James McWilliams writes today in the Freakonomics blog that advocates of grass-fed beef are mistaken in asserting that until very recently, all beef was grass-fed. He’s right, as far as he goes: Agriculture experts advocated raising beef cattle on corn as long ago as the early nineteenth century. As one commenter pointed out, advocacy and practice are not the same thing. But they’re not always that far apart, either, and so I think it’s worth thinking about why progressive nineteenth-century agriculturalists thought corn-fed was better.
Today’s factory farms feed cattle on corn because it’s the most efficient way to get them to put on weight. This isn’t a new idea. In the nineteenth century, cattle were driven to urban markets, where they would need to be fattened up again after the long walk. Corn did the job quickly, and pasture wasn’t available in urban markets anyway. By mid-century railroads shipped the cattle, but they were still finished on corn. If cattle had to be raised on pasture where they were eaten, urbanites wouldn’t eat much beef.
Feeding cattle corn serves another purpose: It makes the meat tender. Grass-fed beef is flavorful, but it’s also chewy — more so if the steer wasn’t especially young before it was slaughtered. Cattle that grow at a natural rate by wandering around on pasture all day have an opportunity to use their muscles, and using muscle makes it leaner and tougher. Corn-fed beef, by contrast, is marbled with fat. Cattle raised in feedlots, fed corn from birth, never have the opportunity to develop that musculature. They may be unhealthy, but they make a tender steak.
Twenty-first century carnivores, blessed as we are with good sets of teeth, may enjoy meat with a “good chew” — though “tender” is still an awfully popular word on steakhouse menus. Before modern dental care, by middle age you’d have been missing some teeth and your gums might have been swollen with gingivitis. Chewing your meat would have been a painful necessity, not an ehnanced culinary experience.
If you look at old recipes for beef you see just how much work people used to put in making most of the steer digestible. They pickled it. They marinated it in vinegar. They boiled it for hours. Then, because grass-fed beef can also be lean and dry, they larded it — ran strips of pork fat through it to moisten it as it cooked. Julia Child was still recommending this in the 1960s. Who wants to go to all that work when you can buy tender, corn-fed beef that needs no marination and cooks up quickly? Practically no one, and so as soon as technology and agricultural knowledge allowed it, Americans happily bought and cooked first corn-finished, then corn-fed beef.
Now it’s true that we’re talking only about finishing cattle on corn, not raising them on it from birth. And not all beef cattle spent their last weeks in feedlots. I would certainly think that most beef eaten in the United States before World War II was largely grass-fed. There is always a gap between advocacy and daily practice. But advocacy often reflects what a lot of people wish they could have or do. In this case, proponents of pasturing livestock are left arguing that grass-fed is better because it’s what people had to put up with in the past. That isn’t much of an endorsement.
Advocates of sustainable agriculture often make this kind of appeal to the past, and — as one myself — I’m frustrated by such appeals, because they so easily invite the pat response that “you can’t turn back the clock.” Instead of indulging in mass nostalgia for a past that wasn’t really all that rosy, can’t we argue simply that grass-fed (or insert another sustainable cause) is the wave of the future, because it’s better? It would take a bit more work, but it ought to be more effective. And if we can’t make that argument, we don’t deserve to win anyway.