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?
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.)
Meanwhile, fajitas are in short supply. In 1988, the U.S.-Japan Beef and Citrus Agreement reclassified outside skirt, the cut that started the fajita craze, as tariff-free offal. The Japanese, who used to pay the equivalent of a 200 percent tariff on U.S. beef, now buy our outside skirt steak with no tariff at all. They are currently importing 90 percent of it.
Fajitas are the heart of modern Tex-Mex. They became popular when consumers started rejecting cheesy combination plates in the 1970s and 1980s in favor of more authentic Mexican cuisine. The name "fajitas," along with the recipe and the service style, came from the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, not Mexico. But at least it was authentic Tejano cooking. Fajita means "little belt" and refers to the shape of the outside skirt—anything else isn't really a fajita.
With outside skirt in short supply, Texas meat companies have compensated by offering some new fajita cuts to restaurants. In fact, the Texas A&M Meat Science Section is working on fajita replacements. The meat doctors started rhapsodizing about wedges, flaps, hangers and tails. At the time, it sounded like they were discussing airplane parts.
"What kind of meat do you use in your fajitas?" I asked the restaurant manager at Papa Perez when he stopped by our table.
"We use inside skirt steak," he said. "It's already marinated when we buy it. Then we add our own seasonings."
"It sure doesn't get this tender when I grill it," I said.
Then the meat doctors shared a secret—enzymes. To create tender beef fajitas like the ones on our sizzling comal, meat processors treat tough inner skirt with commercial enzymes or natural enzymes such as papain, which is extracted from papaya, and ficin, which comes from figs.
Papain is tricky. It doesn't start softening up the meat until it is activated by a temperature of at least 122 degrees Fahrenheit. And once it starts, it doesn't stop until the meat cools off. If you have ever had fajitas that tasted like mush, it's because they were cooked too long or the restaurant kept papain-treated meat in the warmer or on the steam table too long after it was cooked.
But you can get papain in the grocery store—it's the active ingredient in Adolph's Meat Tenderizer. All I had to do was come up with some marinade recipes with papain, and backyard barbecuers could make tender inside skirt steak at home, right?
Savell and Griffin said it's not that simple. When you marinate meat at home, you are lucky to get a 2 percent "take-up rate," as the measure of absorption is known in the biz. To increase the take-up rate, commercial meatpackers do their marinating in a commercial vacuum tumbler. Mechanically tumbling the meat and the marinade in a rotating vacuum container with paddles breaks up and stretches out the protein fibers, increasing the meat's ability to absorb the liquid.
With as little as 20 minutes of vacuum tumbling, the "take-up" ratio can be increased to 10 percent. Along with the tenderizer and spices, salt and phosphate are also added to increase moisture retention. That makes the meat juicier and pads the meatpackers' profits by increasing the weight.
But it gets even more complicated. There isn't enough inside skirt steak to satisfy the demand for fajitas. And so the meat scientists are experimenting with other cuts. These mechanically tumbled, enzyme-treated meat cuts are all sold interchangeably under the umbrella term "beef for fajitas." You can sample this faux fajita meat at any taqueria in town.
But marketing mystery meats under generic names like "beef for fajitas" runs counter to everything that's going on in the food world. It's exactly the kind of deceptive marketing Eric Schlosser takes on in the new movie Food, Inc.
The local food movement has impressed consumers with the importance of provenance. And meat is the next big thing. That's why so many urbanites nationwide are signing up for butchery classes. Food lovers are ordering organ meat at restaurants, looking for short ribs and soup bones at the grocery store, and trying to cure their own bacon at home.
At Tom Mylan's hugely popular Butchery Classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen in New York, home butchers are learning how to cut up a side of beef, a whole hog or a lamb. In San Francisco, chef Tia Harrison teaches a hands-on class in meat-cutting techniques for women at a meat market.
Then there's the "Sacrificio" class in Seattle, in which a trendy chef named Gabriel Claycamp took participants out to a farm to slaughter a hog, process the meat and eat a pork feast. The slaughtering ceremony was modeled after an account by Anthony Bourdain of a village in Europe where the whole population turned out to process a pig on slaughtering day. The Seattle students brought their children to witness the killing and their kitchen knives to help cut up the meat. The organizers described it as a respectful celebration to help people see the animals they ate as something other than styrene packages in the grocery store.
