Some meats have an image problem. No one wants to be chicken or a turkey, a dead duck or a lamb to the slaughter. In politics, nothing is dodgier than pork.
Steak, on the other hand, is good. Ask “Where’s the beef?” and you’re talking substance. This too, too solid flesh is so highly valued that it defines a type of restaurant.
In the succinctly named “Steak,” Mark Schatzker travels the world in search of the perfect cut. The enjoyable quest starts in a Texas eatery where your food is free if you can finish a 72-ounce (2-kilo) chunk of meat -- and the shrimp cocktail, roll, potato, salad and ranch beans that come with it -- within an hour.
At the other end of the scale, there’s the quiet refinement of Seryna restaurant in Tokyo, where a waitress in a kimono kneels to cook Kobe beef on a hot rock, gently turning the sliced meat with chopsticks to the accompaniment of a soothing version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” arranged for flute.
Along the way, there are visits to France, Italy, Mongolia and Argentina, where Schatzker says the average man will consume 150 pounds of beef a year and many a home has a special grill for cooking steaks. George Foreman doesn’t get a mention.
In France, Schatzker finds a herd of aurochs, or -- more precisely -- a type of cattle developed by the Nazis to resemble that extinct breed of wild bovine. While chewing on this, Schatzker recalls the fate of his grandfather, taken from his home on July 4, 1941, then shot after being forced to dig his own grave.
“Steak” isn’t just a travelogue or a trot down that Proustian memory lane of lost culinary pleasure. Schatzker also throws in a fair bit of science to help explain why a good steak is so satisfying. Much of it is due to something called the Maillard reaction, where amino acids and sugars do a tango as the meat heats to deliver a hit of flavor on the surface.
Schatzker also examines the competing claims of grain-fed and grass-fed cattle and the way steak has been turned into a commodity in the U.S. by the kind of mass-production techniques recently highlighted in the film “Food, Inc.” He contrasts the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifications -- Prime, Choice and Select -- which favor young cattle, with European and Asian tastes, which value age and experience. Perhaps we do the same with human beings.
And don’t go thinking Japan’s contribution to the steak world is limited to simple Kobe. The nation has different grades of quality -- up to A5, the most marbled -- and there are other options. Anyone fancy a juicy slice of Matsusaka?
An Aberdeen-Angus in Scotland is about as good as it gets, though in the end Schatzker retreats to his native Canada -- he’s a columnist for the Globe and Mail -- and decides to grow his own, buying a couple of cows and smothering them with love.
Not all of us share his obsession with steak -- I lived for years in China and happily ate pork -- but you don’t need to in order to enjoy this book.
On his travels, he meets characters whose personalities are far from bovine. Chef Alain Ducasse even makes an appearance. Schatzker writes with wit, pace and grace, and a gentle, self-deprecating humor that makes him the Bill Bryson of beef.
“Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef” is from Viking (290 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)