The Soul of Cooking:
The History of Beef - Part II
EMG Beef (Part II) Notes
In part II 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.
His journey of tracing the history of beef continues to the New World and how cattle inspired technological inventions not just in the food industry but also in other industries, such as in transportation.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
The Soul of Cooking: The History of Beef
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SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi everybody and welcome to the latest episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, in this episode we are going to continue on from last week and discuss the arrival of cattle into what is now the United States of America and its importance in the growth of the country.
So, if you have not yet listened to last week’s episode, I would really recommend that you go and do that now, before listening to this one. I’ll be here eating a steak while you do.
One of the first arrivals of cows to what is now the United States of America occurred in 1521. They were brought to what is now Florida by another one of those great, but often forgotten figures from history: Juan Ponce de Leon. De Leon was on Columbus’ second voyage to the New World, and later became the Governor of Hispaniola, which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He later established the first European settlement in Borinquen Island, which was later named, Puerto Rico, and became its Governor. So now you know why Puerto Ricans sometimes call themselves, “Boricua.”
When De Leon was displaced from that position, he set off in exploration for other lands on behalf of Spain and landed on the east coast of an area he claimed for Spain and named “Florida,” which means “flowery.” He later returned to Florida on another exploration in 1521. He brought 200 people with him along with all the potential resources and supplies they would need to establish a colony. These included the first cattle. The attempt to establish a colony was unsuccessful and ended in the death of De Leon after a confrontation with a poisoned arrow dispatched from one of the local Calusa tribe. However, some believe that the animals left behind survived and began to breed after they were abandoned.
We can’t be sure of that, of course. However, we do know that there were other instances of cows being brought to different parts of what is now the United States.
In 1523, longhorn cattle began to graze in the range lands of Texas, then part of Mexico.
In 1610, Thomas West, The Lord De La War -- or Delaware -- brought new provisions and supplies to the failing colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Among these were cows, which he carried in the belief that for the colony to survive, it would need to have a supply of milk to make butter and cheese.
Similarly, in 1623 or 1624, the first cattle arrived at the Plymouth Plantation. These cattle were given names, “Great Black Cow,” “Lesser of the Black Cows,” and “Great White Backed Cow.” And, by 1627, with the arrival of further ships, there were 15 cattle in the plantation and even records of trading cattle or shares of cattle being recorded. Author Frederick Noble, who wrote about the Pilgrims and their cattle, said that one cow would have been worth about $200 in 1907 money, which translates to about $5,345 in today’s dollars. Holy cow! So, very expensive your cows.
For the first decades following the arrival of the colonists, the majority of cattle were imported from European countries. However, as domestic livestock began to increase and become established, the trade in beef began to develop alongside it. William Pynchon, of Springfield, Massachusetts is credited with being the first to operate as a Meat Packer in 1655. The name comes from the fact that after slaughter, the meat was smoked and salted and then packed into barrels for storage or to be traded. A relationship grew with the West Indies where meat was traded for molasses.
At the end of the French & Indian War, in 1763, the successful British issued a Royal Proclamation forbidding colonists inhabiting land west of the Appalachian Mountains. In part, this was because they were fearful of more conflict with French colonists who still lived there, and in part, because they were aware that their resources to administer their distant territory were already stretched to almost breaking point. This proved to be one of the many sticking points with the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies that combined to lead to the beginning of the War of Independence in 1775. They believed they had a right to expand west, as they had contributed many soldiers to the fight with the French. They knew they had a need to move west as the population of the colonies began to expand rapidly.
The term “Manifest Destiny” was not coined until 1845. It stated,
“the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
However, many of them already believed that they should occupy the whole of the continent, as they knew it. After Independence had been declared in 1776, the population began to rise rapidly, from 5 million in 1800 to 23 million in 1850.
Major land expansion began almost immediately. The Louisiana Purchase added 15 states to the new country in 1803. Texas finally became a member of the United States after gaining its independence from Mexico in 1836.
This expansion opened up massive opportunities for farming, and the raising of cattle. By 1855, Texas could already claim to have ten head of Longhorn cattle for every one human inhabitant.
Even at this point, however, beef was not a massive part of the American diet, with most of the cattle being slaughtered for tallow -- a substance made from the rendered beef fat -- and hides, and much of the meat being either salted or allowed to spoil. The main issue, of course, was storage.
A number of developments occurred in the mid-19th Century to help change this situation and to help make beef the primary protein source in the United States by the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1828, the first passenger and freight railroad from the Baltimore & Ohio Railway began construction. Interesting side note, a 91 year old Charles Carroll – the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence – shoveled the first spade of dirt. There you go. I love that story.
Back to our story, the railway first opened with only thirteen miles, but it was the beginning in a journey that was going to change America.
