Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: A dissatisfying Steak

Slate columnist Mark Schatzker published Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef earlier this year, and one thing about the title certainly is true. It is the search of a single person; that is, profoundly limited. And, for the most part, uninteresting. Sometimes the book is even infuriating. Schatzker's book suffers from a lot of the usual bad food writing symptoms: overwritten with too much emphasis on adjectives, an inexplicable reliance on myth and slippery memories of the past, and the triumph of preconceived notions tested only against straw men.

Steak opens in interesting enough fashion, chronicling the hallowed place of steak on the dinner table when Schatzker grew up. But the introduction seems to drag. There isn't a clear sense of direction laid out, other than the amorphous "I'm going to scour the world for steak!" premise. Schatzker lays out no criteria, no benchmarks. He embraces anecdotal tales of great steaks from friends and family members, which, somehow gives rise to a definition of the perfect steak that is never fully explicated in the text. Sure, he says that a great steak should be ready to swallow when you are tired of chewing, otherwise it is too tough. But he undermines the notion of tenderness by acknowledging he prefers tougher, grass-fed beef.

In reality, Schatzker jumps on the grass-fed beef bandwagon late and clumsily sets up grain-fed beef as a second-class citizen. The first portion of Steak is devoted to his trip to Texas, in search of great beef. This assumption that Texas is home to the best beef in the world is the first example of Schatzker's continuous reliance on mythology rather than fact or methodical investigation. He goes to a large, industrial feed lot, only to find it disappointing (shocking). He tries a couple Texas steakhouses, with no explanation regarding why he chose them. His first stop is the Big Texan, motivated, it seems, solely by the existence of their cartoon-character 72-ounce steak. There is no evidence that Schatzker investigated where to get the best steak in Texas. He didn't even seek out a steakhouse serving USDA Prime beef. This lack of methodology is something that largely goes unexplained -- a fault that only occurs when it comes to eating grain-fed steak and stands in stark contrast to his relentless pursuit of grass-fed beef.

With grass-fed steak, Schatzker is meticulous, going to the far corners of the globe to locate the smallest, most artisanal producers of beef. They are in Scotland, remote Italian villages, and middle-of-nowhere ranches in Colorado. Even after a disastrous first taste of grass-fed steak, Schatzker persists in uncovering more. This luxury of a second chance is not afforded to "commodity beef," the curious term with which he labels all grain-fed steak. He waxes poetic about types of grasses and the terroir of steak. He delves into the lineages of various forms of cattle. But he leaves out or patently dismisses certain steak fundamentals that gut his arguments and analysis.

Schatzker spends approximately three sentences on dry aging, which he dismisses toward the end of the book as overrated, a trick to cover up poor quality beef. Yet he also, in the context of his beloved grass-fed steak, admires dry aging whole sides of beef for undetermined periods of time This contradiction isn't explained, leaving his dismissal of dry aging stand as a curious criticism of his belief that it covers up grain-fed beef's lack of flavor.

More damning to Schatzker's book and undermining any notion of him as a steak authority is his similar disdain for resting a steak after it has been cooked. Seriously? Have you ever cut into a steak -- or any piece of meat -- as soon as it comes off the grill, from the skillet, or out of the oven? The juices run everywhere, leaving the meat dryer than it would be if it had been properly rested. It also drains the beautiful color that the meat should have, leaving it more gray and listless than it should be. How Schatzker can summarily dismiss an essential component to cooking -- endorsed by the likes of Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Cook's Illustrated, and, frankly, virtually every steak authority and chef on the planet -- without so much as an explanation is perplexing. Cook a steak to medium rare and don't let it rest? Within a minute or two you will have a tortured piece of meat that looks and eats like it's medium-well, plus a plateful of juice. Schatzker's strong stand against resting steak after cooking also contradicts his concern that cattle be relaxed and avoid tension prior to slaughter, so as not to contract their muscle fibers, causing them to be tensed and toughen the meat. Resting a steak might as well be called "relaxing." Just as cattle should be tension-free on their way to the slaughter to ensure tender meat, so too must that same meat be allowed to rest after cooking in order for the muscle fibers to calm down after tensing and contracting during the cooking process and allow them to retain more juice. The recommendation to skip resting is indefensible.

If you don't believe me, would you trust Thomas Keller? Here is what he had to say about resting meat in Ad Hoc at Home: "Equally significant is the resting period after the food has been removed from the heat. Everything continues to cook once it's out of the heat, an effect called carryover cooking. But, even more important, as meat rests, the juices can redistribute throughout the meat. The meat fibers also firm up a little as they rest and are able to hold more juices."

Despite Schatzker's baseless and conclusory statements on resting, the greatest flaw of Steak is the lack of a passionate pursuit of finding a great, dry-aged, grain-fed steak. This is, by the conventional wisdom, what should have the makings for a great steak. (Not to say that the conventional wisdom is or should be correct. But in order to debunk it, you've got to take its best shot and articulate why you reject it.) Schatzker's encounters with grain fed steak consist of (1) his first visit to the Big Texan; (2) a chain steakhouse in Texas not serving prime beef; and (3) occasional, derisive mentions of eating "commodity" steak from supermarkets. Why did he make no attempt to seek out small producers of the finest grain-fed beef? To read Steak, you would think that no such producers exist. But that is, of course, patently untrue. Just see Bryan Flannery to debunk that assumption. And there are others. Yet Schatzker made no attempt to do so or even halfheartedly try to articulate a case for grain-fed beef. He seems to rely on the notion that grain makes beef tender, and all the average, stupid carnivore cares about is tenderness, and flavor is not a consideration. He equates grain-fed beef with not merely a lack of flavor but being devoid of flavor. If he had taken the same, inch-deep method to his investigation of grass fed steak, he would have stopped after his first encounter. But he didn't, and the inconsistency is glaring.

On the whole, Steak is a dissatisfying read if you have any passion for or interest in steak. There is a certain amount of useful information -- did you know that Angus cattle in the U.S. are far from purebred? -- but the gaps in Schatzker's logic, reliance on an anecdotal rather than rigorous methodology, and failure to be truly comprehensive in his search for great steak make this book an easy pass.


John L said...

Looks like you have some beef with this author.
Not resting a steak? Why even spend the time, energy (literally, joules), and money to cook one.

Anonymous said...

So what do you really think Tom?
Nice review.

Anonymous said...

You clearly don't get it do you. Searching for minor inconsistencies is not the way to review a book. The message Schatzker presents is clear, concise and entertaining. It's a pity that your mind was too small or closed when you read the book. I really feel sorry for you.

Tom Gutting said...

Minor inconsistencies, Anonymous No. 2? I disagree. On one hand, going through a relentless, vigorous search in one instance (for grass-fed steak) is a substantial inconsistency considering the shallow methodology afforded grain-fed steak. Setting up a straw man of this sort is hardly minor. I only wished that Schatzker had taken to the entire universe of steak with the zeal he pursued grain-fed steak alone.

While Schatzker's style is rather entertaining, his logical flaws and methodological holes undermined the often-charming anecdotes in the book. But anecdotes do not constitute rigorous pursuit of his "truth," regardless of the fact that it is in a field so inherently subjective.

Please don't feel sorry for me. I don't desire your pity. Just agree to disagree. There's enough steak out there for everyone. It's not personal.