The Soul of Cooking:
The History of Beef - Part I
EMG Beef (Part I) Notes
In part I of this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, traces the history of beef, a main ingredient seen in most restaurants around the world.
It will take him on a journey starting with how cattle first became domesticated and how it started to appear on dining tables of early civilizations.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
The Soul of Cooking: The History of Beef
Can we, uh, count?
10, 9, 8, 7…. 6 [laughs] 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I had to remember how to count for a minute. Bleh. Ugh. Let me start again. Uh. Oh. Sorry. Sorry. The most fopular… fopular?
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to another episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
Now, one of the questions I’m most often asked is “what are my favorite styles of restaurant?” Of course, it’s an almost impossible question to answer, given that I am lucky enough to travel so much and, on my journeys, I get to eat some truly fantastic meals in so many different styles of dining places.
However, if I was pushed to give an answer, I think my attention would turn towards that most American of institutions: the classic steakhouse. In fact, when people come from abroad to visit me in my now hometown of Los Angeles, the first place I usually take them for a meal is my favorite steakhouse in the city: Taylor’s. It was said to be a favorite haunt of Ol’ Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra back in the day. Taylor’s has everything you want from a steakhouse: dim lighting, bathtub sized martinis -- gin with a lemon twist if you please -- and of course, fantastic char broiled slabs of dead steer. In my case, a slab of prime rib that is big enough to have its own zip code. My friends always love our meals there, and tell me that, despite the attempts to recreate them in other parts of the world, there really is nothing like a truly classic American steakhouse.
All of which prompted me to make this next two episodes of EAT MY GLOBE, all about that ingredient that is so essential to the American menu. So, today ladies and gentlemen, on Eat My Globe, we are going to talk about the history of beef.
In 2013, I received an invitation to spend a week in Nebraska. The invitation came from the Nebraska beef council and offered me the chance to follow the beef production process from watching calves being born all the way through the process to finally helping to prepare great steaks at the Nebraska Club in the fun city of Lincoln. It was a genuinely fascinating week, even though some of the aspects of the trip were more challenging, such as visiting the processing plant where the animals were slaughtered and processed. It definitely gave me a better understanding of the cycle of producing my favorite protein.
Now, I’m not alone in my love for beef. In 2016, figures show that Americans ate nearly 56 pounds of beef per person, which was the result of -- and turn away if you are a little squeamish -- the slaughter of nearly 33 million cattle. In many ways, one could argue that the consumption of beef by Americans has been a symbol to the rest of the world of the continued affluence of the United States and a point of pride for immigrants writing to family back in their native land.
In this episode, we’re going to look at the origins of cattle and how they began to spread across the globe. But, as beef has such a strong identification with the United States and has had, as I hope I can show you, such an impact on its history, I hope you won’t mind that for much of the next episode we shall stay pretty much close to home -- well, my new home at least.
To begin though, why don’t we do what we always like to do at the beginning of each Eat My Globe episode and define what exactly it is we are going to be talking about? Now in this case, it’s going to be a tiny bit more complex as not only do we have to define the meat product, but also the animal from which it originates.
So let’s begin with the cattle themselves.
Merriam Webster defines cattle as,
“domesticated quadrupeds held as property or raised for use specifically: bovine animals on a farm or ranch.”
Whereas the Oxford Dictionaries call them,
“Large ruminant animals with horns and cloven hoofs, domesticated for meat or milk, or as beasts of burden; cows and oxen.”
So, cattle are bovine animals -- a genus which might also include buffaloes and yaks.
Now while this definition is useful, what is even more interesting, I think, is the etymology of the word “cattle” itself. The word is derived from the Old French, Chatel, which literally meant, property. It has the same root – Kaput – with words like Capital and Chief, and makes me think from a very early stage in humans’ connection with cows, their importance was significant.
Archeological evidence suggests that Hominins – a group of which humans are the remaining species -- began incorporating meat eating into their daily diet around 2.6 million years ago, and certainly long before there was any notion of the domestication of animals. This evidence comes in the form of both butchery marks on bones, including the breaking open of said bones to extract the marrow within.
The earliest example of this has been found in an area called Gona, in what is now Ethiopia. And, while other animals may have hunted for prey, what is unique about this is that the hominins not only created tools for the purpose of butchery, but also hunted prey which was much larger than themselves, all of which marked themselves out from other animals.
