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Magazine | Okiecentric

Stick a Fork in it

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Posted 08.01.12

The wind came sweeping down the plain and shot me in the face with a load of dust and gravel. It blew wood smoke across Stillwater’s campus green, carrying cinders like confetti. A makeshift sign tagged to a made-to-spec fire pit stopped flapping in the wind long enough to clearly read, “Warning! Hot Work in Progress. Watch for Fire.” There was a burn ban on, and a fire engine on alert.

Francis Mallmann, dressed in chef’s whites and espadrilles, tossed fistfuls of salt onto several square feet of beef sweetbreads, the delicate pink glands that most cooks sauté in butter, playing it safe. These hissed at the salt and buckled at the wood fire breathing on them from beneath. Wherever there is Mallmann, there is fire.

“What do you call them?” he said, sniffing the air for the word, as if it might blow in on a gust. “Little things to eat.” Appetizers, he meant, struggling with the English if not the flame.

Mallmann left the great chefs of Europe and returned to Argentina, where he has turned meat and taters into performance art. A native of Patagonia, he has fire in his eyes and ice in his veins. Seven Fires, his written testament to the appetites and rigors of the land at the end of the earth, instructs would-be flamethrowers in the art of stewing beef in a cauldron, grilling rib steaks between the twin fires of the infiernillo (“small inferno”), and pinning an entire cow carcass to an iron cross and sacrificing it before an asador, the oldest barbecue known to man.

Last April, Mallmann was in Stillwater for the biennial OSU Wine Forum, where the theme “Cowboys and Gauchos” inspired President Burns Hargis to sport a bolo around his collar. “I was going for the gaucho-cowboy look. The free spirit, ride the range and eat what you can find.”


Kate Kline tells This Land Radio about leaving her husband in the ’60s to become a flower child and shares a recipe for polenta and vegetable casserole.


It was windy and hot, even before Mallmann threw caution to the wind and two entire bags of lump charcoal, bag and all, onto a pile of scorched timbers. The fresh coals crackled and sparked in the inferno, and the bags ignited in a flash and bits of them flew off the relative safety of the patio and into a flowerbed.

Mallmann squinted between the grate of the pit into the fiery bed, his tangle of gray hair whipping beneath his Van Morrison hat. I asked him if it’s windy in Patagonia, as it is here, and if so how does he manage the meat.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, as if to say this is nothing. “You have to find a place to hide.”

On the patio of the ConocoPhillips Alumni Center, in the shadow of Old Central, we hid behind four dining tables turned on their sides to deflect the south wind. In one end of the steel pit constructed by the ag department and christened “The Francis,” a pile of seasoned pecan went up in flames. Mallmann grabbed a shovel and began spooning hot coals onto fresh wood. With a garden rake, he spread the red embers.

Once the fire behaved, on went the meat: 16 rib roasts from Creekstone Farms out of Arkansas City, Kansas, a place name that must confound a man from Patagonia. The meat firmly in place, Mallmann began throwing on more salt in big, sweeping fistfuls. He stood patiently by as earth, wind and fire did its number, shocking and searing the raw protein. After a few minutes, he stretched his hand over the coals to measure heat, poked the meat to test for springiness. “I’m happy with the meat,” he said.

To Mallmann, meat is happiness. In nearly every photo I have seen of the man, he is either cooking or smiling and often it’s both. For a man of acclaim and renown, he has reduced the culinary life to a basic principle: “I believe that, when we eat, we have to taste what we’re eating.”

Meaning, he doesn’t believe in the small bites of the tasting-menu set, nor does he like his rib-eyes “cleaned of all their fat.” That night, he will cut steaks from these ribs to prove the point: three-inch, two-plus-pound specimens with a crust of salt and fat enveloping an uber-rare center. A brushing of chimichurri—the A.1. of Argentina—shines on the surface.

