TO EAT eat a steak, and not think about the animal it came from, has been a lifelong project for me. I try not to think about what the animals go through, or how they die. I have simply ceded the debate to vegetarians, vegans, and animal-rights activists – frankly because I consider their arguments unanswerable. But the part that always got me was when, in their smarmy way, they asked if I had ever been to a slaughterhouse.
Well, now I have been to a slaughterhouse. I have more or less earned my right to eat beef unmolested. I have the seen the whole steer-to-steak process, from pasture to plate, and come out hungry at the end. Now, there is this very important qualification: I went to one of the newest, most humane, and least representative of American processing plants, the 7-year-old Creekstone facility in New Arkansas, Kansas. Creekstone, who is a major sponsor of Meatopia, brought me out to Kansas specifically so that I would say good things about what I saw there. But what I saw there was good. You can claim that it’s unrepresentative of the American meat industry, and I won’t argue. Had I gone to one of those vast and fetid complexes maintained by the agribusiness giants, I’m sure I would have been appalled. But then I couldn’t have taken them on a sponsor, and believe me a few of them have come calling.
Before getting to the processing plant, as it’s unpoetically called, a word about grass. You’ve heard much, no doubt, about the superiority of grass-fed meat to grain-fed meat. Most of the time it’s a ludicrous distinction; nearly all cattle eat grass for most of their lives. They are fattened up on some kind of grain mix in the last few months to give them the all-important marbling that separates good meat from bad. If, in the interest of a naturalistic ideology, or saving money, a producer sells beef that has only eaten grass, it’s likely to be lean and tough. But that’s not even the point. It wasn’t until I stood on that Kansan prairie and actually reached down to pull up the grass that I saw how misled I had been. This wasn’t the endlessly replicated blades of your lawn, nor the arid scrub of the pampas. This was a vast and intricate botantical garden, a whole ecosystem under my feet. In the space of a few inches could be found otherworldly flowering plants, weird succulents, dozens of plants that only looked like grass from afar. This crazy salad is what gives midwestern meat its characteristically herbaceous, complex character – tastes that are only brought out more when concentrated by long dry-aging. I, like the hungry fat bastard I am, focused entirely on the marbling, and the lush sweetness it added on at the end. Clearly I was missing the point.
Then it was time to follow the cattle to the slaughterhouse. And that experience deserves a post of its own. Stop back in a few days.