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19 december 2013

Beef by Lorna Piatti-Farnell is an engaging and eclectic addition to the Reaktion Edible series. Beef truly has a global history, and Piatti-Farnell visits (textually) every inhabited continent, in search of beefways.

The two most beef-crazy countries, though, are islands: Britain and Japan. That's saying a lot, in a world that includes the beef traditions of Argentina, South Africa, and Australia. But as Piatti-Farnell shows, the Japanese have made beef into an exquisite artform. The British, by contrast, have made it an at-least-weekly necessity, a national symbol. The emblematic Briton is John Bull, who constantly – and rather cannibalistically – eats huge portions of beef.

Not that Americans are shy about beefeating. When I grew up in the 1960s, it didn't seem like a meal (except for Friday, of course) if beef wasn't on the table. Beef was expensive, and we were sometimes poor, so there were a lot of meals that didn't seem like meals. But we strove, and pined, for the condition of beef. If T-bone was scarce and tenderloin unheard of (I was an adult before I ate filet mignon), hamburgers could often be scraped up, and eked out with breadcrumbs. Meatloaf, minute steak, and thin bits of round made good meals. And every few Sundays there would be a roast, which would extend, sometimes till Thursday, in the form of cold slices, salted, on Wonder Bread. Now that's nostalgia.

Beef, like its bovine companion milk, has been both savior and archenemy in the Anglo-American diet. Piatti-Farnell argues that "lean beef is indeed a great health benefit to the human body" (120). Like milk and sugar and eggs, beef is in some respects an ideal food; like them, it is often seen as the source of many miseries. Numerous diets inveigh against it. Others prescribe it. Beef occasions health scares both real (Mad Cow disease) and relatively imaginary (according to Piatti-Farnell, concerns over synthetic hormones in beef are overblown; I imagine other writers would disagree. At any rate, hormone-laden beef won't harm its eaters, though who knows what it does to the environment.)

Piatti-Farnell makes the important case that beef, even more than other foods, is bound up with social networks and rituals. Texan and Australian barbecues, English Sunday dinners, the South African braai are complex community events, with roles stratified by age and sex (42-49). Halal and kosher butchering practices encode distinct religious attitudes toward the death of animals, sometimes conflicting with food regulations in modern states, but being honored in those states which value religious pluralism (110-11). Of course, most foods are more about people and traditions than about getting nutrients into bodies. But Piatti-Farnell makes a convincing case that beef is especially so.

I was less thrilled with the recipes in this Edible volume than in some of the others I've read. But that's perhaps because I cook less beef than other kinds of meat (and less meat than other kinds of food). There's a simple bulgogi, a "modern sukiyaki," and the intriguingly-named "monkey-gland steak," which features nothing more exotic than Worcestershire sauce. Piatti-Farnell names some Northern and Midwestern American specialities like "beef on weck" and "beef booyah" that I've never heard of. But even the heartland can hold culinary mysteries.

Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. Beef: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.