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


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.

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.

Recommended Reading

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.

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

I'm hoping for a piercing insight, something that will help me judge a quality piece of meat at a glance. But strikingly, Dave talks mostly about people. "You can tell this author knew that butchers might be pulling something, with all this about 'spongy old meat'—and it's true, an old piece of meat is just a spoiling piece of money, there's a lot of pressure to move it. Today, if I was out of my area, the first thing I'd do is try to find a small butcher shop or a decent meat counter. Then I'd try to get a friendly rapport going, maybe starting with the direction I wanted to go with cooking—'hey, I'm thinking about making a pot roast, any idea what might be best for that?' If you come in slinging attitude, like you know it all already, then there's no space for you to learn.

"Remember, most people know less than they think they do. That's true for me, it's probably true for you. I'm still listening to customers—there are so many ways to break down a cow. People will come in from Argentina asking for this one muscle we just don't cut the way they remember it. I love that. It's all about just treating the person across the counter like a human being."

He goes on and on. For Dave, choosing good meat begins with insisting on personal connections amid what is often a numbingly impersonal food system. It continues with curiosity, and a willingness to learn. Finding a good, honest supplier is as important today as it was in 1796. But if we want better butchers, Dave seemed to say, we need better eaters too.

Image: Library of Congress