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.
"This about the female animal being the most tender is interesting too," Dave goes on. "All poultry is female now, unless you can find a capon—that's a neutered rooster. But cattle are almost all male, at least the ones being raised just for meat." Today, older dairy cows may be used for ground beef, but the young, fast-growing animals (slaughtered at three years or less) that become roasts and steaks are nearly all bullocks.
"Which brings us to that line about cattle being used to labor," I say.
Whether it came from cows or oxen, in 1796 beef was almost always from beasts at the end of long and laborious lives—what the writer Harold McGee calls "rural" meat. Dairy cows spent their time grazing, but also giving milk, which drained their fat stores and left lean meat. Oxen hauled wagons along roads distinguished mostly by being the muddiest part of the terrain, which made for leaner meat still. "Urban" meat, from animals bred and raised for the table, was only just beginning to appear in new pedigrees like the improved shorthorn (the Durham Ox, a famous early example of a massive beef breed, was born the year American Cookery was published). The best beef probably came from either comfortably housed oxen or from the dairy cattle vital for the North's essential cheese and butter.