Jonathan Kauffman at the Seattle Weekly (a sister paper of the Dallas Observer and the Houston Press) attended the Sacrificio class and wrote about it. He saw it as a collision of "a host of food trends," including the rise of farmers markets, the labeling of artisanal producers on menus, the growing concerns about conditions in slaughterhouses and the new "Nose to Tail" attitude about eating the whole animal. Inspired by The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan goes hunting and butchers a wild hog, young urban food lovers are seeking to understand and deepen their own relationships with meat.
The "get to know your meat" movement looks a little different from our vantage point here in Texas. Pollan's sense of irony about an intellectual like himself wielding a rifle sounds pretty silly if you hunt routinely. But meat eaters across the country want to know where their meat is coming from.
The dark-brown fajitas at the Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation Street in Houston came on a sizzling cast-iron comal with lots of caramelized onions. "It's Certified Hereford outside skirt steak. It's not marinated at all. It's just seasoned with salt and pepper and brushed lightly with soy sauce as it comes off the grill," according to the Ninfa's meat buyer, an outspoken chef named Mark Mavrantonis.
Ninfa's has to pay "a pretty penny" to get the hard-to-come-by USDA choice outside skirt steak, Mavrantonis said. The Japanese have driven most restaurants out of the market. Ninfa's is the only restaurant in Texas where I have seen American outside skirt in the last few years, and they serve it there to preserve a tradition.
The beef was cooked to well done and cut into thin strips against the coarse grain. It was so tough you had to pinch the tortilla to keep from pulling the meat strips out with your teeth when you took a bite. But the beef was also very flavorful. The Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation is the restaurant that made fajitas famous. Thank goodness they still taste like they did in the old days.
A few years ago, under a tent set up on Auditorium Shores for the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival in Austin, Juan Antonio "Sonny" Falcon, the man who calls himself "The Fajita King," addressed a Tex-Mex panel discussion. Falcon claims that during the 1960s, while working as a butcher at Guajardo's Cash Grocery in East Austin, he gave "fajitas" their name while he experimented with the diaphragm muscle. Falcon can document the first time he sold fajitas to the public. It was at a Diez y Seis celebration in Kyle in September of 1969.
Falcon's fame drew a big crowd to the tent, including a couple of hecklers. Some fellow Tejanos from the Lower Rio Grande Valley loudly contended that their grandmothers were making fajitas before Falcon was born.
"I like Sonny Falcon. I went to school with him. But he didn't invent fajitas," said Liborio "Libo" Hinojosa, whose family owns H&H Meat Products in Mercedes, one of the Valley's biggest meat suppliers. "The Lion Mart in Brownsville was selling fajitas at their meat counter way before 1969."
An archival search of Brownsville newspapers turns up a grocery store display ad featuring fajitas from 1971, which would suggest that fajitas weren't a new item in Brownsville. But the most remarkable thing about the ad is the fact that fajitas were selling for 99 cents a pound, while T-bone steaks were going for 79 cents a pound. Maybe outside skirt steak never was all that cheap.
The first restaurant to popularize fajitas in Austin was at the Hyatt Hotel. The beef was served on a sizzling comal with onions and peppers and the signature spread of flour tortillas, guacamole, salsas and condiments. But the hotel chef at the Hyatt balked at serving chewy skirt steak. Instead, he substituted sirloin. It wasn't long afterward that chicken fajitas made their debut. The fact that chickens don't have skirt steaks didn't seem to bother anyone.
As far as butchery classes go, Beef 101 at Texas A&M is the granddaddy of them all and way ahead of the trend. Davey Griffin set up the first class more than 20 years ago. It's a comprehensive overview of the beef industry from stockyard to cutting floor offered three times a year, and it's almost always booked solid with food industry pros.
Day two of Beef 101 started with an anatomy class by Griffin in which we learned the location of each cut of meat on a cattle skeleton nicknamed "Bossy." There were some surprises. "This is the infraspinatus muscle," said Griffin, holding up a plastic-wrapped cut of meat, "the second-tenderest cut of beef after the tenderloin—and it comes from the shoulder clod." Sometimes called the top blade, it is the cut that yields the newly popular flatiron steaks.
