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Not So Clear Cut

What are you really eating when you order fajitas in a Tex-Mex restaurant?

The front end of a cow carcass was dangling from the ceiling. With a butcher's hook and a boning knife in my hands, I regarded the bright-red expanse of raw meat. The day before, on the first day of Beef 101 class, I had patted this steer on the forehead. My classmates and I had met at the Texas A&M Beef Center in the rural farmland outside College Station. In the barn out back, we estimated the grades of six cattle on the hoof, guessing at yield and quality by petting, stroking and poking the apprehensive animals — just like cattle buyers at an auction barn. We nicknamed the fattest one Porky and predicted a Choice grade.

There isn't much money in cattle raising. Other than a few giants like the King Ranch, most Texas cattle ranchers are little guys. One of the students in the class works for ConocoPhillips in Houston and has a weekend place near Bryan where he raises cattle to "get the kids away from the TV." Half of the cattle in Texas are raised on ranches with fewer than 50 head by retirees, hobbyists and plain folks trying to avoid property taxes with an agricultural exemption.

My other classmates included a couple butchers from a country grocery store, a guy who wants to open a small meat plant, several chefs and a lot of food-industry marketing people. We followed the cattle truck over to the Rosenthal Meat Science Center on campus, a working meat-processing plant. While we watched, a medium-size Angus cross we'll call Blacky walked down the chute and through the sliding metal door to a small enclosure that he barely fit into. Meat Center manager Ray Riley demonstrated the "Cash Knocker."

Beef 101 students learn to evaluate cattle on the hoof to estimate yield and quality grade before slaughter.
Robb Walsh
Beef 101 students learn to evaluate cattle on the hoof to estimate yield and quality grade before slaughter.
Evisceration is a manual procedure that requires careful handling to prevent any contamination from spillage.
Robb Walsh
Evisceration is a manual procedure that requires careful handling to prevent any contamination from spillage.

He loaded what looked like a .22 blank into the long-handled device and centered the mushroom-shaped business end of it on Blacky's forehead. Then he pulled a trigger in the handle, and after a loud report, the animal fell to the ground unconscious. A trap door and tilting floor opened and the device rolled Blacky over to three waiting students who fixed one of his rear legs to a chain that hung from a motor in the ceiling. The motor pulled the chain and the body up so it dangled overhead. A student with a knife made a foot-long slash between the brisket and throat, and Blacky started bleeding profusely. It takes six to eight minutes to bleed out, and it's important that the animal remain alive so the heart can pump out all the blood. The animal dies after it bleeds out.

The feet were cut off and the still-twitching carcass moved along an overhead conveyor line called the "rail" while still hanging from the chain. At the next station, the hide was removed with a mechanical hide-puller, then came the evisceration, which was done by hand. The guts were sealed at each end to prevent spillage, and after an incision, the entrails were collected into a wheeled bucket to be sorted later. The head and tail were removed and cleaned.

Finally, the carcass was carefully inspected for bruises, hair and fecal matter, and any contaminated areas were trimmed away. The whole carcass was cut in half, sprayed with lactic acid in an enclosed booth to retard microbial growth and moved into the cooler. Blacky had ceased being Blacky and become a piece of beef.

Nobody got sick or left the class, but a lot of Beef 101 students were obviously grossed out. We all watched the process with the hushed reverence of a funeral, and we left with a new respect for both the people who work in slaughterhouses and the animals themselves.

My adventures in butchery started with a meat mystery — call it the case of the disappearing skirt. I needed to come up with some fajita recipes for a grilling cookbook I was working on. But outside skirt steaks, the cut that makes the best fajitas, weren't available anywhere. Every supermarket and butcher shop I visited said no one sold them anymore. So I bought inside skirts, which were so tough, my tablemates declared them inedible.

Then there were the insane prices. At the HEB on Bunker Hill in Houston, Angus inside skirt was $7 a pound, while USDA Prime rib eye steaks were on special for $6 a pound. I wondered why I was cooking tough fajita meat when prime steak was cheaper — and what the hell was going on?
_____________________

At Papa Perez Mexican restaurant in downtown Bryan, I split a one-pound order of grilled fajitas with meat scientists Jeff Savell and Davey Griffin of the Meat Science Section in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M. The fajita beef was tender and nicely browned with grilled onions on a sizzling comal. As we made our tacos, they talked about the bizarre beef prices.

