What America's First Steaks Can Teach Us About Beef

Lessons from our country's earliest cookbook: how to judge meat by how it looks, buy the best cuts, and honor thy butcher

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If the past is a foreign country, then old cookbooks are some of the best passports we have. Consider, for example, the advice on how to choose beef in Amelia Simmons's 1796 American Cookery. "The large stall fed ox beef is the best, it has a coarse open grain, and oily smoothness; dent it with your finger and it will immediately rise again; if old, it will be rough and spongy, and the dent remain. Cow Beef is less boned, and generally more tender and juicy than the ox, in America, which is used to labor."

That's more than a description of meat; it's a picture of a vanished culinary world. When American Cookery appeared, cooks still knew their butchers, and expected to be able to lift and turn and prod a roast before buying. The meat itself might have been hauled to market in wagons pulled by oxen that would one day be meat themselves, over roads so rutted that they were best traversed when frozen.

"What about the advice for choosing beef?" I ask. "We can't really poke at our meat today—what should we do instead?"

Today, we worry about the costs of transporting corn-fed cattle. Could we still use a guide to beef written when cattle were the transport? To find out, I call Dave the Butcher.

When I first met Dave Budworth, he was breaking down half a grass-fed steer—outside. On a chicken farm. During a driving rainstorm. It was a fundraiser to benefit the farm, and Dave doled out cuts as quickly as he could carve them off the hanging carcass. Chickens roosted in nearby trees or strutted, hundreds strong, across an abutting pasture. The beef was slick, dripping with rainwater. The scene was both bizarre and somehow undeniably right; such parceling out of meat to eager crowds predates even butchers in the human experience.

When I ask Dave how he became a butcher, he just laughs. "I didn't have much of a resume for a long time," he says. Which is a gentle way of saying that it's hard to hold down a job when you're busy doing speed and being homeless near the Santa Cruz beach. When a friend got him a gig helping out at a now-defunct San Francisco market, it was the first step on a road paved mostly by curiosity. Dave was curious about the label Edible Feet on the waxed boxes he was hauling. He was curious about how bikers he met in Australia cut up a brace of kangaroos. Most of all, he was curious about how you could look at a single massive animal and see tri-tip and ribeye and top round.

Knowing beef takes exposure and practice; in Dave's judgment, the author of the American Cookery market guide had both. "This about 'open-grained' is interesting," he says. "If you shoot a deer, you end up with really tight, tough meat. A deer's been running and exercising its whole life. What she's talking about is an animal that's had more rest, that's spent time just standing around in a field."

"Maybe that's what she means by stall-fed?" I suggest. "It might be about its activity level instead of what it was eating."

"Yeah, I was thinking about that—you wouldn't have had much corn-fed beef until way later, maybe World War II or so. So why stall-fed? Maybe it just meant a steady food supply." That wasn't a given in Simmons's day. Along the western frontier (which might still have meant portions of New York State, where Simmons likely lived) and in the South, it was common to simply brand cattle and release them, letting them forage on whatever scrub and bracken they could.

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Andrew Beahrs is the author of Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. He lives in California with his family. More

Andrew Beahrs is the author of Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, and of two historical novels, Strange Saint and The Sin Eaters. With a background in archaeology and anthropology, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Gastronomica, Food History News, Living Bird, Ocean, and other journals. He is currently working on a book about the edible history of the Monterey Bay’s submarine canyon and its adjacent lands. He lives in California with his family.

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