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June 20, 2010

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RIDING the wave of beef chic, Canadian food writer Mark Schatzker travels to seven notably carnivorous countries on four continents and consumes 100 pounds (45.36 kg) of cow flesh in search not only of the perfect steak but also of the science behind its flavor. On a journey that starts in Texas and winds through France, Scotland, Italy, Japan and Argentina, he visits local farms, dines at meat meccas and traces the lineage of cattle. Throughout this blur of travelogue and food criticism, he sprinkles references to religion, history, anthropology, biochemistry and philosophy. (Who knew Roland Barthes was so interested in steak tartare?) Yet without fail, the conversation comes back to one question: What makes steak so tasty? Is it the breed or the feed? Marbling or aging? Preparation, cut or something else entirely?

After Schatzker meets Bill O'Brien, who keeps 50,000 cows in Texas and champions the use of corn-based feed, he spends the rest of "Steak" railing against such a diet. Among other reasons, it doesn't produce what one expert calls "a rounded flavor profile," and it requires antibiotics to keep livers and guts from failing. The steaks from grass-fed cattle, by comparison, show more complexity and communicate terroir, the influence of place. One such meal, Schatzker recalls, was "so intense that I was reminded of extremely ripe fruit ... It was like steak with headphones on." Unfortunately, grass feed doesn't guarantee good flavor. "Bad grass," he explains, "equals bad steaks." One particularly horrific example evokes "an old, atrophied, abscessed organ left in the trunk of a car sitting in a Miami parking lot for two weeks in July."

Even the meat scientists at Texas Tech don't exactly understand what's going on. Yes, they analyze amino acids, moisture content and monounsaturated fats, but they haven't been able to reproduce perfect steaks on a consistent basis. And if you think the US Department of Agriculture knows what to look for, think again: Schatzker questions it for its fixation on marbling and youth, two factors that mean little to ranchers and steak eaters outside the United States. In Japan, the concern shifts from flavor to texture. The overly hyped Kobe beef, Schatzker postulates, has enthralled eaters more for its silkiness than for its taste.

Pinpointing a best breed proves equally challenging. Schatzker tries steaks from native Angus and Highland cattle in Scotland, black Wagyu in Japan, Chianina and Podolica in Italy, and Limousin in France, with mixed results. If only he could sample these breeds the way they tasted 100 years ago! Then he goes one better, by trying "reconstituted aurochs" steak after admiring paintings of this extinct line of cattle in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux. The meat is OK, but "could have been a touch more fatty." Foiled again.

Back in Canada, Schatzker decides he'll just try to grow his own steaks, using the native Canadienne breed, and feeding his cows hay, apples, carrots, acorns and nuts. The resulting steaks are sweet and nutty ... but tough. If you've been following the book closely, you'll know that imperfections may be caused by stressed, thinning or prematurely slaughtered cattle; dry climate; wrong feed times; improper aging; and about a million other variables. By the end, Schatzker has dragged the reader through such a maze of taste tests and theories it's impossible to remember which steaks he likes or dislikes, and why. One topic he glosses over is taste subjectivity. To address this in detail would, of course, call his whole mission into question. But he does quote a remark by the great chef Alain Ducasse: "The point is not to say which one is better or worse. Each steak is a different pleasure." So maybe there is no such thing as perfection.


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