After the lecture, we suited up. Dressed in a hairnet and a hard hat, white frock and apron, a Kevlar glove and sleeve, and a metal chest protector, I strapped on my knife holder and entered the work area.
Led by Jeff Savell, my Beef 101 team took a meat saw to the 600-pound side of beef, cutting it into chuck, rib, loin and round—the four primal regions. The shoulder, or chuck, is the front end—that's where the brisket and shoulder clod come from. Most of it ends up as ground meat. The rib and loin yield the valuable "middle meats" prized in steak houses. The rump end is known as the round; it was once cut into giant round steaks, and now it yields such prizes as the eye of round roast.
To get the shoulder clod away in one piece, you gently sever the connective tissue that binds the meat to the shoulder blade while you pull down on the meat with the hook. Sliding the boning knife between the bone and the muscle without puncturing the meat requires a delicate touch, while yanking on the hook hard enough to pull the clod away demands brute force. It's an odd combination of skills. Like playing the piano while moving it.
"Put your weight into it," the young A&M Meat Science major who served as my mentor said. "I'll make sure it doesn't fall on the floor." I hung on the hook, and finally, the clod pulled away. We flopped it onto the worktable like a 30-pound fish.
Now we began to "fabricate" our final cuts. There are a lot of different ways to butcher a carcass. You can remove the whole tenderloin—or you can include it in porterhouse and T-bone steaks. You can make rib eye steaks with the bone in or without. Once upon a time, grocery store butchers cut the shoulder blade into "seven-bone" pot roasts. Today, the same section of chuck yields flatiron steaks and shoulder tenders, cuts that are turning up in fancy restaurants as "bistro steaks." After we cut the outside skirt away from the ribs, we removed the first layer of the abdominal wall that's attached to it. That's the inside skirt, Savell told me.
After I learned how to cut up a shoulder clod to make flatiron steaks and tenders, I took a break and walked around. Griffin called me over and showed me a piece of boneless short rib so marbled the meat was as much white as red. It was the short rib meat Koreans call kalbi.
Savell pointed out the diaphragm muscle, the famous outside skirt steak. Since the meat runs in a circle around the inside of the thoracic cavity, it was easy to see where it got the "belt" name.
I got the tedious task of cleaning it. There is a tough membrane to peel away and under that, there's a layer of silverskin connective tissue that has to be cut off with a knife.
There are two layers of abdominal muscle under the outside skirt. Some people called these tough cuts flap and tail meat, but since both used to go on the ground beef pile, nobody worried much about nomenclature. Which is how these pieces got lumped together as "beef for fajitas."
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the word "fajitas" didn't mean anything.
On Memorial Day weekend, I grilled up fajitas for a family gathering. But before I let everyone dig in, I made them taste-test four different kinds of "fajitas." The marinated sirloin flap was pretty popular; it beat out the marinated and un-marinated inside skirt, and the marinated "beef for fajitas." The meat came from my brother Dave, who works for restaurant purveyor Ben E. Keith in San Antonio and called in fajita samples from meat suppliers. Our taste test represented the most popular meats sold for fajitas in Texas restaurants.
I was surprised to see outside skirt steak, but as my brother pointed out, it was imported. In a bizarre trade swap, we sell our outside skirt to Asia and then import outside skirt from Central America. When we opened the package, we were taken aback by the nasty liver odor. "It always smells like that," Dave said. Because of the smell, I decided to omit the outside skirt steak from our test.
The best restaurant meats we tried were marinated. We can thank vacuum tumbler technology for turning previously tough cuts into excellent fajitas. But as always, there's a catch. As one A&M meat scientist explained, the process of marinating beef faces the same inherent problem as grinding beef. If you start off with one spot of bacterial contamination on the surface of the meat, you end up spreading it very effectively throughout the entire batch. It's only a matter of time before we face the first marinated beef recall.
It helps that fajitas are usually cooked to well done. And adding antimicrobial agents to the marinade helps. But read the ingredient list, and you have to conclude that you are eating beef in a complex chemical stew.
In another backyard barbecue, I cooked up four more varieties of fajita meat, this time based on what's available in retail meat markets. I bought marinated inside skirt, ribbon-cut short ribs and unmarinated chuck steak at a Mexican meat market. The skirt was the most expensive, at $4.45 a pound. The other cuts were around $4. The store also sold "res para fajitas" a hodgepodge of marinated beef trimmings, for $2.98 a pound.
