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Every year in September, the otherwise drab streets of Monmouth, Illinois, erupt with all the color and pageantry of the Warren County Prime Beef Festival. They even elect a festival princess--Miss Prime Beef, no doubt.
But what exactly is "prime beef?"
"The United States has the best beef in the world," says Rick Hamilton, national accounts manager with the 106-year-old Chicago beef purveyor Allen Brothers, "and USDA Prime is the best of the best." Prime is the top U.S. Department of Agriculture grade for beef, based largely on marbling--the more fat the better. USDA inspectors, armed with sharp blades and an intimate knowledge of red meat, roam the countryside, hacking beef apart at the rib and inspecting it for fat content.
Well, that's a romanticized version of a rather mundane process. In reality, a rancher anticipating a strong grade for his crop of cattle may request a federal inspection, because a prime rating means more cash per head. Only 2 percent of all beef produced in the United States receives the prime designation, and it costs 20 to 30 percent more than choice, the next highest grade.
"Prime delivers a much richer flavor," says Carlos Rodriguez, chef de cuisine at Pappas Brothers Steakhouse. "It's really difficult to describe in words, but prime is much more tender with more complexity of flavor than choice." Some 45 percent of beef grades in at choice, and another 35 percent grades as select, the last truly edible designation. ("Lean beef is just garbage--dry and tough," says the chef.)
OK, so it's fatter, rarer, and it costs more. But is prime worth it?
"Eat a strip steak at a choice restaurant and then at a prime restaurant," Hamilton says. "The difference is night and day." Rodriguez explains that the hefty price for prime is a measure of quality and demand, "but it's absolutely worth it if you want a great steak." And a lot of people do. Cattle-Fax, a Colorado-based market research firm, says consumer spending in the United States for beef during the first half of 2000 totaled $26.2 billion, and per capita beef consumption jumped to 35.1 pounds, up more than half a pound from 1999. The increased demand spurs quite a bit of prime beef hype, with restaurants all across the metroplex advertising the stuff.
So how can this top-end beef, representing only 2 percent of all cuts, end up almost everywhere? While the retail industry buys the majority of the available red meat, that hardly makes a dent in the supply of prime beef. Most prime ends up at restaurants, though Simon David grocery stores and a few butcher shops also offer prime cuts. In other words, there's just enough to go around. "I've heard of plays on prime by restaurants--'Joe's prime beef,' for example--but not too often and not in Dallas," Hamilton says. "If they list USDA prime on the menu, it must be USDA prime, otherwise they risk lawsuits and a lot of trouble."
Trust in the system exists across the industry, from Allen Bros., to Pappas Bros., to Cattle-Fax, to the people sweating out the Prime Beef Festival's string of small-town high school marching bands in Monmouth. "You can tell who serves prime beef," assures chef Rodriguez. "It's a big investment on the part of the restaurant."
Chefs prefer prime because it ages better. Beef, like wine, matures with age, though the optimum vintage peaks at 40 days (don't try it at home). "Dry aging concentrates the flavor," says Rodriguez, "and you have to start with the highest quality, because it loses about 30 percent of its bulk during the aging process." Expensive restaurants such as Pappas Bros. work with prime cuts. Lower-end steakhouses offer choice or select. Other grades--canner and cutter--satisfy the dog-food and school-lunch demand.
Some of that dog food, however, may end up in the grocery meat department or packaged as a frozen, pre-cooked dinner. Maybe that's where Salisbury steak comes from. "You want to be real careful what you're buying," Rodriguez says. His warning sounds unnecessarily spooky, until you realize that the grading process is entirely voluntary. A rancher with a herd of uncertain quality may sell his product on the market without a USDA grade, sort of a modern-day laissez-faire thing. As a result, inferior cuts occasionally hit the grocery shelves.
Ah, federal inspection. It keeps dog food off our plates (for the most part), and it prevents a small Illinois town from celebrating an Ungraded Beef Festival (with an unjudged beauty contest). Imagine the nightmare: Crowds would dwindle, the parade stands would empty, and the tractor pull contest would sputter into deadening prairie silence.
Yes, prime beef is prime. And for the sake of late-summer fun in Monmouth, Illinois, it's worth it.