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Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef


When we bite into a steak's charred crust and pink interior, we bite into contradictions that have branded our nation from the start. We taste the competing fantasies of British pastoralists and Spanish ranchers that erupted in land wars between a wet-weather East and a desert West. We savor the ideas of wilderness and progress that clashed when we replaced buffalo with cattle, and then cowboys with industrial machines. We witness rugged individualism and corporate technology collide when we breed, feed, ...

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When we bite into a steak's charred crust and pink interior, we bite into contradictions that have branded our nation from the start. We taste the competing fantasies of British pastoralists and Spanish ranchers that erupted in land wars between a wet-weather East and a desert West. We savor the ideas of wilderness and progress that clashed when we replaced buffalo with cattle, and then cowboys with industrial machines. We witness rugged individualism and corporate technology collide when we breed, feed, slaughter, package, and distribute the animals we turn into meat. And we participate—like the cattlemen, chefs, feedlot operators, and scientists Fussell talks with—in the mythology that inspires cowboys to become technocrats and presidents to play cowboy.

A celebration and an elegy for a uniquely American Dream, Raising Steaks takes an "unflinching look at the ethical and environmental implications of modern meat ... yet leaves us with a powerful hankering for a thick T-bone grilled rare"—Michael Pollan

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Fussell . . . is totally and passionately in love with corn, and she treats it the way Cecil B. DeMille treated a Bible story—with zest and romance and hordes of gorgeously costumed extras."—The New York Times Book Review
"Fussell . . . can get away with phrases like 'the sexiness of corn' . . . The way she writes about it, is is—hypnotic, alluring, sustaining, and not a little bit mysterious."—Los Angeles Times
Michael Shae
There is a long tradition of books indicting the meat industry, stretching from Upton Sinclair's Jungle to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Raising Steaks is not part of it, though dark thoughts loom like thunderclouds around its edges, threatening to ruin the cookout. But the storm never quite breaks over the cheerful stops on Fussell's itinerary through the American beef world, from Texas game farms and backwoods Vermont meat cutters (who do moose, too!) to rodeos and ranches of every size, from giant feedlots and slaughterhouses to conversations with quirky advocates of restoring the prairie and ranching in harmony with nature. Fussell approaches her subject with an uncommon capacity to suspend judgment, the better to collect as much information as possible. A travelogue makes for haphazard argument, but the raising of beef is a complicated matter.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Fussell (My Kitchen Wars; The Story of Corn) follows beefsteaks from cattle pens in 17th-century Manhattan to Brooklyn's Peter Luger Steak House today. On her visits to an independent Vermont butcher, ranching couples in Colorado and Oregon and feedlot owners in Kansas, Fussell critiques the polemical meat writing of Michael Pollan and the mythology of a rare, bloodied "he-man food" by giving an evenhanded look at the many sides of beef. One visit with Temple Grandin explores the work of the "outsider" cattle researcher who wants to foster a cow's-eye view of animal husbandry; similarly, Fussell's research into the lives of the men-and, particularly, the women-who raise and research cattle presents a human-eye view of an industry riddled with impersonal jargon and machismo. Fussell also participates in grading and weighing cuts of beef, attending an industry conference and even dressing in a pair of heels to play a part as a rodeo cowgirl. The breadth of her observations is impressive-from congressional decisions to simplified anecdotes from the voyage of Lewis and Clark and quotes from Woody Allen-but such details might become tedious for casual readers. Illus., with recipes. (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
Food writer, historian and "full red-blooded carnivore" Fussell (Masters of American Cookery, 2006, etc.) finds beef, specifically steak, to be the most American of foods. It is, like us, "mobile, improvised, casual, egalitarian, reliable, raw, bloody, and violent," she writes. Yet within the world of late-19th-century beef production, the fantasy of an autonomous cowboy freely riding the range rounding up the stray calves had little to do with the reality of an industry reliant on technology (the refrigerated railroad cars that transported butchered meat) and the division of labor in its vast meat-packing plants. Today, the author reports, 30 million cattle are harvested each year, held in feedlots holding 100,000 or more steers. They are fed corn-or candy bars, pretzels, whatever is available-quickly slaughtered and dismembered within automated systems, wrapped in Cryovac (which keeps the meat pink no matter its age) and sent to market. It is a secretive, largely unaccountable process that robs us of any sense of human connection with the animals we eat. This troubles Fussell, as does the rush to fulfill America's insatiable demand for beef that may expose us to such dangers as mad cow disease and the E. coli virus. Her thesis is not new, but the author displays a captivating gift for capturing the essence of places and people. Though she clearly admires maverick ranchers who eschew feedlots and still graze their herds, slaughter and market locally, this is no mere jeremiad against industrialized beef. Fussell explores with humor and obvious pleasure the culture of cattle as well: the rituals of the rodeo, how to buy just the right cowboy hat, the joys of a good steakhouse and a finesteak. She even provides tips on how to cook the perfect steak and shares some favorite recipes she has collected along the way. An engaging, eclectic examination of the role of beef in the formation of American myth and reality. Agent: Gloria Loomis/Watkins Loomis
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547247694
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/22/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 402
  • Sales rank: 1,215,510
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

BETTY FUSSELL is the author of ten previous books, including The Story of Corn and My Kitchen Wars. A contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker, Saveur, Food & Wine, Gastronomica, and other publications, she has also lectured widely on food history. Western born, she lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

The Cowboy and the Machine

A lithograph poster of "The Moving Picture Cowboy," 1914, shows "Tom Mix Doing Stunts . . . The Way He Told the Story . . . And What He Really Did." Printed by Goes Lithography Co., Chicago. Copyright 1914, Selig Polyscope Co.

