So What Exactly Are You 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 raising cattle. 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 Conoco-Phillips 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. That first day, 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."

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 trapdoor 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 remains 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 in 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 had 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?

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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 steakhouses 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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