The railway network spread quickly, which obviously had a profound impact on just about every aspect of American society. However, it wasn’t until the 1860s when the first refrigerated railroad box car -- or “reefer” as they became known -- appeared that its impact on the way American’s ate became truly apparent. The reefer box cars were double walled and contained about 800 pounds of ice at either end. Meatpackers were among the first to see the potential benefit of these cars and began to build their own fleets to be pulled by the railroad companies, becoming the first private shipping cars.
Previously, most cattle slaughter was done in the West or Midwest. However, with the development of the refrigerated railroad system, cattle could now be brought from the large ranches in the west of the country to rail hubs and shipping points, from which they could be transported, to meat packing facilities in the east.
The development of the railroads was, of course, hugely important to both sides of the conflict in the American Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865. It was the first major conflict in which railroads were, in fact not just important, but vital. By 1861, around 22,000 miles of railway track had been laid in the Northern states and about 9,300 miles in the Southern states. These became important, not only for the transportation of troops, but also for the transportation of food, and included in the daily rations of troops of both sides was, of course, beef.
At the beginning of the war, both the Union and Confederate soldiers were provided with the standard U.S. Army rations, which included
“12 oz of pork or bacon or 1 lb. 4 oz of fresh or salt beef; 1 lb. 6 oz of soft bread or flour, 1 lb. of hard bread, or 1 lb. 4 oz of cornmeal. Per every 100 rations there was issued 1 peck of beans or peas; 10 lb. of rice or hominy; 10 lb. of green coffee, 8 lb. of roasted and ground coffee, or 1 lb. 8 oz of tea; 15 lb. of sugar; 1 lb. 4 oz of candles, 4 lb. of soap; 1 qt of molasses. In addition to or as substitutes for other items, desiccated vegetables, dried fruit, pickles, or pickled cabbage might be issued. The marching ration consisted of 1 lb. of hard bread, 3/4 lb. of salt pork or 1 1/4 lb. of fresh meat, plus the sugar, coffee, and salt.”
However, for the Confederate soldiers, this ration was reduced in 1862, primarily because of the problems of transporting sufficient supplies along the railroad systems to the troops in combat.
Rations for the combatants of both sides were hardly luxurious, and often unpalatable because they had to be prepared in difficult circumstances by men who had often never cooked before. They were also lacking in nutrients as vegetables were seldom to be seen, unless it was the much -reviled dried carrots, onions and celery that soldiers on both sides received. These were known as desiccated vegetables but were so despised by the men that they became known as “desecrated vegetables.”
While over 600,000 people died during the Civil War -- almost as many Americans as have perished in all other conflicts in entirety, by the way -- what many people are not aware of is how many of them died of diseases as opposed to being killed on the field. These diseases included pneumonia, typhoid, measles and malaria. And, above all, dysentery; dysentery and diarrhea killed more soldiers than war wounds.
Both sides looked for ways to solve this issue, which brings us to another one of those fascinating characters we encounter from time to time on EAT MY GLOBE, and someone who has become famous for one eponymous beef dish, that will be familiar to anyone who has ever eaten a T.V. Dinner.
Dr. James Henry Salisbury – who lived from 1823 to 1905 -- had spent much of his life studying the impact of germs on disease and the impact of food and drink on health. He was to write about it in great depth in 1888 in his work, The Relationship between Alimentation and Disease. A book which expounded on his theory that vegetables were bad for health, and minced beef patties were healthy.
During the Civil War, he subjected himself and others to a number of experiments, where he lived on a single food, in an attempt to see if they would have any effect. In the end, after failed experiments with oatmeal and beans, he concluded that a dish made out of broiled “muscle pulp of beef” served with coffee or fat-free beef tea would be the perfect solution.
It was popular, but perhaps that’s as much because the water for coffee was boiled and the meat was cooked properly. However, the dish and the “fad” diet that went with it was later promoted in a hugely successful book entitled, “What Do I Do to Get Well? And How Can I Keep It So?,” by Elma Stuart, which helped cement it in the culinary repertoire. I have also read that the term “Salisbury Steak” became increasingly popular during the first world war when things with a German name such as hamburger were less favored. I don’t know whether that’s true, but its appearance in the T.V. dinners so popular in the 1950s would indicate that it was well known and popular enough to help sell it is a concept.
Anyway, I hope that was an interesting aside, and perhaps some of you will actually go out and try and make a Salisbury steak soon. But, let’s get back to our main story, shall we?
After the Civil War, the cattle industry in the United States began to centralize in earnest. In Texas, cattle had previously been left to roam free, marked only by brands. Now, they began to be herded in designated ranges and taken during Spring time on huge cattle drives to towns with rail heads and markets. These towns, such as Abilene, Kansas and Schuyler, Nebraska became increasingly prosperous, and given the name, “Cow Towns.”
