Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World

Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World

by Andrew Rimas, Evan Fraser

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The cow. The most industrious animal in the world. A beast central to human existence since time began, it has played a vital role in our history not only as a source of food, but also as a means of labor, an economic resource, an inspiration for art, and even as a religious icon. Prehistoric people painted it on cave walls; explorers, merchants, and landowners

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The cow. The most industrious animal in the world. A beast central to human existence since time began, it has played a vital role in our history not only as a source of food, but also as a means of labor, an economic resource, an inspiration for art, and even as a religious icon. Prehistoric people painted it on cave walls; explorers, merchants, and landowners traded it as currency; many cultures worshipped it as a god. So how did it come to occupy the sorry state it does today—more factory product than animal?

In Beef, Andrew Rimas and Evan D. G. Fraser answer that question, telling the story of cattle in its entirety. From the powerful auroch, a now extinct beast once revered as a mystical totem, to the dairy cows of seventeenth-century Holland to the frozen meat patties and growth hormones of today, the authors deliver an engaging panoramic view of the cow's long and colorful history.

Peppered with lively anecdotes, recipes, and culinary tidbits, Beef tells a story that spans the globe, from ancient Mediterranean bullfighting rings to the rugged grazing grounds of eighteenth-century England, from the quiet farms of Japan's Kobe beef cows to crowded American stockyards to remote villages in East Africa, home of the Masai, a society to which cattle mean everything. Leaving no stone unturned in its exploration of the cow's legacy, the narrative serves not only as a compelling story but as a call to arms, offering practical solutions for confronting the current condition of the wasteful beef and dairy industries.

Beef is a captivating history of an animal whose relationship with humanity has shaped the world as we know it, and readers will never look at steak the same way again.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

While Americans may take a plentiful supply of hamburger patties for granted, the days of easy beef are threatened by climate change, dwindling Great Plains aquifers drained by irrigation and an unsustainable business model's thin profit margins, argue the authors of this lively and unsettling history-cum-polemic. Rimas and Fraser preface their sobering assessment with a panoramic history; they write vividly about the semimystical aurochs that became extinct in 1627, the Spanish bullfighting tradition, the African Masai's continuing reverence for cows, plagues that ravaged European herds in the 19th century, and the cowboy era of great cattle drives. Once fattened entirely on pasture grass, cattle are now confined to feedlots for half their lives, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics and stuffed with grain they aren't naturally equipped to eat, sacrificing quality for quantity. The authors lament that cows "ceased to be animals and they became commodities," and they certainly aren't antimeat; their colorful account is well-seasoned with a series of "culinary interludes" for such dishes as bull's tail stew, steak tartare, beef jerky and, of course, the great American hamburger. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

These two books examine the vital role the cow has played throughout the history of humans. Journalist Rimas and social scientist Fraser deliver in broad strokes the history of the cow from its evolutionary and ecological origins to present-day environmental issues involving sustainable agriculture. The book is laid out in chronological order from prehistory to modern times, as the authors span the globe in search of tales about frozen meat patties, Japan's Kobe beef farms, American stockyards, and remote villages in East Africa. It's full of anecdotes, snippets, culinary tidbits, and a few recipes. While Beef is neither a scholarly nor a definitive treatment and includes a mix of writing styles, it is a thoughtful and engaging narrative about the cow's legacy.

Fussell (My Kitchen Wars) focuses on the history of American beef, from cattle pens in 17th-century Manhattan to myths and contradictions affecting national identity to the people directly involved in the cow life cycle. Fussell does a fine job examining the profound effect a particular food has on the social, economic, and political fabric of a society. Her in-depth treatment and astute observations (about rugged individualism, romantic notions of the Wild West, among other images) that stem from her participation in the lives of ranchers, rodeo players, cowboys, and other beef handlers will impress readers. Both books are good reads, full of humor, research, and genuine enthusiasm; however, both should be digested in small chunks. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.
—Christine Holmes

Kirkus Reviews
Everything you wanted to know about cows but were afraid to ask. The domestication of the aurochs and its kin and conversion of its various body parts into calories and tools is an interesting-and oft-told-story. Science writer Rimas and University of Leeds agriculture lecturer Fraser cover the usual bases, then throw in bits and pieces of what they have learned about bovines, a sort of literary analog to the processing practices that gave us mad-cow disease. Sometimes those oddments are of interest, such as the tale of how Jersey cows came to flood the British market in the days of the French Revolution, though they were just fronts for French, Dutch and Frisian breeds and in all events "were both unattractive and unevenly generous at the teat." It is of international import that the present cow economy is environmentally destructive, producing lots of methane and clearing much rainforest and other ecosystems for pasturage, since "there are only so many fourteen-hundred-pound cows that you can fit on an acre of grass." Cooks and connoisseurs, too, will take interest in the authors' contention that meat today simply doesn't taste as good as it did a generation ago. A little of this kitchen-sink approach goes a long way, however, and when the authors are not discussing bovine bloodlines and spinning out vignettes of bullfights, ethology and butchery, they serve up dry recitations of cribbed fact larded with a few instances of spectacularly grist-clotted, inept prose. Of some interest, but literate cow enthusiasts would do better to consult the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard or even Laurie Carlson's inadequate, but better, Cattle: An Informal Social History (2001). Agent: LarryWeissman/Larry Weissman Literary

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The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World

Chapter One

From Horn to Hoof

The Ecological and Evolutionary Origins of the Cow: Prehistory—8000 B.C.

