The American symbol-turned-subculture, the cowboy, owes its existence to beef. Before they wore tight jeans and gaudy shirts and played concerts in Central Park, cowboys were men who herded cattle across the great open spaces of the Heartland to the slaughterhouses of the Midwest where cows became beef. And, after rock and roll, our greatest contribution to the world is the hamburger, a beef sandwich.
So though it may not be the star-spangled banner, beef is a symbol of America, a national institution that should be treated with the utmost respect. But don't go to the local supermarket for that steak. Instead, steer your car to Iowa Meat Farms in Allied Gardens to try beef from a butcher shop.
"What's the difference?" you ask. "Beef is beef..." Not so, says Stan Glenn, manager of Iowa Meat Farms. "We're offering something that supermarkets don't sell, which is choice and prime beef. Ninety-nine percent of the supermarkets don't have it. They are selling select, and we are selling aged choice and prime beef."
Prime, choice, and select, in descending order, are United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades of beef. The grade is applied to the cow or steer at the time of slaughter. "With us," Glenn quips, "there are only three grades: prime, choice, and road kill."
Stan Glenn, 55, stands a stocky 6´. A trim gray beard frames his round face. His small, green-gray eyes add punctuation to his soft speech.
"I was born in the business," he tells me. "My dad owned a meat store in Chula Vista. I started in 1959 when I was 15 years old. They stuck me back in the cooler with all the hanging beef and handed me a saw and told me where to cut. I was bigger than anybody else in the shop. My dad was about 5´6´´. So I got the hard physical work. I graduated from the University of San Diego with a degree in accounting, and I don't know why, but I'm still here."
The beef Iowa Meat Farms sells is not all from Iowa, though it is all from the Midwest. Asked why, Glenn answers, "You've got to start at the beginning, that is to define what you're talking about. Meat is muscle. That's what it is. The more you use a muscle and the longer you use it, the tougher it gets. So, when you're looking for meat cattle, you want them to be young, well fed, and inactive. Young, lazy, and fat. Those three elements have to do with the animal. You're not going to get those elements from a steer that comes off the range, that comes from the San Joaquin Valley or the Sonora Desert or Southern Texas, where they've got to eat a little bit of grass here and then walk five miles to get a drink of water, five miles back, up and down the hills, to get some more grass. That animal out in the Sonora Desert, it's going to take him two years, three years, four years to get big enough to go into a feed lot. Now, you've got a four-year-old animal, and you're going to throw him into the feed lot for 90 days or 120 days or 180 days, and it's not going to undo the damage that's been done to that muscle tissue. You want that animal to be 12 to 18 months old when it goes into the feed lot. Those that are inactive and have proper feed are the ones that are going to grow faster and get to the size to go into the feed lot. You want them from small farms with a lot of feed and flat land. That's what you have in the Midwest."
Breed of cattle is another reason Glenn cites for using Midwest beef at his store. "I know they are going to be a good breed," he explains. "They're going to be Hereford or Black Angus."
Glenn purchases the beef from large meat-packing plants across the Midwest through a local distributor. You may have an image of sides of beef hanging from overhead tracks in a cooler, but that is an image from a bygone era. The beef now comes in cardboard boxes, pre-cut and vacuum-sealed. Standing in one of the store's two walk-in coolers amid shelves of beef, he explains, "After those three elements we talked about, there's a fourth element that goes into good beef, and that is aging after the animal is processed. That's one of the things we do that I don't think any of the other retailers do. I age that stuff. If I told people how long I aged it, they'd think I was crazy. But the proof is on the plate; the proof is in the flavor.
"Aging is decomposition. It's the beginning stages of decomposition. There's an enzyme in the muscle that is there, always. When the animal dies, it is triggered. This is an actual chemical reaction. That enzyme begins to break the muscle down. It's nature's way of recycling. Aging does two things for the meat, it develops tenderness, but there are also flavors that are developed in aging. It's very much like aging a bottle of red wine. The flavors get more complex."
Glenn picks up a filet -- about a foot long, four inches wide, and three inches thick. It's wrapped very tightly in clear plastic. He continues, "We do aging two ways, one is wet- aging, the other is Dry-aging. Wet-aging is done in a Cryovac bag like this. It's vacuum-sealed. There's no bacterial growth because there's no oxygen. Our target for wet-aging is 30 days after slaughter. We'll go under it sometimes, we'll go over it sometimes. But that's our target."
He leads me out of the cooler to the display counter full of deep red, almost purple beef, and points to some freshly cut steaks. "I cut these prime top sirloins today, the 14th, and they were killed the fourth of last month, so they are about five weeks old. We also do some of the old-fashioned dry-aging. When I do the dry-aged ribs, I do them in the bag for 30 days minimum, and then out of the bag a minimum two weeks beyond that. Dry-aging introduces one more element and that is dehydration. You have the enzyme action going on, you have some bacterial action that is developing some flavors, and you have a certain amount of dehydration, which concentrates the flavor. I'll show you what they look like."