Beef: The cultural history

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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Explorations of beef’s place in American cuisine and society needn’t always devolve into confrontations between the meat’s advocates and critics. A symposium held last month in Chicago by the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance titled "Beef: From Plains to Plate," examined beef’s role in Midwestern life from several perspectives, including historical, and gave its audience "a great look at how something as seemingly simple as meat can have a big effect not only on people’s daily lives in the kitchen but also on the economy of our region and even on our cultural life," according to a symposium organizer.

"We’re a food-history group," GMFA’s vice president, Catherine Lambrecht, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Our area of interest is the Midwest from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains. There’s a lot of beef raised in this part of the country, and the subject made a nice bridge, with its connections to Chicago, the stockyards, and the development here of the refrigerated rail car, which changed everything for meat."

When the Alliance put out a call for papers earlier in the year, one of the respondents was Dell Allen, the former vice president at Cargill who directed the company’s food-safety programs and is one of the people who revolutionized food safety in meat plants in the wake of the watershed 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. "To be honest, I didn’t really know who he was," Lambrecht admitted. Allen wound up being the symposium’s keynote speaker, delivering a speech titled, "The Beef Industry Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow."

The symposium drew about 100 participants, who listened to speeches and panel discussions, watched a cutting demonstration on a side of beef donated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and tasted the "Big Baby," a kind of hamburger that’s popular, Lambrecht said, in the south of Chicago near Midway airport. Russell Smith of the Chicago History Museum gave a presentation about the history of Chicago’s Union Stockyards, and Mark McCully, assistant vice president for supply development for the Certified Angus Beef program, discussed the program’s development of a premium brand in the meat case. Culinary historians described the crucial influence Chicago street vendors had in the late 19th century on the spread of the hamburger’s popularity.

During a panel focusing on how beef progresses from the feedlot to the packinghouse, one panelist, Steve Fogelsong, an Illinois feedlot operator who is also president-elect of NCBA, was challenged by an audience member on the effectiveness and ethics of feeding cattle grain in feedlots rather than allowing them to range freely on grass. Fogelsong pointed out that in areas like Illinois, grass-feeding isn’t possible due to the high amount of annual rainfall and resultant mud.

"We weren’t going to let anybody hang out to dry," said Lambrecht. "Fogelsong got interrupted a few times, but it was actually my mother who put a stop to that, I’m embarrassed to say. Overall, I think everyone handled it well."

In the past the GMFA has held seminars devoted to sausage – Robert Rust, the retired professor of meat science at Iowa State University, spoke – and Midwestern desserts. Next year, the Great Depression’s impact on Midwestern food traditions will be examined. Next month a sister organization, the Chicago Foodways Roundtable, will host a presentation by historian Jeff Stern about one of the most destructive events in the history of Chicago, the Union Stockyards Fire of 1934 that destroyed six square blocks of the yards but miraculously spared the adjacent packinghouses. More than 1,600 firefighters were needed to douse the blaze, which is the most destructive fire in Chicago history since the famous Great Fire of 1871.

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