American food historian Betty Fussell (The Story of Corn, My Kitchen Wars) has penned much well-received gustatory memoir, cookery compilation, and historical exploration over the past few decades. So taking a bite of her latest, Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, is confusingly unpleasant: nicely charred on the outside, unpalatably gristly on the inside.
The central metaphor of Steaks is the dichotomy, as Fussell puts it in the title of her introduction, between “The Cowboy and the Machine,” or our romance of the rugged individualist versus our addiction to industrial efficiency: “We try to keep these myths, separate but equal, running on parallel tracks that double the great disconnect between pasture and plate. But they belong together.” Much of her book, however, pauses lovingly over the cinematic aspects of roping cowboys and steaming trains without trying to bridge those parallel tracks.
A followup of sorts to The Story of Corn, Steaks is an attempt at combining two popular genres in the food-nonfiction world: the how-a-single-food-changed-the-world genre (Oranges, Cod, Salt, Milk, Vanilla, Banana, Tuna, and the like) and the let’s-investigate-the-food-industry genre (Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, What to Eat, Soil Not Oil, Stuffed and Starved, The End of Food, Organic, Inc., and so forth).
Fussell’s take on the first genre — a lofty sweep through the cultural history of the cow in America — is entertaining and sure-footed, with plenty of amusing hyperbole: “Steak is fast, mobile, improvised, casual, egalitarian, reliable, raw, bloody, and violent — and it tastes best outdoors.” An unabashedly macho carnivore, Fussell compares the “tenderly pink” interior of a perfectly seared steak to “a baby’s bottom,” not once but twice. She also compares our secular love of grilled meat to the ancients’ ritual of burnt offerings, although she doesn’t quite admit that the only gods these days are our own stomachs:
But it’s still an offering, and the scented smoke of its grilling is still meant to tempt whatever gods there be to a feast that echoes, however faintly, all that is heroic, primordial, carnal, and carnivorous in man’s eternal urge for blood.
When she tries to tackle the investigative genre, Fussell reveals her chops as better suited to mastication than to journalism. Steaks is presented as a randomized road trip — now Fussell’s in New York, chomping down at a steak party, now she’s on ranches in Texas, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, now she’s back in New York at a steakhouse — and the book’s reporting is as scattershot as her travels.
The problem is partly one of context, or the lack thereof. Floating quotes go unattributed throughout the book, an oddity not rectified by the capacious endnotes. Public figures such as George F. Will and Vandana Shiva are mentioned without being identified as to who they are or why they’re important. (Marion Nestle is mentioned twice, for example, before she’s finally described, on the third mention, as a “nutrition expert,” while Michael Pollan is also noted twice before he’s identified as a journalist.) Even ethanol — the controversial corn byproduct used in gasoline — is discussed in detail without Fussell ever bothering to say what it actually is.
Of the dozens of ranchers, industry spokespeople, scientists, and activists Fussell interviewed for the book, most are introduced so briefly, so interchangeably, and with such forgettable clichés that they blur into a mush of ground beef. A “lady meat buyer” is “a vivacious pretty blue-eyed brunette,” for example, while one of the many (always heroic) ranchers is simply tagged with an inane query: “Why is it that ranchers always have sky-blue eyes?”
Underneath this Sloppy Joe ooze, however, are the bones of what could’ve been a fine piece of investigative journalism. Fussell visits industrial feedlots, tours a massive slaughterhouse, and learns how to butcher a cow by hand. She documents, somewhat haphazardly, our country’s addled marriage of farmers and ranchers with corporations and government, skittering over grass-fed versus grain-fed, public land versus private land, reformers versus status-quoers. She dabbles in the quite terrifying science connecting industrial food production to such major public-health threats as E. coli and mad-cow disease, stating outright that Alzheimer’s may be connected to the consumption of “commodity beef.”
But even in condemnatory mode, she’s mild, and she offers no prescriptions for change. Here she is at her strongest, discreetly letting a set of stunning stats do the heavy lifting for her:
How the government ranks health and human services is evident in the amount of money allotted to each agency. The FDA, which monitors 80 percent of our food supply, is slotted in 2008 for an annual budget of $1.7 billion; whereas the USDA, which monitors only the remaining 20 percent, is slotted for $17 billion. The byzantine relation between the two agencies is best illustrated by the absurd bifurcation of a hamburger and its bun: The USDA is supposed to cover the meat and the FDA the bread and condiments, but in reality the eater alone is responsible for the safety of the meat he eats because it is up to him to kill any germs that are in it by overcooking it to 155 degrees.
Her illustration is grim and precise. But, in a blithe about-face, Fussell promptly follows up her queasy chapters with yet another round of enthusiastic steak-chomping, this time at New York’s Peter Luger steakhouse, before mopping her plate with a selection of recipes, often for meat cooked very, very raw. Appetizing? Only to those with no beef to grind.
Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. A shorter version of this review originally appeared on Etude.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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