It is a known fact that most Southerners prefer pork and chicken five to one over beef. You know it is a fact, because you have just seen it in writing, and on the Internet. These two criteria are sufficient to prove the veracity of any claim, the only other necessary proof being that it was mentioned by Oprah. So there you have it.
There are a myriad of reasons why beef has not traditionally been considered a staple protein throughout much of Dixie. Particularly in Appalachia, where most of our arable land went to growing food needed for our own survival and was too valuable to just allow 1,100 pound freeloaders to stand around eating and pooping all day (these being the days before Golden Corral).
We live in a different age now. Beef is no longer a rare commodity. The meat cases at even the most rural IGA contain beef of a quality that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. It is possible to get a decent steak even in towns where Burger King is still considered a sit-down restaurant. Unfortunately, the level of sophistication still has not caught up with the rest of the modern world. It is still a sad fact that ordering your steak anything but medium well or well done will likely be greeted with a vaguely bewildered stare as though you’d just ordered a plate of raw chicken and a box of matches. And if you’re like me and prefer your steaks Pittsburgh rare, also known as “black and blue” (charred on the outside, bloody and cool on the inside), you’ll probably find yourself surrounded by customers and staff intent on keeping you calm until professional help arrives.
Though I am not of an age to remember when beef was considered the other, other red meat (after venison and Slim Jims), I do remember Dad manning the family grill, dutifully ensuring that every last bit of blood and flavor was cooked out of each burger and steak, making it a perfect charred background for copious amounts of A1 Sauce. When I discovered the miracle of flavor that came from a rare or medium rare steak, it was viewed by my hillbilly family as the equivalent of the vegetarian phase every dutiful college student goes through right after they discover that poems don’t necessarily have to rhyme but before they figure out that a degree in Romance Poetry is nothing more than an application for employment at Starbucks. I never went through the vegetarian phase; though, as a sophomore, I did once eat an entire salad without so much as a single shred of bacon on it.
I understand that the need to overcook beef probably came from a time when refrigeration was uncommon, and that cooking a piece of meat until one was certain every single possible pathogen had been killed was probably prudent. And some things never leave a people, from generation from generation, even past the point of its original utility. To this day, I prefer the taste and texture of canned vegetables over frozen because canning was the primary means of preservation in the mountains. But as with anything, there must be a dividing line between things that are actually a part of the culture, such as flavoring slow-cooked vegetables with some form of cured pork, and things that were once a necessity but have outlived their usefulness, such as reruns of Green Acres.
Of course, there are those who can’t stand the sight of blood and get queasy at the thought of consuming it. It’s as though they believe that cooking all the blood out of a piece of meat makes it easier to forget that it was fairly recently alive. They are more comfortable thinking of it as a mysterious but tasty protein source, Soylent Beef. To these people, I suggest that if you can’t handle the thought that you’re eating a dead animal, you should probably just stick to the children’s menu. You never had to worry about receiving a rare chicken finger, plus you get a placemat with all sorts of fun activities on it to keep you entertained while the adults eat grown-up food. As for me, I feel a sense of obligation to the animal that gave its life for my meal to remain connected to the sacrifice by blood. I’ve taken part in the killing and butchery of cattle, hogs, and deer; I have no illusions as to how that slab of meat came to be on my plate. I also believe that every useful bit of the animal should be used, even if it means wearing a stuffed and mounted hog’s head as a hat. You can always explain it away by saying you’re an Arkansas fan.
There is also the not-inconsiderable fact that a good piece of beef properly swathed in all its crimson glory just tastes better. In fact, I took it a step forward and developed a taste for raw beef, be it carpaccio, steak tartar, or kibbeh. I don’t eat raw meat just to show what a manly man I am; that’s where I let my Old Spice deodorant do the talking for me. I eat what I eat, the way I eat it, because I like it that way and I couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks. That said, I never miss an opportunity to avail myself of a new experience, even if it might seem to some like I’m trying to show off. I can’t count how many first, and usually last, dates I dragged off the beaten path to unusual little ethnic restaurants or submitted to my own avant garde culinary creations. I hate the thought that there might be something I didn’t try when I had the chance. If I hadn’t been adventurous, I never would have discovered my love of sushi or my taste for Indian food. I’d have missed out on curried goat, raw milk, Coke Zero, falafel, pungent washed rind cheeses, and pizza with anchovies. I might also have never learned by experience that raw sea urchin is not my idea of a good time, and that the Greeks are more than welcome to my allotted portion of lamb’s eyeballs.
