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."
He walks into the other cooler and points out two and three-sided rib cuts, each about a foot long on the top shelf of a steel rack. They are gray, dry, and cracked on the surface. "It doesn't really look like something you want to eat. But when you cut it open, you see the red meat inside."
Tapping the dry surface of the meat, he says, "Dry-aging is expensive because we trim all of this off and discard it, so you lose weight there, and you lose weight through dehydration. These are three to four dollars a pound more than a regular rib eye. But, we have customers who are ready to burn the building down if we run out of these things. We can't do too much dry-aging; it gets a little tricky because of the time commitment involved. These have been exposed to the air, dry-aging, for 11 days, but they were killed almost two months ago."
What are the good cuts of beef and where do they come from on the cow?
"Again, meat is muscle and the muscles that work the most are the least tender. The muscles in the middle of the back are the most tender. The muscle that filet mignon comes from actually lies underneath the spine, and it works very little. Very tender. The two muscles that are on either side of the spine on the top of the rib are the New York and the rib eye. They also work very little and they are very tender. The front shoulder, where the sirloin comes from, works the most and it's the most tough. But the middle of the back, from the hip to the back of the shoulder are the tender parts."
But what about flavor?
Glenn smiles. "Flavor and tenderness are inversely related," he explains, moving his hands up and down in opposite directions. "The tougher the meat, the more flavor it has. The more tender it is, the less flavor it has. So if you chart the steaks, the most tender is the filet; it has the least amount of flavor. The least tender of the steaks is the top sirloin, and it's the most flavorful.
"But one of the biggest selling steaks we have is a prime top sirloin. Prime is the top grade. It constitutes anywhere from 2 to 4 percent, you'll hear. Of all the animals that are slaughtered [in the U.S.], only 2 to 4 percent will go prime. It's a very small number. We're only talking about 125,000 head of cattle a day. You can figure it out. But prime sirloin, cut thick, is the best thing you'll ever eat. I don't know why, but with sirloin, the thicker you cut it, the better it seems to cook. Cook them on a covered grill, like a Weber. Put them right on the fire, put the lid on with the vents open for 10 minutes, and then turn it for 15 minutes, and it will just about come out perfect every time. It's extremely flavorful. It's one of the best combinations of tenderness and flavor that you can buy."
Meat, Glenn says, makes up 80 percent of Iowa Meat Farms' business, the other 20 percent coming from produce, canned goods, cutlery, condiments, beer, and a fairly extensive wine selection. Of the meat sales, 80 percent is beef. Poultry, venison, buffalo, seasonal game birds, various sausages -- which he says are "killer" -- and pork make up the remaining 20 percent. But Glenn hasn't been happy with the quality of pork lately.
"The pork industry," he complains, "has arbitrarily said that the consumer wants a leaner animal. Bullshit. I want something that tastes good. So, these days, we find it to be too lean most of the time. It's a little trickier to cook now because it's easier to dry it out."
Asked how his shop, which he admits is high-end, can survive in the supermarket world, Glenn at first shrugs and says, "I don't know. I took this place over six years ago. Since then, our sales have gone up 60 percent. But in that same time, three other shops have closed up. One out in El Cajon, one in Escondido, and one in Hillcrest." Then he offers this explanation. "The supermarkets' philosophy of operation is completely opposite of what ours is. Our thrust is on one thing, that's movement. Their thrust is on selling. They are two different things. What has happened in the supermarkets is the grocery industry has taken over the meat industry. They use meat as hot-ad item to bring the people in so they can sell them toilet paper. So the meat departments have been used to pull people into the store. My focus is not on making a sale to you; it's making your next sale to you. I want what you buy to be so good that you come back. I want to know if you're going to be back next week, because I've got to have that movement. If I don't have you back, I'm dead."
As a test, I took a couple of New York steaks from Iowa Meat Farms ($10.99/lb) to a friend's house to grill alongside some New Yorks from Vons ($6.99 with Vons card). Before cooking, the slightly thicker Iowa steak had a deeper color than the Vons version and a softer, more pliable feel. Also, the Iowa steaks grilled -- seven minutes per side -- to a more uniform brown on the outside than the Vons steaks. The real revelation was in the cutting and chewing. The knife slid through the inch and a quarter of beef in a couple of soft strokes, while the one-inch Vons cut required more effort. Each chew of the soft Iowa Meat Farms steak released a flood of flavorful juice into the mouth. The Vons steak was dry by comparison. With a pound of good Midwestern beef in my belly, I pushed back from the table feeling satisfied, feeling healthy, feeling American.