On the plate, it is an embarrassment of riches. In the mouth, it is the richest, boldest invention of my steak-eating life—the highlight and, dare I say, the twilight. I eat an astonishing, almost obscene amount of it. But it’s Cowboy country and I am not alone. Tonight, anyway, we are all Argentinians.

* * *

Robert Black, executive chef of Oklahoma City’s A Good Egg Dining Group, spent six months courting a vendor for prime beef [1] for his flagship steakhouse, Red Prime. Not an easy task in a downturn economy—Red Prime opened in the Buick Building in 2007, on the heels of the subprime mortgage crisis—and always a challenge for a fledgling operation.

“Who you are, how much volume you represent, plays a role in whether you’re even going to be able to get it,” Black said of prime, the highest grade a steak can make. He was planning to source his from a Texas supplier he refuses to throw under the bus.

“We were three months away from opening and we got this call from our rep saying, ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to have to pick some different steaks. We’re having a hard time getting enough prime beef in.’ I’m like, ‘What?! What are you talking about? We’re opening a prime steakhouse.’ ”

Prime is a game of percentages, and the percentage has been closer to two in the last few years. In this game, the big guys get and the little guys sit. Black’s educated guess is that there are less than 10 Oklahoma City restaurants with prime beef consistently on the menu. Red Prime now gets its steaks from Allen Brothers of Chicago, whose own website puts the prime number more between one and two percent. Allen specializes in high-end steakhouses—Lawry’s, Morton’s and the like, with cities across the board—Dallas, Reno, Washington, San Antonio, St. Louis, Biloxi, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Tampa, Napa, Miami, Charleston, Philadelphia, even Bethlehem. Chicago gets the lion’s share. Here in the sticks, you can feel the noose on prime, aged beef tightening. But Black has yet to panic.

“The outlook is not great right now. But I don’t think that the primary reason for that is that we don’t have enough land to graze enough cattle on, or enough water for them to drink, or enough corn to feed them, or enough ranchers to raise them. I think it’s a hodge-podge of variables making supply so tight.”

A weak dollar versus a stronger euro, for one, particularly when you have producers willing to ship overseas. Then, there are seasonal factors, for instance when Walmart decided last fall to run a holiday special on rib roasts and sucked all the rib-eyes out of the market, sending even “select” and “choice”—beef ’s lesser grades—through the roof. “It just teaches us that there are a number of factors that affect supply and demand, and prices,” Black said. “It’s a very complex thing.”

Among those factors: you and me. Our demand, in ways more subtle than sheer volume, keeps supply a work in progress. An emerging market defined by our wild desires stands to guide the supply of beef into new terrain.

“In bigger markets, for sure—San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, New York—but progressive markets, too, consuming all-natural, local, organic is no longer a fad, it’s your only option,” Black said. “I don’t know that you could open a successful restaurant in a city like Austin or Denver or Los Angeles unless you’re placing a huge focus of your menu on healthier choices. It’s prolific in other markets, and only a matter of time in Oklahoma. Because the consumers demand it.”

* * *

Steve Jeffery says he’s not a “rock licker” like some, but he knows enough geology to realize that a volcanic formation at the base of the Oologah dam called the Lipe Mound is an anomaly in a land of limestone. Meaning, he said, “It’s not supposed to be there.” Yet it is.

He also knows that a steak cooked over charcoal—fossil fuels’ contribution to the culinary arts—is still something of a gold standard when it comes to man’s conquest over his dominion. He believes in it strongly enough to stake a claim.

Jeffery was sitting on the sofa with his wife, staring into the television, pondering the future of the house of Jeffery. It was sometime in the afternoon. Not even primetime.

“You ever seen a commercial for The Spudder?” he asked me, and I had to think. “No, you haven’t. And neither had I.”

Sitting in silence, thinking the unthinkable, which was cutting a $50K check to take ownership of a steakhouse.