Initially, the consumption of meat would primarily have come from scavenging for animals that had already died. But, it is believed that around 500,000 years ago, the movement went from merely scavenging for meat to actively hunting and producing tools for the purpose of killing animals as well as butchering them.
The process of humans moving from being nomadic hunter gatherers to forming communities began in a period known as the Neolithic Age -- around 12,000 years ago -- and in an area of the world that has been dubbed the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. There are many different theories as to why such a change would have occurred. Some believe it may have been down to a developmental change in the human brain. Others believe that it may have been a result of climate change. While some simply suggest that the ease of remaining where barley and wheat were growing naturally became easier than constant movement. Whatever the reason, once settled, the process of domestication -- the process by which farmers develop desirable qualities in plants and animals by managed successive breeding -- was soon underway.
I talked a little bit about the domestication of cattle in another episode this season -- on the history of cheese. However, I do think it’s worth running through again, to show just how important the domestication of animals was in human development.
There is a belief that cattle were domesticated in India and Western Asia -- and possibly Africa -- independently during the early stages of humans’ move from a nomadic to a settled existence. Some of the most recent research suggests that this happened around 10,500 years ago. In any event, domestication occurred because of the primary resources the cattle provided -- such as meat and milk -- and because of the secondary elements they supplied -- such as their capacity as load carriers by ploughing.
The first cattle would have been domesticated from a wild breed known as aurochs, or Bos Primigenius, which are believed to have moved along various routes to Europe, Africa and North Asia. They are now extinct. Sadly, the last known example died in Poland in 1627. They would have been considerably larger than current cattle often at nearly six and a half feet in height and weighing up to 2200 pounds in weight. And, so important were they to humans both initially as food, but also as a source of secondary supplies, that we see them appearing in some of the earliest cave art so far discovered. As the cattle migrated to different parts of the globe and were domesticated for different purposes and raised in a variety of ecosystems, they began to develop physically to meet the function for which they were now being raised and the surrounding environments. This led to the development of different breeds of colors, size and horn length. There are now more than 250 breeds of cattle in the world.
It is worth noting at this point that as well as for food, as I mentioned above, cattle were also raised for other reasons. The main one being hides and skin. And, while this is a food podcast and I shall be concentrating on the importance of beef, the dual purpose of raising cattle should not be forgotten.
As we move to the period of Classical Antiquity from around the 8th century B.C.E., we already begin to see roles designated to meat preparation, although these people would not yet have been known as “butchers.” That word was to come into use much later and has its origins, like “Cattle,” in the Old French and actually means,
“slaughter or cut up an animal for food”
and is derived from the word “boc,” which actually meant “male goat.”
The Ancient Greeks did consume meat, but in much lower quantities than we do today. In fact, it is worth noting that the United States is one of the top consumers of meat in the world. In contrast, much of the Greeks’ diet was derived from grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes. When they did partake in meat, such as beef, it was predominantly used as part of a feast. Feasting played a large part in Greek culture and was nearly always associated with religious ritual. In fact, there are those who argue that all meat consumption in Ancient Greece formed part of religious observation. It’s difficult to know if that is true, but we do know that in Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, feasting is a regular occurrence and is seen as a way of offering thanks to and honoring the gods by way of sacrifice, as well as feeding the humans.
In Book 12 of The Odyssey, we also see a story that indicates just how important cattle were to the Ancient Greeks. Odysseus warns his crew on numerous occasions, that if they stop on Thrinakia, the island of the Sun god, Helios, they are under no circumstances to eat the oxen that they will find on the island, as these are considered Helios’ children.Almost inevitably his men did’t listen to him.
“Now, that day tranquil cattle with broad brows were grazing near, and soon the men drew up around their chosen beasts in ceremony. They plucked the leaves that shone on a tall oak having no barley meal-to strew the victims, performed the prayers and ritual, knifed the kine and flayed each carcass, cutting thighbones free to wrap in double folds of fat. These offerings, with strips of meat, were laid upon the fire. Then, as they had no wine, they made libation with clear spring water, broiling the entrails first; and when the bones were burnt and tripes shared, they spitted the carved meat.”
And, spoiler alert, the result is unsurprising. When they leave the island, Zeus destroys their ship with a powerful thunderbolt, killing everyone except Odysseus. Which I guess goes to prove that eating too much red meat can be bad for your health. Sorry, folks, the jokes aren’t going to get better.
