Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef

EdibleManhattan-2.8The jacket of Betty Fussell’s wonderful new Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef (Harcourt, $26) bears a quote from Michael Pollan, praising the celebrated village-based author’s “unflinching look” at American beef. And while he’s elsewhere cited her as a source — and a source of inspiration — this book is a decidedly different read from his best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, more cultural study than ecological alarm bell.

Sure, like Pollan, Fussell pulls back the curtain on the beef industry, visiting ranches, feedlots and slaughterhouses across the country, but an exposé Steaks is not. Although her free-range ride rambles through the good (unctuous steaks, rollicking rodeos), the bad (government policies that render an “out-of-this-world beef jerky” contraband because the “spic-and-span processing room [lacks] the 16-foot ceilings required by the USDA”) and the ugly (moose road kill and subsequent Palin-style skinning), Fussell passes no judgment, leaving any conclusions to us and throughout maintaining both a cheerful sense of adventure and a hearty appetite for steak.

While Pollan’s vignettes were held together by the connective tissue of his argument that our food system is fundamentally wrongheaded, if Fussell is out to make a case she doesn’t let on, even while recounting the chicken feathers in a steer’s diet, that virtually all 300 million cows harvested in this country annually are slaughtered by just three major packers, or that only 1 percent of America’s native prairie remains. On her feedlot foray she reports not the stench of excrement but the scent of corn, and, after describing antibiotics administration that sounds downright sensible, she explains that a lot of fat around a steer’s penis means he’s ready for slaughter. A page later, she brightly describes being “drawn by the smell of hamburgers” without so much as a shrug.

Although she’s old enough to be a great-grandmother, Fussell’s so adventuresome — crawling through brush with Texas hunters, comparing steer roping to foreplay, or explaining, as if on a Wyoming postcard, that “after coors and burgers we cowgirls are ready for the afternoon rodeo” — I found myself relieved I wasn’t along for the ride; I know I couldn’t have kept up. Perhaps Fussell’s book is unflinching not because she’s stoic enough to conceal her horror but because flinching’s just not her style.

Photo courtesy of Mariner Books