“We’re not really watching the TV, it’s just on. I told her she needed to write a check for $50,000 and she doesn’t say a word, just sits on the other end of the couch. Thirty minutes go by. She’s sitting there and on the television comes a commercial for The Spudder. She didn’t say a word. She just wrote the check and handed it to me. And this is her quote: ‘It’s a sign from God.’ She just needed a little bump.”

For the last 15 years, Jeffery had been threatening to strike out on his own. Last year, his company, Paris-based Lafarge (they own the cement plant in furthest northeast Tulsa), asked him to relocate. Instead, he went and ate a steak. Then, he made an offer on the place. “I won’t say the deal was struck in the lobby,” Jeffery said, “but it was close.”

The lobby of The Spudder is like a mineshaft opening onto a mother lode, with a waft of grilled meat in lieu of a welcome mat. The oilfield signage that greets you up front becomes a full-blown theme park inside, with lights, logos and taglines (“Be sure with Pure”) in every nook and cranny. The exterior—skinned in the wood of two fallen barns and weathered like some abandoned derrick shack—would sit equally well in an Arizona outback or a Vegas casino. The Spudder makes a ferociously good potato soup, but that’s not where the name comes from.

“Before we had rotary drills,” Jeffery said, “the spudder—which is a concussion impact tool—just beat a hole in the ground. That drill, just from pounding the rock—and it drills a very straight hole—drills in excess of 5,000 feet deep. With a wooden- and steel-cable rig.” A retired spudder sits in a small grass space outside The Spudder. The restaurant was carved out of the shell of an old Sizzlin’ Sirloin stuck in a blind spot off 51st and Sheridan. It’s cute, nearly, though schtic was never the intention of John Phillips and John Brenneman, his partner, when they opened the place back in 1976.

“We were both really pissed off at how bad the steak scene in Tulsa was at the time,” Phillips said. “Dumb places with hot plates on the dining table that would overcook your meat.”

* * *

We’ll never know what the secret ingredient was at the Avalon Supper Club, which began in 1963 as a small, dark bar called the Cheyenne Club, where cooking steaks was an afterthought, an antidote to soak up consecutive drinks. [2] Four years later, the county enacted tougher liquor laws and Avalon packed bags for the outskirts. There, down a barely lit gravel drive in west Tulsa, through a door with a peephole in it, the legend bloomed.

Avalon had a reputation that preceded it of being a steak-savvy speakeasy where a lot of deals went down, legitimate and otherwise. Politicians, bootleggers, brothel browsers, and bandits all held court there, so they said, and they are just about anybody who ate or thought about eating there.

“We had a lot of great people … who did a lot of bad things,” remembered Linda Parise De Arman, a waitress at the Cognito Inn who walked into the Avalon in 1975 and got a job on long legs alone. She told me one story—about a legendary politico who came for dinner and stayed for dessert—that I promised not to share and one I didn’t, about the time Gary Busey came in one night and drew up lines of sugar on a table in the back room, then snorted them as if they were coke. That would be the “Busey’s such an asshole” story.

While the facts of the Avalon’s past are lost to lore, they are palatable enough to easily imagine. Until 1984, getting a drink in an Oklahoma restaurant was hardly worth the effort. Some so-called “clubs,” the Avalon among them, developed a reputation for easy booze in the afterhours. Eloise “Lou” Sehorn ran the joint in those days and, to hear De Arman tell it, Lou sounds like the sort who’d enjoy a good time, or at least not get in the way of one in progress. A pen-and-ink portrait of madame de boeuf hung on a back wall of the Avalon for years after her death. After ordering but before digging in, I’d carry my drink in there and stand before it—it and the sour-faced clown paintings—and dream large.

Avalon relocated to shiny new digs in 2005—up on the New Sapulpa Road, out from the woods—burying the lore with the appetites and thirsts of the great steak eaters of Creek County once and for all. In 2009, Avalon boarded up. Parise De Arman, who’d bought the place from Sehorn, and had overseen the move from back alley to roadside attraction, blamed the lousy economy.

