Each year, on his birthday, my mother asks my father where he wants to eat. "The Chan," my father usually replies, the smile already spreading across his face. He's referring to House of Chan, a red-lantern Chinese restaurant turned high-end steakhouse in Toronto, famous for thick cuts of tender beef, broiled, buttered and brought to the table already sliced. "Certain occasions call for steak," writes Mark Schatzker in Steak: One Man's Quest for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef, released earlier this summer. "No one ever celebrated a big sale by saying, 'How about chicken?' "
Schatzker, a lifetime steak lover, is disappointed in the steaks he's eating. They simply don't taste as good as he remembers, and the author, a journalist who writes regularly for Conde Nast Traveler, makes a call on the cattlemen of the world to find out why. We are taken from feedlots in Texas, where the wind carries dust storms of dried feces, to French cave paintings of prehistoric cattle. We smell the dewy grasses of the Scottish highlands, chase rare breeds in Italy and enjoy charcoal-grilled rib tips on the Argentine pampas. In each spot, the author meets the men and women trying to raise the best steaks they can, as he consumes what can only be a gout-inducing quantity of beef, all in the name of research. Back home, he even attempts to raise his own cattle, hand-feeding it apples and taking it to the slaughterhouse himself, watching as one "dropped to the ground with the abruptness of a sack of flour pushed off the edge of the table."
Much has been written about red meat in books like Betty Fussell's Raising Steaks, Beef by Andrew Rimas and even parts of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. But Steak stands apart because of Schatzker's fun, accessible style and his willingness to slay the sacred cows of what supposedly makes great steak. He debunks the notion that more marbling equals better-tasting steak, taking down Japan's overhyped Kobe beef in the process, a meat so overly fatty that he "craved undressed salad" to revive his taste buds. Grass-fed beef, all the rage with environmental and health advocates, may be more environmentally sound, but as the author finds out, it sometimes tastes like "an old, atrophied, abscessed organ left in the trunk of a car sitting in a Miami parking lot for two weeks in July."
As millions of backyard chefs prepare for Labor Day barbecues, the focus will be as much on the experience of preparing that steak as the taste of the meat itself. Comprehensive as Schatzker's analysis is, it would have been nice to read more about the actual cooking of steak. This final step not only alters steak's flavor and texture but is the most fun part. A few pages of cooking advice tacked onto the appendix is but a tease.
I read Steak during my honeymoon to Spain, and on our second night in Madrid insisted we order a giant rib eye. It arrived tableside nearly raw, pre-sliced, accompanied by a hot iron plate atop a blue Sterno flame. I placed that first sliver of dark red meat on the scalding surface, and we watched it transform into a splattering, searing, smoking piece of theater. It was consumed without sauce, sides or even plates. Just steak. As it should be.