observations on beef

It was finally getting wintry enough to make a pot of the Zeng family(*) beef stew: celery + onion + carrot, tomato base, and beef — and I always add cumin and chili powder out of reflex, and soy + cooking wine, out of a different reflex. The vegetables are in 1-2” segments out of rustic aesthetic and my use of a pressure cooker: any smaller and it turns to mush.

* My dad says he picked it up from the Mexican ladies in Tom’s River, NJ, where he worked as a full-time waiter at a fine dining establishment.

I use beef shank for this stew. Beef shank is cheap, delicious, and extremely tough to cut: an inch-thick tendon runs through it, a tendon to test your cleavers for sure, and the muscle is surrounded by sheets of connective tissue (fascia?) that are severable by only kitchen shears. It’s also near-impossible to chew if you haven’t cooked it enough.

No wonder the fascia is strong: it holds the muscles together. No wonder that tendon is thick: it joins the muscle to the leg that has to move a cow. No wonder the muscle is tough: it (historically, theoretically) brings the cow to grass, with which it sustains itself.

No $20-30 / plate restaurant in Seattle advertises beef shank. Osso buco is veal shank: the thighs of a baby cow that has not had to leave its mother. Aside from that, other humble cuts are associated with ‘ethnic’ cuisines: flank steak is associated with fajitas. Brisket is rustic. Tendon is an option on pho, one that I always get.

Instead, the meat I see served is stripped of all evidence that it ever was part of an animal, or evidence that it ever had to do work. Think of the idiom (switching animals, for a minute) “eating high on the hog”: when you’re doing well financially, you eat the parts of the animal that are far from the ground, since parts that touch the ground, or were connected to parts that touch the ground, had to do work.

Think of the most prized cuts: filet mignon, tenderloin, sirloin — these are from non weight-bearing parts of the animal, and are cleaned (by low-paid humans, probably the husbands of those Mexican ladies my dad got the stew from) into uniform pucks to the point that they might as well have been grown in a Petri dish.

It’s not just scarcity. A single steer has but a single tongue, but young men don’t go to Vegas and brag about eating tongue and sipping rye. It’s not flavor: filet mignon is so useless — so interior to the animal that it has little flavor of its own, and usually needs supplementing with sauces or bacon.

What does it say about a nation when the bulk of its dining dollars go towards flesh that has never supported weight, is homogeneous, and doesn’t show that it ever existed in context of bone or other muscle?

We value effortlessness in America. The people at the top — the ones inside our governing structures — are, by and large[*], ones that haven’t worked very hard for it, but have been helped inside by connections that aren’t discussed. Maybe this is a matter of politeness: there aren’t enough connections for everyone, so we won’t mention it.

It’s also not normal to talk about how hard you worked. Let’s use the Barbie utterance, “Math is hard” as an example of mainstream attitudes towards work. If this were followed with “And it’s really beautiful when you work for it” (aside: society is happy to reinforce this message when it comes to women’s physical appearance), it would be accurate and encouraging. Instead the doll said “… let’s go shopping”, which tells kids to give up.

* One thing that “makes America great” is that it might not totally necessary to have connections: there seem to be a few spots left for bootstrapping miracles.

I could be fine with having the secret of beef shank to myself. If it became the hottest new menu item and my price per pound doubled, I suppose I would personally be less happy. But from a utilitarian point of view, it seems unproductive for the seemingly-effortless and seemingly-disconnected to be most valuable.

[I thought I had already written another fantasia on butchering and structure, but I can’t find it, so that’s coming soon.]