Whatever happened, something sacred and seedily succulent had gone missing, and the Avalon faded away in the dragon’s mist.

* * *

“There’s two keys to good steak,” said Steve Jeffery before giving me three: Buy good beef and cut it well, don’t over-season it, cook it over a very hot, wood fire. Two charcoal-fueled cauldrons accomplish this task at The Spudder. The grills are about a decade old, and they replaced the original side-by-side, custom Hasty-Bakes designed by Grant Hastings himself, then in his second tour with the company he’d created, sold in 1967 and bought back a few years later.

The Spudder, as the Avalon once did, displays its raw meat in a refrigerated case. In theory, a customer can point out his or her steak of choice, though few seize this opportunity. The meat is stacked two- and three-deep—thick, hand-cut rib-eyes, strips and filets—the flesh glowing red, the fat white in a fluorescent light. Four pieces of salmon and a few breasts of chicken huddle at one end of the case, token nods to another lifestyle. The rib-eyes on the front row are a bright magenta, while those in the back, to be pulled first, bear the burnished garnet of age.

Jeffery wet-ages his steaks a minimum of 22 days. Wet-aging occurs in Cryovac, the raw meat steeping in its own juices and nothing else. Tastier, and more expensive by a long shot, is dry-aged beef, where the side of meat hangs in a locker at temperatures cool enough to thwart mold but not the slow-bleed of subtle dehydration. The meat loses weight and grows tangy, like a hipster in his last unemployed days.

Oxygen and enzymes need time to work their magic, three weeks minimum. Dry-aging concentrates the blood (15 percent shrinkage is typical), tenderizes the tissue and takes the steak to that most precarious of places—just shy of spoiled. “Sour,” is how a buddy of mine described this flavor. It is an acquired taste.

The Spudder has a tradition of naming its steaks, e.g., a T-bone called “The Driller.” For my dinner, I decide on “The Gusher,” a bone-in chop cleaved off the rib roast. It’s a robust 22 ounces, at least, and goes for $34.95.

“As high as 28 ounces,” Jeffery said, but, unlike the legendary Florentine steak—a slab of Chianina beef, seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, grilled over Dante’s own inferno and sold by the kilo—he can’t charge for the extra ounces. It’s all yours.

“What am I gonna do with it? I can cut it off and throw it out, or should I just give it to ’em?”

It—the equivalent of a six-ounce rib-eye—would run you about $15 bucks at Carmichael’s of Chicago, where it’d likely be served as a “Sally” cut to distinguish it from a “Gentlemen’s.” [3]

Cooking for one about two months ago, I pan grilled a piece of tri-tip and a batch of Lyonnaise potatoes. I often cook and eat like this when alone. It sustains me in the empty hours. And, as often, I’ll watch an old movie as I eat.

This time I watched Bogart in To Have and Have Not, the silly-sweet saga of World War II espionage and expatriatism.

The tri-tip is a small triangular muscle cut from the bottom sirloin. They average around two pounds, trimmed, but the piece on my plate was embarrassingly small, like a wasted corner off the sawed end of a 2-by-4. No respectable restaurant would even know what to charge for something so insignificant, and still I didn’t finish it.

A sirloin is barely a steak, to be sure, in these days of rib-eyes and filets and strips. It’s too near the round, the rump, and gets too much work to be tender, unlike the short loin, from which the strips are trimmed. But I like a bit of chew in my steak. I like a sore jaw and a gnashing of teeth. And it was good, if not as good as Walter Brennan in the role of Eddie, the alcoholic foil to Bogie’s Harry Morgan.

To Have and Have Not plays out eerily like another Bogart film, Casablanca. Both are set in tropical climes, occur in and around bars, feature distressed women on the lam, showcase quirky piano players, and favor gunshot spies representing noble, underdog causes. No surprise, given that they came out of the same Warner Bros. stable. That said, they leave a very different taste in the mouth. To Have and Have Not is a decent enough strip, but Casablanca is a perfectly grilled Chateaubriand, separated by the T-bone of Victor Lazlo.