For twenty years after the Civil War, cattle driving was in its pomp, particularly as cattle was worth so much less in Texas than it was in the east and west. In 1866 alone, over 260,000 head of cattle crossed the Red River on its way to market along routes with such legendary names as the Chisolm Trail. But, by the 1880s, the railroads had developed rapidly in Texas, and proved a far more efficient way of getting cattle to northern markets and this brief, but iconic moment in American history was over.
The rapid rise in population in America during the 19th century -- from around 4 million in 1790, to nearly 107 million in 1920 -- most of whom were immigrants and living in growing towns, meant not only more towns to feed, but less people with agricultural experience. This prompted more changes to the American food system, and in particular for our story, the beef industry. Over the next 50 years or so, we saw a change not only in how our food was transported, but also in the type of cattle that was reared and how it was slaughtered.
In the 1870s, we began to see the introduction of the much more hardy, fertile, and better meat quality producing British breeds of cattle to the ranches in the United States. They were both allowed to grow as their existing breed but were also cross bred with the existing Spanish Longhorn to produce animals more suited to beef production. Around the time of the Civil War, the average weight of a cow was 350 pounds. If you want to compare that to today, my research shows me that the average weight nowadays has a whopping range of 1050 pounds to 1200 pounds. In the 1880s, a steer might have weighed in at about 850 pounds, still a significant increase.
Added to the increased size of the animal, the continued development of refrigeration meant that dressed beef could be shipped to all regions of the country on reefers, as I mentioned earlier. This led to the founding of much larger centralized packing facilities, which enabled their owners to butcher cattle on mass and cut into sizes to be sold direct to the consumer.
The creation of the first of these giant meatpacking plants is credited to another key character in the history of beef: Gustavus Franklin Swift, who lived from 1836 to 1903. Swift had begun his working life as a meat seller in Boston and by 1872 was the cattle buyer and partner for an established firm called James A. Hathaway. Swift had bigger aspirations, and in 1875, moved his operation to Chicago. Chicago was by then the premier beef town in the United States. It was a major railroad hub, and by its south side railroads, they were the largest beef stockyards in the country.
Swift believed that the current strategy of shipping live animals from Chicago to the East coast was inefficient and costly. The animals had to be fed along the way – and a considerable number of animals died en-route – and there was considerable waste as many parts of the cattle were considered unusable once slaughtered.
Swift believed that a more sizeable profit could be made by butchering the beef in Chicago and then sending out dressed beef to the markets on the east. Unfortunately, at that time, the refrigerated rail cars were not yet reliable enough to make this work.
While his model was a success, Swift faced challenges from the railroad companies who would consequently lose income just from transporting dressed beef. He also faced fierce opposition from local butchers in the east, particularly the National Butchers Protective Association, who placed bans on selling dressed beef and also warned their customers that beef that had been killed a week before it had arrived in the store might harbor all kinds of diseases.
Ever one to face a challenge head on, Swift battled back and agreed a deal with a Canadian Railroad company, the Grand Trunk Railroad, to ship his dressed beef. This Canadian railroad was the first international railway line and operated from what is now Ontario down the east coast of the United States. They had never made considerable profits from transporting cattle and offered Swift preferred terms to use their railroad. Swift also invested in a large advertising campaign aimed at the eastern market to promote the safety and convenience of western beef. In the end, Swift won out and other companies began to copy his model.
Swift not only focused his attention on the transporting of his beef but wanted to control the whole process from the raising of the animals, to the way they were slaughtered. His plants were known as models of efficiency. However, they were also places where work was extremely hard and working conditions dangerous. Workers in the industry were often given job names that described their place in the production process, such as “knockers,” “rippers,” “leg breakers,” and “gutters,” Not very nice.
Famously, author Upton Sinclair modelled his fictionalized meat packing company, Durham & Co., in his celebrated novel, “The Jungle,” on a Swift company competitor, Armour & Co. In the book, the protagonist, Jurgis, discusses not only the backbreaking work, the low wages and the terrible treatment of his workers, but also the poor sanitary conditions in which the meat was kept. This book was a huge success when it was published in 1905, although Sinclair often complained that people were more offended about the poor state that their beef might be in than the conditions in which the workers travailed.
As part of Swift’s and other meat packers’ desire for overall efficiencies, we also see the next great development in the move of beef from occasional delicacy to America’s national protein.
In 1876, Swift opened the first recognized feedlot. There are lots of debates and controversies around feedlots, which are described on Beefrunner.com as,
“final stage of production prior to slaughter with a focus on efficient growth and weight gain of the animals. This is achieved by providing a readily digestible, high-energy diet; reducing the amount of energy expended to find food, directing more toward growth, and managing the cattle to minimize stress and health problems.”
In effect, they are the last stages of the process before slaughter, perhaps three to five months, where cattle are held in a more confined space so that they can be fattened to provide a higher yield and to provide a consistency in terms of the supply of beef.