Even among true red meat carnivores, there is an ongoing debate as to whether all steaks should be rare, or if medium rare is more preferable. The Medium-rarians contend that the little extra cooking causes the fat to melt a bit and infuse the meat with a richer depth of flavor, and also aids in the connective tissues breaking down so that you don’t necessarily feel like you’re trying to chew the meat right off of the animal. I see their point, and will accept that a steak cooked medium rare does have a certain allure. But a properly dry-aged steak has already done most of that job before it ever sees heat. These are the steaks you’d find in a better steakhouse, and I don’t mean one with decorative bits of kale festooning the salad bar. The aging process allows the connective tissues to break down by themselves, and the loss of moisture allows the fat to render into the meat more effectively over heat. That’s why a good dry-aged steak almost melts like butter on your tongue, and also why it probably costs more than you spent on your entire outfit including your wristwatch. Who can put a price on such a sublime sensory experience? If I were going to Tampa, I’d rather pay $40 for a cheap motel and drop $150 at Bern’s Steakhouse than stay beachside and eat at some place where you get a T-shirt and your picture on the wall if you finish their Slaughterhouse Five Pounder in fewer than 20 minutes.
It’s not just the snooty name-dropping status that comes with eating at places like Bern’s, New York’s Peter Lugar’s, or whichever Gordon Ramsey joint at which his line cooks are currently being held at knifepoint until they can produce a steak that doesn’t taste like they warmed it between their butt cheeks. The difference is that they take only the best cut of meat and provide a level of expert care through every single step of the process, from the aging room to the dining room. I know that my steak will be prepared exactly as I ordered it, and that it will be perfect in every respect. And the steak will require nothing, not even a decorative sprig of parsley. And that, to me, is part of the draw of a rare steak. The less done it is, and the less that is done to it, the less room there is to hide. A poor cut of meat, inexpertly butchered, thawed out or cut from its vacuum packaging hours before cooking, and tossed on a grill until it looks like the picture on the corporate guideline poster can’t get enough distractions to make it edible. As far as I’m concerned, microwaved “grilled” onions, fake crab topping, or a generous squeeze from a bottle labeled “Cabernet reduction, non-alcoholic” just tips your hand that what lies beneath is just one USDA grade above “Feelin’ lucky, sport?” And while I will sometimes, with a good but not necessarily great steak, indulge in a dollop of maître d’hôtel butter or a splash of Worcestershire sauce and have been known to order Steak au Poivre or Chateaubriand when the mood strikes me, I still pride myself on my ability to appreciate the magnificence of a great piece of beef the way the Creator intended. I’m fairly certain that if God hadn’t meant for us to rise up on two legs and cook our food, at least a little, He wouldn’t have given us the Weber grill and novelty “Kiss the Cook” aprons.
I suppose some mention should be made of the lowly hamburger, currently ticking off the last few minutes of its Warholian quarter-hour of foodie obsession. For its hallowed place in the American heart, usually wedged right in the aorta like a 30-car pileup, the burger is a creation of virtually limitless versatility when it comes to the main ingredient. I can enjoy one of the better chain burgers (Five Guys, Steak ‘n’ Shake, In ‘n’ Out, et al), pressed flat on the grill even at the risk of losing precious juices and served saturated in grease without a hint of red showing. I can go to work on a bag full of little sliders from Krystal (a Southern version of White Castle), which contain 50% less beef than an IKEA meatball and 100% less horse. I can find pleasure in the primitive beer joint burger, reduced to its essential elements and cooked just this side of beyond done (and probably for the best, as the meat probably comes frozen in pre-formed patties from places unknown). But if I’m really going to enjoy a burger, from a place that grinds their own meat or knows the guy who did, I will indulge the Medium-rarians and forego my preferred bloody rare. Ground meat, unless it is intended to be eaten raw and prepared accordingly, does benefit from a slightly higher degree of doneness; it holds together a bit better, and the fat melts a bit so that it doesn’t form a greasy and off-putting coating in your mouth as if you’d been French kissing Paula Deen.
As for the other pieces of the cow, roasts and ribs and such, there are various schools of thought when it comes to those cuts. Brisket, for instance, is a tougher cut that usually benefits from braising or barbecuing until well done. For as deep as my hillbilly roots run, my Irish ancestry goes even deeper; there’s still something to be said for a nice boiled slab of corned beef. Beef ribs must be barbecued, and only by a licensed, practicing Texan . As for roasts, most benefit from being done no more than medium rare. The only exception is the chuck roast, which is a tougher cut that benefits from braising, being ground for hamburger, or “accidentally” letting it slip off the counter and allowing the dogs to have at it. The point is, all these cuts are prepared to their best possible advantage. In some cases, yes, it is nearly raw and red; in others, boiled as though you were sterilizing surgical instruments, surrounded by mushy lumps of what used to be cabbage, and washed down with so much ale that you can put a Breathalyzer in for recalibration.
The steak, though, is the best the animal has to offer and should be treated as such. Every time I see an otherwise decent rib eye turned into a withered shadow of its former glory, a T-bone cooked until you can tell meat from bone, or a filet mignon finished to the consistency of a hockey puck, I am torn between wanting to weep for the tragic waste and wanting to slap the ignorant bastard that ordered it with the now-useless piece of beef they condemned to be charred to a cinder. If I were ever to open my own steakhouse, it would be plainly stated on the menu that ordering a steak any more done than medium will result in the customer being served a can of Mighty Dog slathered with A1 Sauce. Warmed, of course, between my butt cheeks.