and then as a reporter. He hosted a TV variety show for many years, is a popular public speaker, plays guitar, yodels a bit, can sing a mean Auctioneer's Song, and can always be counted on to talk about beef and agriculture with humor or wisdom, and usually both at once.
We began with a cattle show at South Dakota State University, walked through their Animal Science program, and ended the day with a big, fat ribeye at my new favorite steakhouse, Minervas. Along the way he gave me some insights into the beef industry that made my initial question--so what makes a great steak, Jim?-- a lot more complicated, not less.
First, though, my husband, son and I drove from Two Inlets to Brookings. A deep ocean of blue rode above us the whole way down.
We met up with Jim at South Dakota State University just in time to catch the annual Little International, a agricultural expo for students known vernacularly as "Little I." The floor of the massive shed was laid with green-dyed bedding chips, and both the students and their cattle were buffed and shined for competition.
The black angus cattle looked like they were fresh from a salon-style blow-out, their coats shimmering like black velvet. The boys wore their best boots and the girls their best jeans, back pockets flashing with glittery bling.
It was like the Westminster Dog Show for cattle. The handlers walked their charges around the ring and then lined them up, poking at their shins with long switches to make them stand straight and at attention. Clearly, cow control was rewarded, although Jim pointed out that the judges were looking at the proportions of the cattle, scanning them for good genetics. With that, it was out to see where the real cows lived.
"So Jim," I said, turning on my recorder. "What is it that makes a good steak?"
His answer was quick. "Genetics. Genetics is what makes good beef." Not grass-fed nor corn-fed? Feedlot or free range? "It's mostly genetics."
Keep in mind that we were touring the Animal Science department at SDSU, a program devoted to training kids to succeed in the mainstream cattle business. The program isn't necessarily interested in parsing the differences between American and Japanese Wagyu beef, or even grass-fed wet-aged and corn-fed dry-aged. Their focus is trained on producing quality--not premium, mind you--beef to feed the world, and doing it as cheaply and quickly as possible. Once I understood this, I decided to settle into learning all I could about the mainstream system--thinking, hoping, that it would teach me something I didn't already know.
And I learned a lot. These animal science graduates were raising animals in the safest, most efficient and most economical way possible. Considerations of taste weren't totally sidelined but they was secondary to tenderness, that's for sure. For example, they showed me a machine--it looks like a drill press--called a shear force machine that measures the pressure (in cubic pounds) required to cut through a piece of meat. What contributes to the tenderness? The quantity and quality of the ration, absolutely, but also the way the animal was processed and chilled. Because most of these animals are raised on grass and finished on grain in smaller lots, their lifestyle varies little and isn't much of a factor. In fact, because it seems that most of the animals in America are reared according to a fairly standard script, the animal's genetic makeup, or parentage, which does affects how it puts on both muscle and fat, concerns these kids the most.
Obviously, cattle finished on grain as opposed to grass reaches its butchering weight much more quickly. And because it's a younger, less mature animal it doesn't require a lot of aging to reach an acceptable tenderness. Even better, it's lean beef. "Which everyone wants," they said. I tried to introduce them to the idea that many people--by which I suppose I mean urban gourmets, or foodies such as myself--now prefer more marbling in their meat. That eating pork belly like a steak is popular. "Not here!" they laughed.
Then we walked out into the hallway, where the walls were lined with vintage animal science photographs. "Like that," I said, pointing to a particularly fat-bellied pig. "That's what people are getting back to."
"Sure, everybody likes a fatty cut," the department head rationalized, patting his slightly round belly. "But it's not something you can eat every day!"
I realized that these smart Animal Science kids will raise any kind of animal the public demands. If, someday soon, the public demands more flavorful, fattier beef, then those kids will be leaving their cattle longer on pasture, and breeding them for flavor, even if it takes longer for those animals to reach slaughter weight; and yes, they will be charging a premium for it.
I started to envision American meat production as cleaving into two veins: the cheap, lean, quick everyday beef, and the richer, pricier special-occasion beef. If breaking health news that makes sugar, not fat, the villain, and the collective gourmet appetite keeps growing as it has been, it seems to me inevitable that demand for cheap, everyday beef will shrink and the market for boutique beef will rise.
As we were leaving, I asked them all what was their favorite steak. One guy said T-bone (the strip steak plus the tenderloin), but everyone else copped to the ribeye, the lushest, most marbled cut on a steer.
No matter what practices they preach, that appetite for a nice, fat juicy beef is hardwired in a Midwesterner.
Case in point, for lunch Jim steered us to Nick's Hamburgers in downtown Brookings, where they sold the most succulent little griddle burgers, hand-shaped patties fried in a veritable flood of exuded fat until the edges turned crisp, brown and thorny. Tucked into tiny, freshly baked buns which drank up the fatty interior juices like a sponge, these burgers weren't anything like your new-style medium-rare char burger---but they were just as good. In fact, cooked until just blushing pink inside, their salted juices running down this side of greasy, they were sublime.
The tour continued. We went to Look's in Sioux Falls, Jim's favorite meat market, to ogle the steaks. Corn-fed, of course, the lines of fat in the Prime steaks were marled into a dense netting. Standing 2 inches tall and shining a bright garnet red, these steaks were more than proper. I bought one, to split, and even that set me back; but after looking at all these cows all day long I couldn't help myself. (Check out the cowboy ribeyes on the left! Oh my, there's nothing better than an oversized ribeye on the bone.)
Then Jim drove me out to see a feed lot. This place--these rolling hills, this pond, these leisurely, uncrowded animals--is a repulsive feedlot? I don't doubt that some feedlots are a lot worse--some things I've read summon up the filth and density of Medieval London--but it's hard to imagine it when you're standing in the clean wind and under the bluebell skies of South Dakota. In any case, that day I saw a feedlot that I would describe as pleasant, so such places do exist.
I let it rest for a long time before cutting into it, sipping my wine and turning it over and over again as we talked, visualizing the juice inside sloshing from this side to that. When we finally took a knife to it the interior was a bulging, shocking pink. It struck me as meat, and mineral . . . but also vegetable. Like it had a life force equal to a tomato straining against its skin.
Also, tell me again how this corn-fed Prime differs from American grain-fattened Wagyu? A cattleman would say Genetics. But I'm thinking, just going by taste, that the answer is, "by degrees."