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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.16.06

What’s Your Beef?

Food History


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“Eating beef,” one Japanese historian wrote, “is a sign of an advanced state of civilization.” I’ll buy that. But then I’m a big fan of beef—and the evidence shows that I’m not alone in this.

Indeed, worldwide, more beef is eaten than any other meat—despite the fact that major population groups (such as India’s Hindus) won’t touch it. France actually eats more beef than England (despite John Bull and the Beefeaters), and Americans eat more than the French. In Argentina, even the poor eat beef daily. Korea tops the list of beef-eaters in Asia. And even sheep-happy Australians and New Zealanders prefer beef. There are, in fact, more than a billion cows, bulls, and steers in the world.

All domestic cattle today are descendants of the aurochs, or Bos primigenius (that Bos being the reason cows are sometimes called “Bossy”). While the aurochs is the impressive bovine creature depicted in Paleolithic cave paintings (15,000–10,000 B.C.) discovered in France and Spain, the species was still in existence up to the middle of the seventeenth century. (The last known aurochs is believed to have been killed by a poacher in 1627 near Warsaw, Poland. It is not known if any other of the species survived in more remote regions beyond this date.)

There is some debate as to when beef cattle was first domesticated, with most estimates ranging around 6500 B.C. to 5800 B.C. Remains of domesticated cattle dating to this period have been found in Turkey and Macedonia. Though there are some scholars who theorize that domestication could have occurred earlier, it is agreed that cows were the last major food animal to be domesticated, trailing sheep, goats, and pigs by as much as a couple of thousand years. By the time beef cattle first appears in recorded history, it is not merely domesticated, but actually in the form of improved strains.

By 3500 B.C., Egyptians were writing about their domesticated cattle, and there are numerous references to cattle in the Old Testament. In Greece and Rome, most commentary about cattle was economic in nature. Cattle was an important trade item, and would often be used as a measure of the value of other things—for example, in Homeric Greece, a slave was worth four oxen, but a concubine cost twenty. In ancient times, the possession of much cattle was a symbol of wealth. In fact, even today a lot of our money-related terms come from the long-standing value of cattle in world markets. The word “cattle” gave rise to the term “chattel.” The Latin for “cattle,” pecus, can be seen in pecuniary.

The rise of the great Phoenician trading empire in the first millennium B.C. pretty much ensured that anything enjoyed in one part of the Mediterranean would be enjoyed throughout the region, and even beyond. Cuneiform tablets in Nineveh recorded deliveries from Phoenician traders and Homer described in his Odes the exchanges of foodstuffs made by Phoenician sailors. While the full range of Phoenician trading is a matter of speculation (and there are those who believe they reached North America), it seems likely that they had at least conveyed beef to England early on. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) seems to confirm this, writing of cattle and relating that “before the Romans found out and knew the way unto our country, our predecessors fed largely upon flesh and milk, whereof there was great abundance in this isle.”

During the Middle Ages, beef became the preferred meat in much of Europe (though at the very lowest levels of society, it remained a rare luxury). Butchers’ guilds grew in importance as towns expanded and fewer people were able to process, or even keep, cattle. By the fourteenth century, France in particular was enamored of beef, and the preparation of beef was at the heart of the increasing refinement of French culinary arts. (Some few centuries later, the legendary nineteenth-century French chef Marie Antoine Carême declared that “beef is the soul of cooking.”) Only in the area of rostbif were the French interested in what the English were doing with beef by this time.

Beef cattle were among the provisions carried by Spanish explorers to the New World in the early 1500s. Originally intended to supply the needs of explorers and settlers, this new meat (tastier than dogs or llamas and easier to obtain than wild game) was quickly adopted by many of the indigenous people, and in time became central to the developing Creole cuisine.

Generally speaking, the Chinese do not prefer strong-tasting meats, so beef has always remained on the fringes of the mainstream cuisine, food for barbarians and desperate times—or for people from the far provinces. However, both Korea and Japan adopted meat wholeheartedly, though not early on. It was not until the emperor started to eat beef in 1872 that the Japanese population embraced red meat, but today, some of the best beef in the world is raised in Japan. Beef likely got integrated into Korean cuisine during the decades of Japanese occupation in the early 1900s.

Industrialization and urbanization during the mid-1800s began to change the way people everywhere got their food. Urban populations were skyrocketing, but city-dwellers didn’t have land for grazing livestock. The opening up of rangelands in the United States, Canada, South America (especially Argentina), and Australia created the possibility of supplying the increased needs, and new ideas about refrigeration were making it possible to move the meat to the markets that needed it.

These new rangelands created something else—they created cultural icons that would become dominant images in and for the countries where these open lands existed. Starting with Mexico’s vaqueros, a whole new lifestyle began to evolve. The cattle culture spread south, where gauchos road the pampas, and north, where the American cowboy, adopting terms (rodeo, lasso, lariat, corral, bronco), gear, and skills from the vaqueros, became the symbol of the American West. In Australia, too, the cattlemen, the ringers and drovers, were immensely important in shaping the national identity. Round-ups and cattle drives were of huge economic importance, but grew into the stuff of epics and legends that had—and continue to have—a far greater emotional and cultural impact than the physical reality had on anyone’s economy.

However, the explosive growth in beef production created problems, as farmers battled ranchers (how many movies have had that conflict as their theme?), and town dwellers and their country cousins each developed contempt for the other. On several continents, growers and stockmen turned to politics to resolve the issues of land use, over-production, price fluctuation, and hard times, starting some major political movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Political issues related to cattle have not gone away, but they no longer dominate politics as they once did.

Today, the only issue that most people face is which bit of beef to buy. Cuts of beef generally depend on where you are. In the United States, we’ve pretty well standardized things, so a sirloin steak on the West Coast is basically the same portion of the beast as a sirloin steak on the East Coast. This precise identification of cuts of meat is not universal. There are differences among countries as to how beef is butchered and, in many European countries, differences among regions. However, sometimes it is the name rather than the cut that changes—as in England, where the steak we call sirloin is called rumpsteak. (And by the way—that story about the English king knighting a hunk of beef is a happy fabrication. The “sir” in sirloin is simply a misspelling of the French “sur,” which means “above,” and refers to the position of this particular cut, which is above Bossy’s loin.)

In case you worry about the health ramifications of eating beef, don’t. As with all life’s good things, moderation is your best option. Beef in and of itself won’t hurt you. It’s still the best source of iron (your body absorbs about 30 percent of the iron in beef, while it can only absorb about 2 to 10 percent of the iron in vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes), and offers a lot of other nutrients, especially B12. So you don’t have to cut it out of your diet if you love beef—and some people simply operate better on beef than on other protein sources.

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