A Matter of Fat
American steaks: First of a three-part series
Our waiter is an older man in a white waiter's jacket, a black tie and a long white apron. He recommends the USDA Prime New York strip, a specialty of Palm restaurant on Westheimer. We get one strip and one porterhouse, both medium rare, with the required chop-house sides: fried potatoes and creamed spinach. The New York strip is dark brown, its edges hard and crispy. Inside, it is pink and dry along the sides, turning juicier and redder toward the middle. It's a little tough, but flavorful. The porterhouse tastes much like the strip on the broad side of the bone; the little medallion of tenderloin on the short side is cooked closer to medium, but it is so tender you can cut it with a fork.
The original Palm on Second Avenue in New York opened in 1926 and remains the quintessential chop house. The waiters are gruff, and the floors are worn wood. The menu is as abrupt as the waiters -- steaks, chops and lobster with fried potatoes, fried onions and creamed spinach are about it. The walls are covered with caricatures of celebrity patrons, most of them no longer identifiable, done by cartoonists from major New York newspapers, most of which are now defunct.
Legend has it the famous name was a complete accident. Palm (the cognoscenti don't say "the") was supposed to be an Italian restaurant called Parma, but because of the owners' thick Italian accents, the bureaucrat who issued the permits inadvertently changed the name. When customers ordered a steak, the original owner would run down the street and buy one.
When the steak-house craze hit the American restaurant scene, famous chop houses like Morton's, Palm and Ruth's Chris began to open multiple locations. Houston has one of each, but the Palm location on Westheimer has a lot of special memories for Houstonians. When it opened in 1977, it epitomized the spirit of the oil boom, a boisterous joint with big steaks, big Bordeaux and few inhibitions.
The Houston restaurant's walls are covered in caricatures, just like the original, and it's fun to see how many faces you know. The steaks are splendid, too -- and yet I am disappointed. While they may be the best steaks in town, they can't compete with those in my memory. I still recall my visit to the original Palm on Second Avenue 28 years ago. The steak I remember was the absolute pinnacle of perfection. A mountainous cut that gushed juices with every bite, it was meltingly tender with a bold gaminess that I seldom encounter in a steak anymore.
Someone once said memory is a liar, and that may be true. No doubt time has embellished my memories somewhat. But I can't help but wonder how much objective change has actually taken place. What is going on with American beef? I've heard the standards have been lowered over the years, but is the steak here at the Houston Palm in 2001 really all that different from the one I remember at the New York Palm in 1973?
"There's a huge difference," says Tony Tammero, Palm's corporate chef. Tammero started working at the New York Palm in 1964. "I should know, I used to buy the meat."
Tammero laughs about the battle he fought every day with the buyer from Peter Luger's steak house in Brooklyn. Both would race to pick through the day's USDA Prime at the same meat market. "They would stamp the meat after I bought it, and if the buyer from Luger's came in later, she would offer them ten cents a pound more for it," he laughs. "It was beautiful meat."
"Cattle were corn-fed in the old days," Tammero remembers. "The fat was almost yellow, and the marbling was incredible. Ever since they lowered the standards on USDA Prime, the quality has gone down. You can barely tell USDA Prime from Choice anymore." Tammero is talking about the changes in the USDA grading system that went into effect in 1987.
Up until then, the three main categories in the grading system were Prime, Choice and Good. In 1987 the beef industry shifted its marketing focus to leaner beef, and the Good category was renamed Select. It seemed a rather inconsequential change to consumers at the time, but the effects on the quality of American beef have been far-reaching.
"The downgrading of American meat is a major scandal, a venal conspiracy," writes Jeffrey Steingarten, food writer at Vogue and author of The Man Who Ate Everything. Steingarten has studied USDA files and photos that document the various grades of American beef through the century. The year 1987 wasn't the first time standards were lowered. They were dropped repeatedly at the behest of the cattle industry from the 1930s through the 1970s, Steingarten reports. But the changes in 1987 were different; they represented not just a shift in grading standards but a shift in thinking.
"The term Good was changed to Select, solely for the purpose of tricking hapless Americans into accepting extremely lean beef. As one consequence, what is sold today as USDA Prime is no better marbled than the upper half of the inexpensive Good grade back in 1927," Steingarten says.
