Never thought we would say it, but this kind of writing knocks the New Yorker into a cocked hat, or whatever the phrase is. Enough of the placid, limpid delineation of reality (supposed reality, actually often involving composite characters and combining conversations held at different times into one, we have been disappointed to learn), this is writing as big as a bleeding brown hunk of Angus beef slapped down on your plate with plenty of mashed potato and spinach on the side, food for the man in us, not the dinky tea party we have been praising up till now.
All Hail A. A. Gill, scribe to the Gods!
May 2013 Vanity Fair
Steak Shows Its Muscle
By A. A. Gill
I once dined with the Masai in the Serengeti. Seven thirty for eight, smart safari casual. I tiptoed up to the thorn enclosure, shook hands, smiled, talked about the weather and the flies and the children’s beadwork, admired the big lotus-bladed lion spears, and then my host said, “Shall we go through?” We went into the dining room, which was also the cattle pen, where dinner was standing with a tourniquet around its neck and a lad pulling its tail. A boy took a bow with a blunt arrow and shot a hole in the animal’s jugular vein, which spurted a river of blood dexterously into a long, bulbous gourd that had been cleaned for my benefit with cow’s urine.
After about half a pint had been tapped, the tourniquet was released, a finger of dung applied to the hole, and the steer was re-united with his mates to complain about the greed and cold hands of cooks. The dinner soup was briskly whisked with a stick to keep it from clotting, the stick was handed to a child in the way your mother gave you the cake-mix spoon, and the gourd was hospitably given to me. It was heavy. The family watched with a host’s nervous expectation. Cheers, I said weakly, and lifted it to my mouth. The smell of the disinfected pot reeked rank as I felt the blood move and lurch in the gourd’s neck like a slinking dark animal. And then, before I was ready, my mouth was full, cheeks bulging with body-heat gore the texture of custard, silky and vital and forcing open my constricted throat. I swallowed. Great visceral chugs.
Imagine what it tasted like. Just think. Because, actually, you already know. You know what warm blood straight from a bull’s heart tastes of—it tastes of steak. Not merely like steak. Not just a little meaty. But of the very finest, perfectly velvety, unctuous steak I’d ever tasted. But it isn’t the blood that tastes of steak, it’s steak that tastes of blood, and that’s all it tastes of. I never eat a sirloin now without thinking, This is good, but not quite as good as the real oozing liquid thing. My Masai dinner was, incidentally, the only steak a vegetarian could ethically eat; no animals were killed. It was organic, and it was wholly sustainable. The Masai’s cows owe their long and treasured lives to this occasional painless cupping.
We live in the steak age; marbled fatty buttock is the defining mouthful of our time. Smart cities are being stampeded by herds of restaurants devoted to cows’ arses. This is the bovine spring of red meat, and it’s not just America or the West. Around the world, communities that a generation ago rarely or never ate steak are now craving and demanding the taste of blood. In 1950 there were an estimated 720 million cows in the world. Today there are nearly one and a half billion. In America there is one cow for every three people. Think of a third of a cow—that’s what’s on your plate, and you’re not getting up until you’ve finished it.
Why have we fallen in such greedy love with beef? What does steak say to us and about us? Well, it’s manly. If food came with gender appellations, steak would definitely be at the top of the bloke column. Women can eat it, they can appreciate it, but it’s like girls chugging pints of beer and then burping. It’s a cross-gender impersonation. Steak is a high-value food that doesn’t need a chef. You don’t want some twiddly-accented, jus-dribbling, foam-flicking chef mincing about with your meat. You want a guy in a checked shirt with his sleeves rolled up forking and tonging your T-bone. Steaks even come with their own butch utensils. It’s more like engineering or Lego than cooking. It’s boy stuff. The porterhouse used to be the dining choice of a gauche out-of-towner, a man who was uncomfortable with chic urban menus and didn’t know how to order—“Oh, I’ll just have the steak. Wipe its behind and bring it to the table,” they’d say, just to let the rest of us cheese-eating sophisticates know that they weren’t intimidated hicks. Restaurants would keep steak on the menu just for them because they knew there would always be a certain sort of guy who didn’t think it was an acceptable date restaurant if he couldn’t get a New York strip. Chefs hate steaks because their reputations are left in the hands of their butchers—two cuts off the same muscle can eat quite differently.
But today steak is, if not chic, then at least modern. Steak houses used to be leathery, clubbable lounges with cartoons of dead customers on the walls and faux Victorian paintings of obese cattle, staffed by ancient, permanently enraged waiters with faces as livid as well-hung sirloin and aprons that went from nipple to ankle. Now a steak restaurant is more likely to be James Bond luxurious and internationally expensive, a setting for chiseled-jawed, silver-templed seduction and couples with multiple passports. A place for men—who might fear that their testicles would pack their bags and leave if they caught them talking about terroir or heirloom tomatoes—to have a detailed and exhaustively knowledgeable discussion about dry-aging, grass-fed versus corn-fed, and the state of Wagyu-Angus crossbreeding. Steak has become the butch foodie communion, and tellingly not just for flinty-eyed, Armani-suited leaner-than-thou businessmen, but for metrosexuals who wish to beef up their cultural testosterone.
In lean times, when we’re keeping a white-knuckle grip on the rungs of the middle-class ladder, steak comes as a small vote of self-confidence. It’s an emblem of victory, of survival. A slab of bleeding meat is symbolic of something fundamental, something pre-banking, pre-mortgage, predownsizing, prehistoric. It is a metaphor for the most basic achievement: to kill for sustenance, to be strong, to man up. Watch a guy in a suit look at his plate when the waitress brings his steak. He glares at it just for a moment. It’s not even conscious, but it’s the look of ownership; it’s the pride warning, “Don’t touch my meat.” A lot of men do something called mantling—that is to lean over the plate, surround it with their arms just for a second. It’s body language that comes from a time before speech. The bit of our brain that deals with taste and appetite is the most ancient in our heads, the bit we share with lizards. Nothing about our menu choices are purely cultural, civilized, or rational. A steak feels, looks, and tastes like winning—a direct connection to our bipedal ancestors. The original reward of victors.
Actually, steak is quite modern and very American. The great boom in beef eating came during the Civil War as a way to feed large groups of peripatetic men living in tents. Steak became a fad when the first refrigerated train cars pulled out of the Chicago stockyards and headed East. Steak houses appeared and gave fancy names to the slabs of flesh. Before the Second World War ordinary Joes rarely ate steak. It was the occasional meat of millionaires and cartoon characters. Steaks were dreamed of and fought over; they were the muscle of a better tomorrow. Today the prices being charged for prime cuts in prestige dining rooms—where the raw material is paraded to the table like a Premier Cru—can equal a day’s pay for the waiter. The expense adds to the special pleasure, the achievement, and is the secret ingredient of the filet mignon.
Around the globe, particularly in the East, in cultures that are more attuned to the semaphore and simile of ingredients, more steaks are being ordered. They are the taste of the free market, the blessing of Western capitalism, a celebration of consumerism and modernity and the arrival of the middle class. Thirty percent of the world’s land surface that isn’t frozen is given over to livestock production, and most of that is for grazing cattle. We eat the cows, and the cows eat everything else: horizons of corn, the rain forest, the plains and pampas, and the habitats of other species. They poison the water, and their flatulence contributes to global warming.
Like us, the Masai believe that their cattle make them superior to those who grub in the dirt or eat fish or fowl; the blood makes them special. Steak may be the taste of victory, but that sizzle is also the smell of fear.