Bogart has a way of smiling with his mouth closed that I never noticed or questioned until I saw him smile with it open toward the end of To Have and Have Not. It’s after Eddie hiccups another drunken hiccup. When Harry Morgan chuckles at this, his teeth flash like a shark’s— big, flat shanks with impressive gaps between them. A good set of steak-eating ivories.

It occurred to me, then, that steak must be something a mouth and belly earn. That maybe our modern smiles and sedentary selves are no longer worthy of beef of such a cut. Not like the rogue sorts of World War time—saloon-keepers and emigrés, agents provocateur and girls Friday.

* * *

 The Spudder is the kind of steakhouse where you warm up with chicken livers and molten-cheese mushrooms. Soft, white rolls still come to the table in a roughneck’s lunch pail. After that comes soup and salad: a so-so salad but a tasty, roux-thickened cup of potato soup flavored with chives, carrots, and ham. Make it a bowl and you could be satisfied at this point, if not for the knowledge of things to come.

“You have a chunk, and I do mean a chunk, of beef coming,” said our host, with a kind of awe and pride that remains in spite of the caution tape that’s gone up around red meat in the last three decades. It was the worst possible time to run out of wine, which we’d done. I began scanning the list for another bottle, something to sub for the Barry Switzer cabernet that Jeffery had brought to the table, and that hadn’t made it through the first half.

About then the meat arrived, on three hefty platters. The waitress began scouting for room on the already crowded table. Jeffery calls this part “the main show” and it’s easy enough to see it as spectacle, especially with a Flintstone-sized slab before you.

The Gusher I was about to cut into, if sliced thinly across the grain, [4] would fill umpteen large bowls of pho, the Vietnamese dish that gets its flavor from beef stock scented with star anise. There are strips of meat in a bowl of pho, but they feature less prominently than the rice sticks floating in the stock, and the herbs and condiments that accompany. It’s the other side of the world from a big steak.

I think this every time I picture John Phillips, who a decade ago developed a taste for pho and, before long, the country that eats it. He’d toured much of Vietnam, lived for a while in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and settled in Cambodia, where he’d spent much of the last three years. The irony of John, who conceived The Spudder (not to mention The Chalkboard) 35 years ago, now running a soup kitchen in Phnom Penh stung me with every e-mail he’d send detailing the struggles to make ends meet.

He calls his project Buckhunger, and it was born, like much of John’s legacy, on a side order of planning and a main course of good intention. The eyes of hunger stare with a universal emptiness, and he’d fallen for Phnom Penh’s horde of hungry youth, those pulling their meals from the rubbish. With a small space, a staff he trained, and a sense of the local markets—he’d learned to feed 250 mouths on $100 a day—he put a lot of soup on the table. It was easily his greatest philanthropic effort to date, and he got some press early on, but not enough to bankroll. In a think-globally, act-locally world, John’s most noble effort was just too far removed.

The Spudder, on the other hand, was going great guns, especially for a week night. Phillips had sold his interest long ago, but he said it always was a cash cow.

“We both put in five grand,” Phillips said of he and his partner, “and borrowed the rest from my banker buddy. We never went back to the bank until I sold out. We had a visibility problem being tucked in from Sheridan and it took a year before our numbers were any good. But by ’79, it was doing a million a year—twice what we did at The Chalkboard.”

I could believe it, sitting here among Monday steak eaters, about to tuck into, for better or worse and for who knows how long, that most American of meals. As Jeffery put it, a big ol’ steak “goes well with the view Oklahomans have of themselves,” but such a sentiment likely holds sway from Brooklyn to Brownsville.