A year ago, high-end steak houses were screaming for USDA Prime. And then came the recession and a sudden shift away from luxurious dining. The resulting glut of prime beef was now being dumped into the retail sector, said Savell, the chair of the Meat Science section. (Fill your freezer while it lasts.)

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10 comments
Alan Medeiros
Alan Medeiros

Mr. Walsh, Even thought its been a couple of years, thank you for your very informative article. The local rags here in Boston could certainly use a reporter of your caliber.

JayneS
JayneS

Jesus can you tell this is Texas. Everyone is more concerned with the meat than the torture and suffering animal. I wish to God you people WOULD leave the US, I swear we'd be so much better off without Texas. Is there no end to how hateful (not to mention stupid and backward) you all are?

Patrick
Patrick

Robb Walshes article on Fajitas was incredible. So much information. Great research. I have lived in Houston for most of my 59 years and was thoroughly educated by this article and also explains some of the crappy fajitas I have encountered.

EC_Esq
EC_Esq

Dear Mr. Walsh,

Before I became an attorney, I grew up in the restaurant business. My mother has owned, operated or worked in Mexican restaurants in the town you visited for this story, Bryan/College Station, for the better part of 30 years. She opened her first place in 1978. Her latest venture is Gina's Restaurante Mexicano, not far from where you ate at Papa Perez. Mike Perez, the owner of Papa Perez, and I went to high school together. I learned how to make Chiles Rellenos & Bistek Rancheros at my mother's apron strings. She was a pioneer in Mexican food in the Brazos Valley and one of the first people to serve fajitas in the Bryan/College Station area.

With that in mind, I must expand on a couple of points you brought up. Fajitas were popularized as you said, because of the desire for a more "authentic" style of Mexican food. However, they did not originate in The Valley. Fajitas find their roots in the Carnes Asadas from Mexican cuisine. Which in turn go back to the frontier cattle-raising traditions of Northern Mexico. As beef was a staple of the American cowboy. So it was for his predecessor, the Mexican Vaquero.

The root word of Fajita is "Faja". Faja, in Spanish means "belt." Because of it's belt-like appearance and it's placement on the carcass, it is referred to as the "Little Belt". As you correctly pointed out, chickens do not have this. Neither do shrimp. Therefore, there are no such things as chicken or shrimp "fajitas"! These grilled items should correctly be referred to on menus as "Pollo Asado" or "Camarones Asados".

In support of this theory of nomenclature and theory of culinary history I also would like to point out that fajitas come from a trio of entrees typically served in Northern Mexican and South Texan "parrilladas". The other cuts you're omitting are "Agujitas" and "Tablitas". Agujitas means "Little Needles" which is the term given to thin cut beef ribs. When you eat the surrounding meat, it leaves a small, thin bone that looks like the eye of a needle. Tablitas means "little boards or planks". This is the name given to the flat, wide bone of the short rib that is left when you eat the surrounding meat. Fajitas, agujitas and tablitas usually made up a well rounded "parrillada" or mixed grill that could feed a small army.

Thanks for your very informative article and next time I'll write on how there is no such thing as a "chocolate martini".

Nate the Snake
Nate the Snake

So 'real' fajitas are the diaphragm? Ugh, gross.

Gary Wise
Gary Wise

I've had really good results with filet'd and butterflied hanger steak, a favorite soy/pineapple marinade, then sliced across the grain.

Howard
Howard

I had a Vietnamese friend tell me about the soy sauce/pineapple marinade more than 10 year ago. Been using that one ever since for fajitas!

Will Hilton
Will Hilton

I've been using the flat iron steak as a skirt steak substitute for fajitas over the past year or two. I found it seems to taste better reducing the pineapple juice, teriyaki sauce, brown sugar, and other preferred spices to almost a thick sauce consistency and putting it on the meat near the end of the grilling process instead of marinating the steak. I like the almost foolproof flexibilty of the flat iron steak. Plus, the wife and kids got tired of eating glorified shoe leather. Nice article, by the way.

wquenichet
wquenichet

@JayneS Jayne, every one knows the best beef comes from Iowa, and Some would argue that Kobe beef, made in Japan, is the best also. California makes the best Tacos, Phildeplpia the cheese steak. For consistency, maybe we should just make every one leave.

Guest
Guest

Jesus could you sound like anymore of a stuck-up prick?

Watch epic mealtime on youtube, hater.

 
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