Scholars believe that the diet in Ancient Rome was similar to that consumed in Ancient Greece. That is that it was primarily one consisting of grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes. There are many accounts about grain and its distribution, where there are only a limited number of mentions of meat in “elite” literature, and those, like the ancient Greeks, might mean that meat was only consumed as part of a ritual feast. It’s also argued that the sheer resources to produce meat, whether it was cattle, pigs, lamb or goats, was simply too much for any but the rich to afford. However, in her work, Meat Consumption in Roman Britain, author Colleen Cummings does argue that archaeological evidence, particularly of butchered bones found in a wide variety of sites might mean that meat consumption was a little wider than academics might first have thought. And we do have archeological evidence that the soldiers of the Roman legions did have a range of meat, including beef amongst their rations.
After the decline of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E., Europe entered a period known as the Middle Ages or as the preferred term now is the Medieval Period. This period saw the rise of a societal structure known as feudalism, a system in which land in a country was granted by the king to the nobility and the Church. This land, known as Demense land, was overseen by the lord, and worked by landless peasants, known as serfs, who were allowed to live on the land in return for raising animals and the planting and harvesting of crops. The majority of the crops went to landowners, with the serfs retaining enough, hopefully, to sustain them through the year. Plus, the feudal system also guaranteed them the protection of their knights and lords in times of danger.
In terms of meat consumption, hunting of wild animals was a pastime usually reserved for the nobility and the penalty for peasants caught hunting wild animals were brutal. However, peasants did raise animals on their small holdings. These would include pigs and cattle. The cattle would primarily be oxen as draft cattle to pull ploughs, and cows provided them with milk, cheese and whey. The cattle would be too valuable to keep just as a meat source, although they may become that once they had ceased to give milk or become too old to pull a plough. In such cases, the peasants would be sure to harvest as much of the animal as possible and preserve the meat so it could help feed them during winter.
One other interesting fact about the period called the Medieval Period, or the Middle Ages, is it is at this juncture in history that we begin to see, in some cases, the separation in language between what an animal is called and what meat it provides. And, for that, we have to thank the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, a date that is ingrained in every young English student’s heart.
In 1051, the childless King Edward of England, had promised the throne of England to Duke William of Normandy, a claim that was later disputed by Earl Harold Godwinson, who had himself crowned King in 1064. In September of 1066, William arrived on the shores of England with an invading force. One month later, on October 14th at the famous Battle of Hastings, he dispatched Harold and his forces, and took over the crown.
“What does any of this have to do with a steak, Simon?” I hear you ask. Well, there is a point to this, I assure you.
After the victory, William and the Normans became rulers of England. With them, they brought not only their armies, but also their culture and their language – French or, also known at that point as, Norman. That began, in some cases, to merge with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes tongues of the inhabitants who populated Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire, and also to compete with it. So, you often ended up with two words for the same thing being in use at the same time depending on whether you were a peasant – who spoke Anglo-Saxon – or you were an aristocrat – who spoke Anglo-Norman.
So, for example, the Anglo-Saxon speaking peasants called an animal, “sheep,” and called the flesh of the animal, “mutton,” because that was what the Anglo-Norman speaking aristocrats called it when they asked their servants to cook it. Similarly, peasants called the animal “pig,” and heard the aristocrats call the flesh “porc,” with a “c.” And importantly for our story, the meat of the “cow” became “beef,” which had its roots in the Old French word for cow, “boef.” There are some Anglo Saxon words that still remained in predominant usage. Fish won out over “poisson” because some have argued, the Norman word sounded like “poison.”
By the 11th Century, feudalism was changing, and, arguably, towards its decline. There were many reasons why this system began to fail. The Crusades -- a series of wars by European Christians against Muslims, which occurred between 1095 and 1291 -- were aimed at reconquering former Christian territories and the Holy Land and stemming the spread of Muslim forces. They drew their armies from the nobility and knights in each country. Some crusaders sold their properties to fund their quest and, if they survived, had already lost their properties on their return. Also, many of these knights were lost in battle. As the nobility lost their properties and power, the royalty regained their power to establish a centralized government that was more representative of its subjects.
The Black Death, a bubonic plague, hit England in 1348 and ravaged the country until about 1350, before it disappeared – and returned, and disappeared again, therefore reducing the population by, for example, in Southampton about 25 percent in the 16th century. This had the effect of making labor harder to come by and more valuable, just changing – even if just slightly – the power dynamic with the nobility.
New inventions in farming also, such as advancements in plow technology, also reduced the demand for farmers, which, in turn, led peasants to move from their agricultural small holdings to the emerging and rapidly growing towns in search of more secure lives and alternative employment.