John took us to the Spudder on the eve of his French exodus. He’d sold the Chalkboard, again, and was in the process of selling most everything else he’d collected over the years. France was setting up to be his final frontier, though none of us knew how elusive that dream would become. We ordered—two gentlemen’s cuts, and two ladies’—and partook of a last supper. I wouldn’t step foot into the Spudder for another decade.

I don’t eat steak like I used to. In this era of cholesterol test kits, does anybody? Perhaps we have smartened up in our consumption of beef. I’d like to think my inability to polish off a 22-ounce rib-eye in a sitting has something to do with my body winding down toward the end days of steak. A sad day, indeed, or at least a monumental one.

“I hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime,” Jeffery said.

I gave him my vote of confidence by washing down forkfuls of bloody beef with goblets of red wine. Whenever it is no more, that’s a combination I will surely miss. That said, it’s all I can do to eat even half of my Gusher. The rest I send home in a friend’s doggy bag.

 


Footnotes

1. “This may be the last article worth reading about American steak,” began a 2008 piece in Esquire magazine titled “The 20 Best Steaks in America.”

In addition to the ranking, the author, John Mariani, out-lined an argument for the superior taste and consequent demise of American beef—corn accounting for both—before going into a list of untouchables: the steak tartare at Cut in Beverly Hills, the KC Playboy Strip of Jess & Jim’s in Kansas City, the house porterhouse at Brooklyn’s Peter Luger, and a few others. We’d begun burning ethanol in earnest in ‘07, and corn prices had begun their climb. Mariani predicted that his Top 20, already some of the priciest steaks in the realm, were only to become more unobtainable. The 14-ounce rib-eye at Mahogany Prime on Yale Avenue—not on Esquire’s list, for what it’s worth—was $26.99 in 2006. It’s $38.99 today, a healthy 44 percent increase, which sounds much more devastating than an extra 12 bucks.

New York owns the Esquire article, with eight of the picks hailing from Gotham. Mariani backs his calls by pointing out that it’s generally prime beef that makes a great steak, and with a mere 2 or so percent of all beef making that grade— and nearly all of it destined for high-flight steak joints—New York, owning a concentration of such venues, was bound to fare well. “Quality of meat,” Mariani wrote. “I can’t help it.”


 

2. Be it New York or the Old West, it’s over steak and ale, or whiskey, that Americans seal the deals. It was outside Sparks Steakhouse on East 46th in Manhattan that Paul Castella- no—a.k.a, Big Paulie, head of the Gambino family—was gunned down by hitmen wearing white trench coats and black Russian hats. John Gotti eyeballed the carnage from a nearby Lincoln. Gotti, the Teflon Don, was partial to the beef at One if By Land, Two if By Sea, on Barrow Street.
At Robert’s, in the Penthouse Executive Club, you can tear at a trophy Porterhouse while inches in front of you a dancer dangles her flank steak.

“But no matter what your appetite for the saucy spectacle accessorizing these steaks,” wrote Frank Bruni in the New York Times, “you’ll be turned on by the quality of the plated meat.”

Bruni noted the “unmistakable tanginess that accentuated and stretched out the beef’s flavor,” and credited meat maven Adam Perry Lang, now at Carnevino, Mario Batali’s Las Vegas meatery, where an 8-ounce filet goes for $50 and a Florentine porterhouse for two a robust $106.

“He not only ages but also cooks the steaks as he sees fit: in a broiler with two decks, each a different temperature, al- lowing the kitchen staff to move the steaks around and to make sure their exteriors are seared just right. The steaks are brushed with canola oil before they go into the broiler and with olive oil after they come out. Little more than salt and pepper is added to that.”


3. They began prophesying the last days of steak in the first decade of the new millennium. “Essentially, by cooking our food, thereby making it softer, we no longer need teeth big enough to chow down on really tough particles,” wrote Hillary Mayell in a 2005 National Geographic story. “By using knives and forks to cut food into smaller pieces, we no longer need a large enough jaw to cram in big hunks of food.”

