I asked Stan Glenn, boss man at Iowa, if they carried any grass-fed or “natural” beef. “We don’t carry any grass-fed beef. If you go on our website section on beef, it talks about the four elements needed for great beef…And grass-fed beef is missing one of those elements, proper feed. Proper feed means feed with a high sugar content. Grass fed beef can be good, but when you’re dealing with the volume we deal with, the consistency is not going to be there. At Homegrown Beef, they have 200 head of cattle. When I order our prime rib for Christmas, it will take 300 head of cattle just to supply our Prime grade rib roast and another 200 head of cattle for our Choice. That’s just for Christmas! So to get that quantity of grass-fed beef, let alone quality, would be for us technically impossible.”
They do carry some natural beef, such as Meyer. Their meat arrives broken down but not yet aged. They wet-age it on-site and dry-age the New York steaks and occasionally the prime ribs. “Generally what we do is vacuum-age for, say, 21–30 days and dry-age for an additional 14 days. We vary on that. If we happen to be running out, we’ll cut the vacuum-aging and extend the dry-aging. The average is about six weeks.” Customers can special order for extra aging. But the extra work in aging ribs isn’t welcome — unlike New York steaks (aged on the bone, but with the bone removed before sale), the bones of a rib-roast are integral to the cut, and they require cleaning off every 2 days to remove bacterial growth.
A few years ago, I did a “cheap steak” survey. The overall flavor winner was Turf Supper Club’s rib-eye — a Choice cut bought from Iowa Meat Farms — beating out the Cohns’ own Strip Club, which offered beef from a commercial jobber.
Chef Victor Jimenez of Cowboy Star, a downtown restaurant with a small attached butcher shop, takes the diplomatic middle way when it comes to corn-fed versus grass-fed beef. His shop carries both, along with American Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms in Idaho. He and butcher Bill Bonis buy most of the beef in primal cuts that have already been aged — most of it wet-aged, but some cuts dry-aged. (There’s no space on the premises for an aging room.)
“I guess there’s a new romance going on for the old, traditional butcher shops,” says chef Victor. “The response from the public has been really positive. It’s been fun being able to carry meats in the traditional way and to talk to people face to face. We’re not here to educate the public, but we like to make people aware of the difference between our meat and supermarket meat. I think some of the supermarket meats even use old dairy cows — the USDA will even grade dairy-cow meat so long as the cow has never had a calf. Meat from dairy cows doesn’t have the same taste or texture as a steer.”
I asked him to discuss the differences between corn-fed and grass-fed beef, from a chef’s viewpoint. “The grass-fed beef is leaner and it cooks faster, so the cooking time has to be adjusted or it will dry out,” he said. “I grew up eating corn-fed beef in America, and I didn’t have a chance to try grass-fed until a few years ago when I was traveling through South America and I got to Argentina. At first I thought they were overcooking the beef because I was getting a different flavor. [“They were overcooking it,” I interjected. “All through Argentina, I kept asking for it cooked azul until I was blue in the face, and the best I could get was medium.”] It has a stronger, more pronounced flavor, and it’s a little bit dryer. As an American, I love the feeling you get when you eat a good, aged Prime steak, the coating on your mouth of the fat. But I learned to appreciate both flavors of beef.”
PRICES AND PORTIONS
Corn-feeding cattle is already an unsustainable mode of agriculture, given its ecological destructiveness. As the price of corn rises (now that some of it’s going into fake ecological fuel), and the price of oil-based fertilizer rises — and if we get serious about global warming before melting icebergs swamp the San Diego harbor — it seems likely that our current methods of raising cattle are on the way out. Short of feeding cows Soylent Green, we may eventually see a return to raising cattle more naturally than we do now. I’d guess that in 50 years, the cost of meat will be a great deal higher, and the mode of raising it will have changed. Steak will be a treat, not a routine, but it will be very good, nutritious steak.
The price of the better meats at these butcher shops is, of course, quite a lot higher than ungraded supermarket meat. But the answer to that lies in adjusting down the portion. “Images eat reality, and we feed our hunger for power and glory more than our need for nutrients when we eat steak,” writes Betty Fussell.
The plate-sized steaks you get at steakhouses are more for “flaunt it while ya got it” show than for eating — a power display sized more properly for pure carnivores like the big cats and the macho men doing strenuous daily manual labor (who, of course, can’t usually afford to eat at top steakhouses). But humans became the dominant life-form on the planet precisely because we are omnivores, willing and able to eat a vast variety of foods. (We didn’t start out as mere hunters, but as hunter-gatherers.) For the typical desk-jockey, we are only lions to ourselves when we think we need a pound of animal protein per day — currently, the average American intake.
The proper portion of meat, as we’ve all been reminded too often by the nutritional nags, is about four ounces a day. This means that even if you’re paying $24 per pound for a superb steak, that pound of steak should furnish four meals at $6 per person per meal, if you eat like an intelligent omnivore.