Along with other changes, the growth of the towns begins to see a change in the way the economy worked. Coupled with the growth in trade across Europe, feudalism saw a change from an economy based on agriculture and land, to one based on towns and trade.
For our story, these changes meant that landowners had a labor shortage and crop lands became pasture lands. This in turn led to a change from killing a cow or ox only when it had become too old to be of any further use, to building herds of cattle that were specifically created and bred to provide beef.
During the time of Henry VIII’s reign, protein, including beef, made up over 80 percent of the diet of Tudor nobility.
At the time, such a high protein diet was considered nutritious and beef even became linked with being virile. Henry VIII consumed about 5,000 calories a day, which came from eating up to 13 dishes made of lamb, chicken, rabbit, and of course, beef. He also had a bad jousting accident and suffered serious leg injuries, which likely led to his lack of exercise. His physical decline in his later years was a far cry from a man who loved sporting activities and hunting and was described by visiting Venetian ambassador Sebastian Giustinian as,
“Extremely handsome. Nature could not have done more for him.”
to a man who suffered obesity, swollen legs and occurrences of massive ulceration by the time of his death.
Shakespeare recognized the quality of beef in raising up English courage. In his play, Henry V, a French constable warns of the English soldiers before battle,
“Give them great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils.”
Although, he does also warn of the impact of too much beef on the intelligence.
In Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew Aguecheek admits,
“Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.”
Whatever the positive or negative impact of beef in the English constitution, by the mid-18th century, beef was certainly a staple enough part of the English diet for popular songs to be written about it. In 1731, playwright Henry Fielding wrote a song for his new play, The Grub St. Opera entitled The Roast Beef of Old England, which not only lauds the impact of beef on the English spirit, but also denounces the more recent impact of French cooking.
“When mighty roast beef was the Englishman's food,
It ennobled our hearts, and enriched our blood;
Our soldiers were brave, and our courtiers were good.
Oh the Roast Beef of old England,
And old England’s roast beef!
But since we have learnt from all-conquering France,
To eat their ragouts as well as to dance,
Oh what a fine figure we make n romance!
Oh the roast beef of Old England,
And old England’s roast beef!”
The song is still sung today by the British Royal Navy where it is used to usher diners in the mess.
And so synonymous did eating beef and being masters of its preparation become with the English that the French even created a term, Les Rosbif, to use when describing them. Originally, while by no means a compliment, this 18th century term was derived to show the most popular form of cooking in England. However, by the 19th century this term had taken on a darker meaning and even today is still used by our chums across the channel as a rather underhanded way of describing the English.
Mind you, the English have been calling the French some rather food-related pejorative words since the 1300s. So, I guess all is fair in love and cooking.
Although some claim Norsemen brought cattle to Massachusetts in 1007, it’s widely believed that cattle are not native and arrived in America at much later as part of what is now known as The Columbian Exchange. I have spoken about this phrase many times, coined by historian Alfred. W. Crosby, in a number of episodes [Ed. Note: here, here, here]. It relates to the vast exchange of elements between the Americas and Europe, after the arrival of the first adventurers in 1492. These included plants such as corn and potatoes, which were introduced into Europe. In return, the taking to the New World, European crops, such as wheat, to be grown for profit. The Europeans also brought much darker elements with them, which included diseases such as smallpox, measles and the flu. Diseases that had a disastrous impact on the indigenous population.
As well as plants, the Columbian Exchange also brought animals to the New World. These included goats, pigs, horses and sheep, and of course, cows. The first cattle were brought to the New World in the Carribean by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. He also brought similar cattle to Mexico. Recent research has shown that these cattle were a combination of strains from wild animals in both Europe and India. These animals were particularly suited to drought conditions and flourished. Within a century herds of wild cattle were to be found in places such as Mexico, where they were often considered a nuisance for the damage they did to crops.
The cattle in the Caribbean also began to run wild and by the 17th Century, herds of semi feral cattle began became the hunting target of European adventurers on the island of Hispaniola. These hunters would then cure the beef by drying them away from a slow fire on a native grill called a “boucan,” a method they learned from the natives on the island Eventually these hunters were called “boucaniers” or as the English called them “buccaneers.”
Which seems like a good place to bring today’s episode to a close. But, don’t forget to join us next week as we look at how beef first came to the United States of America and how it helped not only to feed the growing nation, but also how to create its identity.
See you next week.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History, and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: April 22, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.