Ed Ayres, at Time.com, measured the demise of animal husbandry in capitalistic terms: “These costs include hugely inefficient use of freshwater and land, heavy pollution from livestock feces, rising rates of heart disease and other degen degenerative illnesses, and spreading destruction of the forests on which much of our planet’s life depends.”

Ayres cites indigestible statistics: 7 pounds of grain, which takes 7,000 pounds of water to grow, to produce a pound of feedlot beef … one hamburger, thus, equals 40 showers under a low-flow nozzle … 70 percent of all U.S. wheat, corn and other grain produced going to livestock. His logic ends where it must: “As populations in water-scarce regions continue to expand, governments will inevitably act to cut these deficits by shifting water to grow food, not feed. The new policies will raise the price of meat to levels unaffordable for any but the rich.”

Striking while the iron was hot, William Saletan, in a 2006 Slate piece titled the “The Conscience of a Carnivore,” decided, “Every society lives with two kinds of moral problems: the ones it’s ready to face, and the ones that will become clear or compelling only in retrospect.”

How, in good conscience, that is, can we continue to justify eating meat? Steak, Saletan argued, has become akin to slavery, in the sense that our reliance on it is more a statement of desire than a matter of fact.

“Meat has made us smart enough to figure out how we can live without it,” he wrote. “So, why do we keep eating it? Because it’s so darned tasty.”

A learned taste, he figured, citing the Brits of 5,000 years ago who, having domesticated cattle, sheep, and pigs, learned to favor them on the plate over ubiquitous fish. Hence was born John Bull, an English Paul Bunyan who ate the pro- verbial blue ox and, on its energy, set a new course of empire.

No man is an island, but England is, and running half a hemisphere from the home counties ultimately proved unsustainable. As one of her colonies, America took John Bull by the horns, in all his meat-eating uppishness. With far more acreage upon which to farm, the herd spread. The mantle of steak was thus passed.

For how long is the question. Our acres, like our appetites, aren’t inexhaustible. Then, maybe they don’t have to be. Saletan ended that Slate piece with a discussion of synthetic meat—tissues rent from stem cells, honed by an alt-meat consortium launched in 2004 called New Harvest. That is, fake steak.


4. Jacob Nelson works out of the Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center at Oklahoma State University under the auspicious title of Value-Added Beef Processing Specialist. Lately, the specialist has been at work crafting a steak out of thin air.

“We’ve been hot and heavy on this steak since November 2011, and been thinking about it roughly a decade. It’s about

finding ways to change the fabrication style of the meat car- cass so that more money can be realized.”

To combat what he calls “a long tradition of carcass fabrication styles,” Nelson and his co-inventor, Tony Mata, took a section of beef long earmarked for the ground bin and ap- plied “a different set of knife strokes in a different location” to carve what they now call the Vegas Strip Steak. He describes it as akin to finding a diamond in the rough, but perhaps faceting a diamond out of a chunk of rock is more like it.

“Most people—people not like Tony—didn’t have the tenacity to challenge traditional fabrication procedures. A whack here, a whack there, a little twisted whack here and we can get rid of all the stuff we don’t want and here’s the good jewel down in there.

“There” is the netherworld of beef butchering, where until now a potential steak passed itself off as hamburger. With the Vegas Strip Steak, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

“I can’t reveal anatomically where it comes from because that’s protected by the patent,” said Nelson. “As a people, once we start overlooking something it’s easy just to stay in that same mode. Somewhere in the past, someone determined that this was not worthy as steak material and they didn’t make that assertion in a textbook somewhere, it’s just by default, because this particular muscle has always gone down this path.”

Nelson was uncomfortable telling me what his new steak tastes like. But he said “it eats very similarly to a New York strip steak.”

“It tastes like beef. I say that because there are some muscles within the beef carcass that have stronger or milder flavors. I would characterize this one as middle-of-the-road. It has the appearance, the tenderness attributes, and the muscle-fiber orientation of a New York strip.”

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