Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Summer Grillin' Season Begins. Too Bad You Can't Find a Decent Steak.

Upon my arrival in Detroit, one of my first stops was a meeting with a man named Moshe Flatt. If you're from Detroit, you know Reb Moshe. Among his many other accomplishments, Reb Moshe founded and created the Cornbelt Beef Processing plant, a vehicle from which he supported pretty much every Orthodox Jewish institution in Detroit, including the Young Israel of Oak Park.
When I got there, Reb Moshe still went to work every day, although he was well into his eighties. He invited me to join him once, and I went to watch him buy cows. To kill. For food.
We drove out for a couple hours to somewhere in the middle of Michigan where they were holding a cattle auction. We sat on concrete bleachers, as the farmers brought out one cow after the next, while the announcer threw numbers around. I had no idea what anything meant; just that every now and then Reb Moshe would twitch his hand just a little bit, which I think meant that he bought the cow. Truth is, they all looked like cows to me - I couldn't tell any difference between them, which made sense. I had no training whatsoever. But Reb Moshe knew exactly what he was looking for. And he only bought what he wanted.
(Reb Moshe was a "fleish" man through and through. If you're curious, you can email me and ask me what he had one of canes made out of.)
Cornbelt was one of the last independent kosher slaughter houses in the United States. I don't even know if any exist anymore. Everything has become so centralized and commercialized, that it's difficult to run a small meat-packing plant, much less a kosher one. But back then, the Flatts' business killed several hundred head of meat a week, many for kosher (at least as many as the shochet deemed kosher).
I mention this short story because Reb Moshe (and his son Sam) were in the habit of sharing with the rabbi meat for the holidays, both on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. And, by sharing his meat with me, he spoiled me on any other meat or steak, probably for the rest of my life. Never before tasting his meat, nor since, have I ever eaten meat that tasted as good.
I thought of Reb Moshe and my trip to the cattle auction when I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about the quality - or lack thereof - of meat in America. A short excerpt:
Today, four big companies—Cargill, JBS Swift, National and Tyson Foods—dominate beef packing. Feedlots and slaughterhouses have gotten enormous. At every level, the chain of beef production has been tweaked to get cattle fat cheaply. But mass production is not without its drawbacks. Cheap beef doesn't taste good. What we have gained in yield and efficiency, we've lost in flavor.
Reading the article, I instantly understood the article precisely. If you've never tasted what a real steak should taste like, then you'd never know the difference. If all you can remember eating is Rubashkin or Empire, bought and killed in lots of hundreds, if not thousands, how would you know the quality of the cow from which the meat came? You would not - and you'd never know that the steak lacked any discernible natural sweetness and taste. You wouldn't know, because you'd have nothing to compare it to.
When other people talk about a great steak that they had, or look forward to an "all you can eat meat restaurant" or a great steakhouse, I find myself unmoved. Cornbelt meat was the best meat I have ever tasted in my life, without exaggeration. And I'm fairly certain that I might never taste as good a steak again.
The factory burned down about five years back - maybe more, and while Sam still produces kosher lamb, he doesn't do kosher beef anymore. It's too expensive, too risky, and too difficult.
But it's not his loss as much as our loss. Except that by this point, no one really can tell the difference anymore.