The Thread in the Labyrinth

Picasso's Minotaur and the Spirit of Cattle

The Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair opened to a puff of tepid headlines and a yawn from the summer-slow picnickers on the Seine. And no surprise. A few weeks earlier, Paris had weathered the openings of the Nazi German and Soviet pavilions—Herculean mounds of concrete erected to dueling ideologies, between which the modest Spanish building was a mere bungalow rolled out in the name of a lowercase "republicanism." Even the promised unveiling of a giant Picasso mural didn't stir up much more than froth in the café gossip.

That is, until people actually saw Guernica, as Picasso's painting is known. Its subject was an average atrocity by modern standards, but in 1937 it had the power to appall. Two months before the Paris exhibition, German bombers flying for the fascist side in the Spanish Civil War obliterated a civilian target far from the front lines. The massacre killed fifteen hundred people. Picasso had long ago proven he could make strong critics faint and send belle artistes dashing for their fractured mirrors, but he had never yet managed to horrify everybody. It took Guernica, and Guernica, to do that.

The painting wasn't horrible because it depicted war. It was horrible for depicting horror. A twenty-three-foot slash of newsprint-colored violence, it hung behind a workingfountain of red mercury. To Paris's lunching gentlemen and girls in frocks, this was something entirely new. Otto Dix and George Grosz had drawn the First World War's seas of corpses in the 1920s, but Guernica's subject wasn't dead soldiers. It was women, children, and beasts in the act of dismemberment—limbs and heads separating by means of high explosives (making it a perfect subject for cubism, for Picasso's famous splintered eye). Gray and sickly, like a bruise the size of a whale, Guernica is a particularly modern obscenity. It's now an icon of the age of broken glass, airplanes, and random blood pools. Of the age that is our own.

Inside the picture itself, among the blasted innocents, stand two animals. One is a skewered horse, screaming in the dumb, brute pain of dying. The other is a bull standing under a lightbulb, its horns bulging from an asymmetrical skull lump that echoes its scrotal bag. The bull is a fixed hulk, unmoved by the slaughter around it. It may even be complicit, since the horse looks like it's been gored. During an interview in 1944, Picasso said that the bull represented "dark forces," while the horse stood for the Spanish people. Another time he insisted, exasperatedly, that "The bull is a bull and the horse is a horse. These are openly animals, massacred animals. That's all, so far as I am concerned!"1

Well, no. Picasso didn't like to give away his metaphors, and a bull, especially one placed by a Spanish painter inside his greatest work, isn't mere bystanding livestock. A bull is always more than that. Is it Picasso's original "dark forces"? Distilled cruelty? The animal mask of war? Or is it a symbol for the Spanish nation?2

Good art, much less great art, isn't a code, like a peach clutched by some dusty medieval Virgin. To grope for an exclusive truth behind Picasso's bull misses the point that bulls, like lions, eagles, and unicorns, are charged with millennia of cultural presumptions. So while we can argue that the bull represents Spain, and its stillness is a counterpoint to the screeching female stumbling up from the lower right-hand field, thereby hinting at a dichotomy more elemental than mere political symbols, that would be playing the game of allegories.3 The Guernica bull isn't a national totem, nor is it shorthand for brutality. It's bigger than that.

Picasso understood that the bull, beyond its heraldic clutter, is a throwback to a time before cities existed to be bombed, before civilization existed to be shocked. Under the glare of an electric bulb, we see an ancient face that is neither good nor evil. It is solely dangerous.

Painters all have their favorite monsters, and Picasso's was the Minotaur, the man-bull that crouches, steeped in a Freudian fog, at the center of the artist's twists and feints. Picasso hammered out Minotaurs like a refrain.4 He drew them attacking women, or raising a glass to toast the spent bodies in an orgy, or being held at bay by the frail light of a child's upheld candle. They are dark forces, masculine ones. In one etching from 1934, a blind Minotaur walks hand in hand with a girl clutching a plump, white dove—dark forces tamed. But that was before the German bombers flew their devilish sorties over a living city in the north of Spain, leading Picasso to paint a bull that stands, unflinching, in the jagged nexus between primeval force and the phosphorus bomb.

The paradox of Guernica's bull is that it exists in two worlds, an ancient creature bathed in an antiseptic, high-wattage glow. Bulls have become beasts of the stockyard and the chemical feed trough, but their bodies are testaments to long-vanished grasslands and unmarred skies. To understand the spirit that infuses Picasso's painting you have to look at history—a maze more tangled than the logical weave of silicon circuits. This is history as a labyrinth; by turn and corner, this has to be felt to be explored. Artists are naturals at doing this, and Picasso, in the electric dawn of the Jaded Age, was the great artist of his time, proving his mastery by showing the Paris crowds that, despite our newfound knack with motors and steel, we are no different from our grandsires who scraped at flint in the starlight. The story behind the Guernica bull must begin with its flesh, its meat, and its horn.

In Picasso's Spain, bulls lived both in bleached concrete pens and in an ancient place of symbols, sun, and blood. They still do today. Spain is where the thread leads into the labyrinth.

The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World
. Copyright © by Andrew Rimas. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Andrew Rimas is a journalist and the managing editor of the Improper Bostonian Magazine. He has worked as an associate editor for Boston Magazine and his writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, and the Ottawa Citizen, among other publications. He lives in Boston.

Evan D. G. Fraser earned his doctorate from the University of British Columbia and currently teaches at the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, UK, where he also does research on farming and the environment. He has published numerous scholarly research articles and written several policy briefs on issues such as sustainable agriculture, climate change, and "the food system." Dr. Fraser lives in the Yorkshire Dales in Northern England.

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