by Betty Fussell
In his recent review of Peter Hoffman’s Savoy Restaurant in New York City, Frank Bruni of The New York Times complains that the grass-fed beef that the Chef serves “doesn’t have the richness of the best grain-fed beef” and so isn’t worth the price.
Give me a break. Grain-fed means fat, both inside the muscle and out. Grain is not about flavor. The best grain-fed beef is aged post-mortem to give it the flavor it lacks from the feed. Grass-fed beef is a different sort of beast entirely, not only in what the steers are fed but in how we expect greened beef to taste. Taste is in the head before it’s on the tongue.
We don’t expect a wild duck to taste like a farm-raised White Pekin, nor a duck breast of any kind to taste like foie gras. Those French words mean “fat liver,” and it’s the unnatural amount of fat that gives that liver its superb buttery texture. I’ve always thought of it as duck butter. Since I love ordinary dairy-cow butter, I also love duck butter.
I also love beef butter. That’s what you get from highly marbled Wagyu/Kobe beef, whether purebred or crossed with Angus. Wagyu/Kobe costs a super amount of money because it is superfat. This is one reason why Bruni, along with most Americans and certainly the American beef industry, equates “richness” with high fat and high prices.
But if “richness” means flavor and intensity instead of fat, a whole new world opens. Fat can be a carrier of flavor but in itself its sensuous quality is texture not flavor. True flavor profiles, on the other hand, are as complicated with meats as they are with wines. One of the criticisms of the grain-fed beef industry about grass-feed beef is that it tastes “gamey.” Unfortunately, most of us Americans have lost the taste of what true game is — “wild” — because wild game cannot be legally sold in most states.
The application of USDA rules are so complicated on this issue that it does bear inspection (see Michaela York’s “Where Are the Wild Things?” in the May 2009 issue of Food Arts). The result is that for decades Americans who neither hunt nor have friends who hunt do not know what the taste of any wild thing is.
Most game sold as “wild” in restaurants is farm-raised (and grain-fed). Genuinely wild game feeds on all kinds of grasses and forage plants. The “richness” of wild game, which is notably lean rather than fat, depends not just on breed but on its intense flavors from all that foraging. While any game or beef flavor is deepened by aging, the flavors of grass-fed cattle are closer to the flavor spectrum of game than that of any corn-fed beast.
But why narrow our flavor range with beef by setting up a price/pleasure index that says high pleasure means high fat means high cost? Contrary to Wally Simpson, you can be too rich and too thin: too rich in mere fat and too thin in real flavor. Restaurant reviewers are no exception to the need to retrain the conditioned American palate.
A trip to Argentina (except for the governor of South Carolina) might be in order to discover the richness of exclusively grass-fed beef that the Argentines have delighted in from the first cow on the pampas. Or maybe a side trip to Australia and New Zealand. We don’t have to be parochial about our corn-fed idea that fat is the only thing that counts.