Raising Questions: Raising Steaks by Betty Fussell [book review]

In her book Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef (buy at Amazon), Betty Fussell seeks to illustrate the fundamental contradiction of American beef. There are seemingly mutually exclusive qualities: on one hand, macho man cowboy individualism, and on the other, the intricate, monopolistic industrial machine that dominates the beef industry. From these spring the difference between prairie ranges and feedlots, Peter Luger’s and McDonald’s.

Interestingly, Fussell epitomizes the dichotomy she seeks to illustrate. A child of the depression, she hails from a home on the range, but currently resides in a New York City apartment; a movie buff and Shakespearean professor turned writer/gourmand/food historian, she’s also a passionate raiser of cats and a wanton wolfer of beef — the fattier and redder, the better. She’s America — a contiguous body brimming with warring allegiances and traditions.

Fussell tried her first steak when she was 17, and it changed her life. The depth and degree of her devotion to all things bovine approaches a level of obsession that may require clinical intervention – she has Mad For Cow Disease and it’s catchin’: “Real American men, women and children eat steak because it’s red with blood, blood that pumps flavor, iron, vitality, and sex into flaccid bodies. For women, steak is better than spinach. For men, it’s better than Viagra. With steak, its easy to get carried away.”

Taking a bite out of prime

Get carried away she does, covering her subject from top blade to bottom round with a rigorous degree of objectivity and a refreshing lack of the kind of pomposity often found underpinning book-length works of scholarly food writing. Like those other authors (who shall not be named), Fussell's work has appeared in The New Yorker and Gastronomica. Unlike them, she is happy to own up to not being 100% opposed to feedlots, and admits that she prefers the taste of beef that has been grain-finished.

In her sometimes haphazard quest to chronicle the land, culture and business wars that erupted in the 16th century when the cattle industry of the East (high-falutin’ British pastoralists) met the cattle industry of the West (swaggerin’ Spanish ranchers), and which haven't even now died down, Fussell whizzes around the country, landing in eco-tourist hunting zones in Texas, family-run cattle farms in Vermont, and ConAgra’s cornfield-enclosed feedlots of Greeley, Kansas. Amid all this, the tireless beef booster also manages to help slaughter and fabricate a cow, cause a minor ruckus at the National Cattleman’s Beef Association’s annual meeting, hit some rodeos and appear as a smiling and waving cowgirl in a parade.

The travelogue style results in a vaguely baffling (if writerly and interesting) narrative line interspersed with fascinating factoids and journalistically sound information. Unfortunately, it's bogged down by a sloppy packaging job that appears to be as indiscriminately constructed as a Quarter-Pounder with cheese assembled by a stoned high school student.

Take the bad with the good?

Despite the organizational flaws, the book is an invaluable resource. In 341 pages, Fussell manages to grill up a history of New York City’s bustling beef trade and its decline; information on the wonders and perils of selective breeding; a dissection of every major land and agricultural act from the 18th century onward; extensive ruminations on the concept of Manifest Destiny and its effect on our country’s ongoing tug-of-war between rugged individualism and dependence on Big Agra and the Fed to maintain the illusion of rugged individualism; a history of Mad Cow Disease; plus recipes and plenty of commentary on everything.

At the core, Fussell insists there’s nothing more American than a steak – and she adores what she perceives to be steak’s democratizing influence on our country. Whether you’re a CEO with a black Amex or a union man with a red card, you can sit down with a mug of sudse in a pair of blue jeans and tuck into a (preferably rare) hunk of meat. It embodies the savage and the civilized, the wild and the tamed, and the pure and the corrupt, and you'll eat until you’re ready to bust a gut. Then it’s time for seconds.

But Fussell also reveals what goes into the makings of that steak. The evidence of a widespread conspiracy (or at the very least, disturbing monopoly) is startling, if not completely new. We're reminded again and again that the Big Agro that delivers us our packaged steak does so by way of a particularly unsettling process. Fussell points out, among other things, that corn diets for cows leads to bloat and ultimately death by suffocation, liver abscesses and weakened immune systems, unless cows are pumped up with meds. 2% of feedlots market 85% of the 34 million cattle slaughtered every year. Four major packers control 83% of the slaughtering processing segment of the industry while five major retailers control 46% of the marketing segment. In industrial plants, the 30 to 35 pounds of blood drained from dead steers is (legally) saved, processed and fed to calves. Cattle are still being fed blood and fat from downer cattle, despite an internal memo circulated within the USDA warning that it could cause Mad Cow Disease — which is illegal to test for in America, because "it could endanger consumer confidence."

Dotted throughout her otherwise exuberant memoir of meat, these tidbits of information make the experience of reading this book directly in line with the contradictions steak exemplifies. At one moment my mouth is approaching flood-level degrees of salivation while reading about steakhouses and the sensual atmosphere of “carnival excess” they engender, and the next I find myself wondering if I’m just an unwitting cog in the wheels of a dark and malicious conspiracy involving feedlots, packers, clueless consumers, and shady government organizations who cackle malevolently while stroking their ruby and diamond tie pins.

The question of hunger

When we settled the land, we supplanted roaming buffalo with grazing cows, then penned-in ones. When industrialism began its inevitable forward march, we replaced zany, yipping cowboys with faceless, interchangeable feedlot workers and industrial machines. Is all hope lost — should we throw in the towel and fatten up on bland, overly tender all-corn-fed beef until we keel over from Mad Cow Disease? Or should we move to a sustainable commune in Maine and dine on alfalfa and tofu?

Fussell seems to want to answer that there's middle ground. She approaches the looming question with all of the ambivalence and hope veiled in futility Raising Steaks evokes: “Human hunger, born in the head and heart as well as the gut, includes a longing for the land to last longer than we do, a longing to respect our fellow creatures, a longing to reconcile the violence of death with the dream of justice. Images eat reality, and we feed our hunger for power and glory more than our need for nutrients when we eat steak.”

—Kathleen Willcox

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