By the 1950s and 1960s, the move to the feedlot system was all but complete. As of about 2016, there are about 13.1 million cattle raised on feed.
Now, we could obviously spend an entire episode, indeed quite a few episodes, talking about the benefits and negatives of the feedlot system. Certainly, from a purely business point of view, it has created a system that not only generates a vast amount of wealth but has also created a large export industry for beef produced in the United States to be shipped around the world to major markets such as Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Canada. And, some would argue that it has also created a more consistent product that can be monitored to fit into food safety regulations. Arguably, it has also made beef more affordable to the consumer. In 2016, the average price of USDA Choice Beef -- and we will come on to the USDA grading system in a moment -- was $5.96 a pound, in fact a decline in price of 33 cents a pound from the previous year.
There are those who argue that food, including beef, simply shouldn’t be that cheap. And, while researching this episode, I came across many articles that heavily criticize the feed lot system. Their criticisms are numerous. The confined spaces in which the animals are kept, which is considered inhumane.
The issues with disease that these confined spaces often bring with them, the drugs that are used to deal with such diseases, and the type of feed that is used to fatten the animals, which is considered potentially cruel.
All cattle will begin their life eating grass on pasture. Those that are placed into feedlots will find that their diet then changes from grass to grain and primarily corn-based grain products. Prior to the 1950s, most cattle grazed on grass for two to three years before slaughter, occasionally supplementing that with a little corn to fatten them up at the end or as a supplement when grass was hard to find. However, in the post war era, the appetite for beef soared and farmers looked to new sources of food to speed up the process. At the same time, corn production began to flourish, and both sets of farmers began a mutually productive relationship as the new feedlots began to feed inexpensive corn to cattle.
There were some benefits to this new style of feeding. It definitely speeded up the process of cattle production and, as we said, definitely made beef more affordable. Also, because it is less able to be digested by cattle, it produces a higher fat content to the meat which over time has become both desirable and expected.
However, as famed food writer Michael Pollan points out, the act of giving the animal a food to which it has not evolved to eat has fundamental and negative changes on the animal. This is a change he says is “taught” to the cattle during a process called “backgrounding,” which occurs before they enter the feedlot proper, and begins with what he calls
“….this whole cycle of drugs and meat. By feeding them what they're not equipped to eat well.”
It’s a process that Pollan argues creates an issue that is,
“an economic logic, and you have an evolutionary and natural logic. And when you get to the cow, you see them come into conflict. It may well make sense economically to feed cows what we feed them, but ecologically, it's a disaster. It's a disaster for them because they're getting sick. If you look at a cow on a feedlot, it is not a happy camper. ..”
It’s also worth noting that the processing of meat is one of the most extensively regulated of all food production. It began in earnest in 1906, when Congress prohibited from sale “adulterated” and “misbranded” meats, and called for meat processing to be continuously monitored. The system is now overseen by the USDA – FSIS or United States Department of Agriculture – Food Safety and Inspection Service. This operates on two levels, a mandatory level that inspects meat for,
which is paid for by taxpayers. And a voluntary program that is paid for by meat and poultry processors and producers. It is this latter program that gives you the USDA grading that you should see being ascribed to every bit of beef you buy. You will know some of them, although some of you may not know all of them. They are:
Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Utility, Cutter and Canner.
The latter three are rarely sold at retail and are usually used to make ground meat.
It would be easy for us to get into a huge fractious argument about how we raise our beef. That’s not really the point of this podcast, so I won’t go into my own thoughts on the matter, only to say to everyone who is kind enough to listen to this episode to do some research of your own and buy your beef from the best sources that your budget allows. No one can ask any more of you than that.
In 1977, came the release of the Dietary Goals for The United States by the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. This blamed high cholesterol foods for the increase in the nation’s heart disease incidents, but also suggested specifically that people
“decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish.”
This had an impact on beef consumption that lasted up to the point when diets, such as the Atkins Diet, which was developed in the 1960s, promoted high protein and low carbohydrate intake. More recently, the Keto Diet, has become increasingly popular.
And now, beef is as popular as, well it’s ever been.
Now, before I leave you, I did start this podcast by talking about my favorite steakhouse in Los Angeles, so I do think it would be wrong to let you go without telling you about the oldest steakhouse in the United States of America that is still in operation. It resides in New York City, and is known as The Old Homestead, which opened in 1868. Unsurprisingly, it sits on the edge of what is known as the meatpacking district, and is worth a visit if you are ever in Manhattan. The 16-ounce Porterhouse Burger is rather good.
And, on that note, I’m going to give Taylor’s a call and see if they have a table. I am in the mood for some prime rib. Medium rare of course.
So I’ll see you next time.
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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 preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: April 29, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.