Attention, American carnivores: the next time you pick up your fork and knife at your favorite steakhouse and dig into that perfectly marbled meat, say a little thank you to England’s “Beef-Eaters.”
Few of us realize the role that England played in the development of America’s beef trade. As “the great beef-eaters of Europe” in centuries past, the English (at least the middle and upper classes) consumed far more beef than their continental neighbors. Meat, and particularly beef, was believed to ensure great strength and virility.
Beef wasn’t just part of the meal; it was part of the lifestyle, too, conveying affluence and contentment. In the late 1700s, “livestock portraits” were favored, and many an English country estate featured paintings of fat, happy cattle grazing in a bucolic landscape.
So imagine the panic when an anthrax epidemic on the European continent spread to Ireland and England in the 1860s, making British beef scarce and expensive. The British turned to the Americas, and steadily increasing amounts of live cattle and salted beef were shipped across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, North Americans pushed westward, grazing cattle on the fertile and abundant grasses of the Midwest. The big question: How to connect those fields with consumers in the east -- as well as the famished in England?
The answer came in the 1870s with the westward expansion of the U.S. railroads, which were critical in shipping goods back to populous East Coast port cities, as well as transporting people to the Midwest. And British companies played a major role in financing the building of those transcontinental railroads in the 1870s and 1880s.
British and Scottish financiers began to catch the cattle fever. “In Edinburgh, the ranch pot was boiling over,” recounted John Clay, an agent for English investors, in his 1924 autobiography, “My Life on the Range.” “Drawing rooms buzzed with the stories of this last of bonanzas; staid old gentlemen, who scarcely knew the difference between a steer and a heifer, discussed it over their port and nuts.” Many an “armchair cowboy” purchased land in the Midwest for building palatial vacation homes.
But the most exciting development was the advent of refrigerated railway compartments. The high cost of shipping live animals to Europe (special shipping decks, damage to animals, weight losses) encouraged innovations in shipping dressed meats (the bloodless term for animals after slaughter).
A young inventor from New York, John I. Bates, experimented with hanging beef carcasses in rooms that were refrigerated with ice-cooled air circulated by large fans. In June 1875, he shipped 10 carcasses to England. They arrived fresh and sparked a flurry of interest among British investors.
Timothy Eastman, a successful packer, bought Bates’s patent and launched an ambitious campaign to ship refrigerated carcasses to Britain. By the end of the year, more than 206,000 pounds of beef were shipped; by the following year, he began shipping 1 million pounds per month. By the end of that year, the Eastman operation was providing the British Isles with 3 million pounds of fresh beef every month.
Other companies followed Eastman’s lead. Soon, almost every steamer between New York or Philadelphia and England carried American beef. By the 1800s, the U.S. accounted for 90 percent of the beef imported to England.
The advent of refrigerated train cars in the 1870s also meant that cattle could be slaughtered close to the farm and that the butchered meat could be transported, eliminating the need to transport live cattle to market. By 1883-84, the number of cattle slaughtered in Chicago was so significant, the phrase “meatpacking” replaced “pork packing” as the name of the industry.
The British brought with them more than just their capital. They also brought their unique taste for “fatted” beef -- heavy, richly marbled with speckles of fat. In Europe, cattle breeds fed on cold-weather grasses that are high in protein and low in fiber, and produce cattle that put on protective fat. But most of the U.S. is in lower latitude, with extremely hot summers and acid soil, resulting in lower protein grass.
The British cattle barons developed a new strategy for achieving fatty beef: feeding them corn.
For the first time in agricultural history, cattle production and grain production were brought into a symbiotic relationship. By the turn of the 20th century, it was common practice to ship cattle from the prairies, where they grazed on grass most of their lives, to be “finished” or fattened on a rich diet of corn before being sent to St. Louis or Chicago for slaughter.
Slowly, Americans adopted the British taste for fatty beef. In 1927, the U.S. Department of Agriculture codified fatty beef as the standard for judging the value and price of beef sold to consumers. Even today, degree of and distribution of marbling is the primary determinant of quality grade. “Prime,” the highest quality, signifies abundant marbling; “Choice,” a moderate amount of marbling; “Select” indicates that the beef is practically devoid of marbling.
The Brits still love their beef, though these days it’s less likely to be sourced from across the pond. But ask any American steakhouse devotee how tender and flavorful that marbling makes their steak, and it becomes clear: regardless of origin, that luscious beefsteak is part of our All-American heritage.
(Kara Newman is the author of “The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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