When I saw highly marbled boneless short rib meat for $3.98 a pound at Costco, I impulsively picked some up. It was the same marbled meat that Griffin showed me while we were cutting up our sides of beef in class. According to every recipe I could find, the short rib meat contains lots of connective tissue and needs to be boiled before you put it on a grill. But I eat this stuff in Korean barbecue joints all the time—thin-sliced, marinated with soy sauce and raw.
I tried to butterfly the meat, but finally I gave up, put it on my handy Krups home meat slicer and cut it into slices about one-fifth of an inch thick. I pounded the meat very thin and seasoned it with my usual chili and garlic rub, with some Adolph's Meat Tenderizer added.
The chuck steak won the taste test. The meat market-marinated inside skirt came in second. The ribbon-cut short ribs were good, but they didn't look like fajitas. The boneless short rib meat was so tender it fell apart. In subsequent experiments I cut boneless short rib a little thicker and forgot the Adolph's. Marinated in a pineapple juice and soy sauce mixture, it was my favorite new fajita stand-in. I am going to start experimenting with flatiron steaks and tri-tip steaks next.
Of course, those aren't traditional fajitas.
Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth seats up to 1,500 people when all the patios are open. Fajitas are by far the most popular order—the tender beef served there takes no effort at all to chew, but it doesn't have a lot of flavorful char or coarse-grained character either.
"We use tenderloin for our fajitas," said Joe T.'s owner, Jody LanCarte.
I was shocked.
Christine Lopez Martinez, the manager of Matt's Rancho Martinez in Dallas, another restaurant with great fajitas, said Matt's uses the same cut. "We use beef tenderloins," she said. "We brush the meat with our Black Magic sauce when it comes off the grill—and that's it."
The tenderloin they were talking about wasn't the prime or choice stuff you eat in fancy steakhouses. Matt's Rancho Martinez uses USDA select, while Joe T.'s uses ungraded tenderloin.
Below USDA prime, choice and select, there are the USDA standard, commercial, utility and canner grades. You never see these in restaurants or grocery stores, but that doesn't mean you aren't eating them. USDA inspection is mandatory for all meat plants. Most people assume this means all meat is graded—it's not. USDA grading is a service that meat processors can elect to pay extra for. And it costs a lot of money.
A prime, choice or select grade brings a bonus price; lesser grades don't add anything to the bottom line. Meatpackers don't waste money getting older or less muscled steers graded. But the meat still gets sold. It's called ungraded beef. Ungraded tenderloin, known as cow tenders in the meat trade, is relatively cheap and very tender. Compare the price of ungraded tenderloin or sirloin to USDA choice inside skirt steak, and you begin to understand that meat quality is not as simple as the labels make it seem.
In our final day of Beef 101, we sat in a classroom eating little chunks of beef in plastic cups and rating them on a 1-to-10 scale for a variety of sensory evaluation factors including juiciness, tenderness and overall impression. We checked off flavor notes on a list that included fatty, bloody, livery, grassy, soda, salt, chemical, bitter, soapy, metallic and a taste researchers describe as "cardboard."
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The first thing that became apparent as we raised our hands to vote for sample A or sample B was that we all had different tastes in beef. The class compared select to choice and prime, wet-aged to dry-aged, grass-fed to grain-fed, and Angus to Charolais and Brahma genetics. We assessed the palatability of beef—which was stripped of labels, prejudices and romantic steakhouse ambience—like meat scientists.
The results were surprising. The vast majority of the class preferred wet-aged beef, despite the exalted reputation of expensive dry-aging. And a USDA prime rib eye sample was scored lower by most of the class on overall impression than one particular piece of USDA choice.
The recession is surely part of the reason that business is off at luxury steakhouses and cheaper beef cuts are in demand. But a lot of consumers and restaurant chefs have been getting tired of steak anyway. "I love secondary cuts—choice tenderloin is boring," Mark Mavrantonis said. "There's a lot more character in brisket, short ribs, skirts and some of these other new cuts."
Tenderloin or fajitas? Prime, choice or select? I used to put a lot of faith in those names, whether I encountered them in restaurants or on the styrene packages of meat in the grocery store. Now I know better. What you are looking for is flavor.