From the Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Being American is to eat a lot of beef steak, and boy, we’ve got a lot more beef steak than any other country, and that’s why you ought to be glad you’re an American.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., City Limits

I DIDN’T GROW UP eating beefsteak. I was a child of the Depression, and our fancy meat for Sunday-noon dinner was boiled chicken or boiled beef tongue, or else a shoulder of lamb, boiled until cuttable with a spoon. Steak was a luxury for the rich, and when I ate my first steak at seventeen, in the company of college chums fed up with our dorm swill, I didn’t know how to cut it. I’d never before had to cut meat with a knife in order to get a bite-size piece. Nor did I know how to chew it. The meat we cooked at home, including the rare holiday treat of Swiss steak in the pressure cooker, was designed to give way at the first touch of my grandparents’ dentures. My family were enthusiastic proponents of the Puritan principle that all food aspired to liquid, so that you could flush it out of your body as rapidly as possible. Maybe this was just an elaborate rationalization for not being able to afford steak.

I did grow up American, however, in a small town in Southern California, shaped by two kinds of stories, one Spanish and the other British. Riverside, our town on the banks of the Santa Ana River, had first been mapped by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza in 1774, on his overland expedition from the Sonora desert to San Francisco. Every year everyone in town dressed up in Spanish clothes for De Anza Days, with a fine parade of horses and caballeros magnificent in black silver-studded leather, prancing before carriages of women in flounced skirts and lace mantillas. In our cheap imitative costumes, we kids danced the Mexican Hat Dance and sang "La Golondrina" as if to the hacienda born. Though Scotch-Irish born and bred, I didn’t think this in any way odd. Our Calvary Presbyterian Church had been built in the colonial Spanish style that dominated the town’s main buildings, like the famed Mission Inn with its tiled roofs and arcades. We knew that mission fathers had been followed by Hispanic rancheros who grew rich on cattle until the War with Mexico in 1848 shook up the land grants and an Eastern consortium tapped the Santa Ana River for water to turn the desert into orange trees. Water brought émigrés from the East and Midwest, and what started as a trickle grew in the 1920s to a flood of farmers from Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.

My family arrived in time to get me born there, but I was an anomaly. Nobody we knew had been born in California. My family saw California as the last frontier, the New Eden that God had promised as they journeyed from Edinburgh to Londonderry to Philadelphia and points west. The native heritage of our clan of Harpers, Erskines, Stevensons, and Kennedys was strictly British, but our relocated heritage was Spanish, and the majority of kids growing up in the 1930s in my town were, like myself, Midwestern WASPs in Mexican clothing. It seemed a happy hybrid.

It was the same hybrid, I would discover, that had produced, over the course of five hundred years, American beefsteak. Bred from both Spanish and British traditions, as well as from both Spanish and British cattle breeds, American beefsteak is more characteristic of our hybrid national identity than apple pie (which came from the English), popcorn (from the Native Americans), or the hamburger (German). True, every country has its beef, branded with chauvinism. England has its bully roast beef, evoking not only the coziness of hearth and home, but also "the marrow of political freedom," as historian Simon Schama would have it, whereby the Society of Beefeaters proclaimed that "Beef and Liberty" would vanquish the effeminate French. France, in turn, has its entrecôte et frites, typifying in its full-bloodedness, as literary theorist Roland Barthes would have it, "the very flesh of the French soldier." Argentina has its parrillada, evoking the fierce independence of the gauchos on the vast and lawless pampas. Japan has its soft-as-butter Kobe, treated as a work of art by aesthetic islanders devoted to the refinements of umami.

Copyright © 2008 by Betty Fussell

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents


The Cowboy and the Machine 1

Beefy Boys 8

Breaking the Wild 27

Playing Cowboy 61

The New Range Wars 82

Circling the Wagons 99

Buffalo Commons 122

Greening Beef 136

Good Breeding 149

The Smell of Greeley 172

Slaughterhouse Blues 191

Riding Point for the Industry 219

Mad Cows and Ethanol 248

Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner 285

The United Steaks of America 303

Acknowledgments 345

Permissions Acknowledgments 347

Endnotes 349

Selected Bibliography 374

Index 384

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  • Posted November 12, 2008

    One of the first books I couldn't finish!

    This book had great possibilities. The minor mistakes made me wonder if there were major mistakes. For example, the Mississippi River is not located near the 100th Meridian, they are GRAMA grasses, not gamma grasses, cattle do not eat the yucca plant, under any circumstances, except for the seedstalk, Ted Turner's ranch is the Vermejo, not the Vermigo, Border Patrol vehicles are green and white, not blue and white. After reading these obvious errors in the first hundred pages or so, I gave up on the whole book. The author should stick to writing cookbooks. I saw she wrote the story of corn, but after the mistakes in this book, I'm not even going to look at the corn one. If an author travels across the country gathering information, presumably on an expense account, I think they owe it to the reader to get it right! I hate sloppiness!

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    Posted November 17, 2008

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    Posted December 26, 2008

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