As the nation's top beef-producing state, Texas bears much of the blame for the decline in quality. The National Consumer Retail Beef Study, commissioned by the National Cattlemen's Association and conducted by Texas A&M University, started the beef industry's "War on Fat" in 1986. As recommended by the A&M study, the USDA changed the focus of cattle grading. In response to customer preferences for leaner beef, USDA Good was dressed up in its fancy new Select label. And things haven't been the same since.
"The beef industry has started feeding cattle differently in order to produce leaner beef," a spokesperson of the National Cattlemen's Association told me. "As a result, the production of USDA Prime is down. The grading system has also been changed. The highest level of USDA Prime isn't even produced anymore. American beef is 27 percent leaner today than it was 20 years ago."
The major difference between Prime, Choice and Good/Select is the degree of marbling (intermuscular fat) in the beef. Prime is roughly 15 percent more marbled than Choice, and Choice is about 15 percent more marbled than Select. Now that the average American consumer has become so paranoid about fat, we are paying a premium for poorer-quality beef. Cattlemen, in turn, are pushed to produce ever leaner cattle. The result is a drastic decline in the quality of all grades.
In a 1992 address to the agricultural industry, professor Jeff W. Savell, leader of the Meat Science Section in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M and co-author of the consumer beef study, lamented the losses to the top end of the market.
"The most damaging effect of this decrease in quality is that in 1974, approximately 74 percent of the carcasses from fed steers and heifers graded U.S. Prime and U.S. Choice; in 1991, only about 54 percent of the carcasses graded U.S. Prime and U.S. Choice. Simply put, there has been about a 20-percent point decline in U.S. Prime and U.S. Choice in 17 years."
What's left of our best beef is mostly sold to the people who appreciate it more than we do. Eighty percent of USDA Prime is now exported, a large part of it to Japan. The Japanese, whose rice-and-seafood diet has long been the paragon of healthy eating, are no fools when it comes to beef. They'll pay top dollar for our well-marbled cuts. In quality-conscious Japan, they want the best, and as any chef will tell you, the more marbling in a steak, the better the flavor. Although American chefs are always looking for the best beef they can buy, they are often frustrated by the attitudes of their patrons.
"People freak out if they see the least bit of fat on their steaks," says Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie. "They don't even want to see the circle of fat in the middle of a good rib eye."
Since Prime is getting more expensive and the majority of consumers don't appreciate it anyway, some high-end steak houses like Sullivan's have given up and turned to Certified Angus, one of many "branded beef" programs that sell premium USDA Choice under a trade name.
"The Certified Angus program is the most successful branded-beef program in the country," a National Cattlemen's Association spokesperson told me. But branded beef is causing confusion among customers. On the surface, the Certified Angus brand sounds silly. Why should we choose our beef based on the breed of cattle? But in truth, there's a lot more to the name than meets the eye.
Within the extremely broad category of USDA Choice, there are actually three different levels of quality. They are usually called small marbling, modest marbling and moderate marbling. Moderately marbled USDA Choice is the top cut, just one step short of Prime.
"The Certified Angus program goes beyond government grading," the NCA spokesperson says. "After the USDA issues a grade, an Angus grader comes through and stamps the meat that fits their program. What they are taking is, by and large, the top level of USDA Choice."
By removing the Prime, Choice and Select labels from the product, the new programs are redefining beef grading. They are cherry-picking the most marbled beef that's still affordable and helping us avoid a USDA grading system that confuses issues of health with issues of quality.
There are not only Select, Choice and Prime cuts to choose from at the store these days, but also Certified Angus, Sterling Silver and other brands. Then there's the organic, hormone-free beef sold by health food stores. But all of these choices have made it difficult for U.S. supermarket shoppers to figure out what constitutes good beef.
"When people want a good steak these days, they go out to a steak house," Jeff Phillips, vice president of marketing for Palm Management Group, told me over the phone from Tampa, where he was helping to open the chain's 24th restaurant.
It's nice to know that at least some of my memories are based in objective reality. That steak I had 28 years ago really did taste different -- for a number of reasons. The Palm Group has made a few compromises in its quest for expansion. The original Palm in New York dry-ages its beef. The rest of the chain relies on the less expensive wet-aging process. But because of changes in the American cattle industry, the steak I ate 28 years ago was also a much better piece of meat than anything available today.
And the meteoric increase in high-end steak houses is a result of this decline in beef quality, Phillips told me. "Nobody wants to take their chances with grocery store steaks anymore."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.