The most startling feature in Mark Schatzker's home in downtown Toronto is the cowhide rug in the sitting room off his kitchen. His young daughter Greta likes to play on it. Before it was a rug, it was a cow named Fleurance, an animal the Schatzkers owned. In between cowdom and rugness, Fleurance was quite a lot of very fine grass-fed steak, and one of Greta's favourite meals. Greta appears not to mourn Fleurance. The Schatzker home is a meat household.
You'd expect as much from a man whose love of steak began at the age of six, under the tutelage of his father, and who just spent nearly three years travelling the world in search of the world's finest meat. The result is Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef (published this week in Canada).
Three years ago, Schatzker (no honorifics; a man who has written a book about steak has to be called by his last, meatiest name) set out to cure his growing disappointment in the corn-fed, feedlot-fattened fare that constitutes that vast majority of steak eaten in North America. To his surprise, no book on the subject existed.
"There's all kinds of cookbooks," he explains, "but nobody's ever done a book about steak like this one" - a serious search for flavour that, along the way, delves into cattle breeding, the history of stockyards, marbling and why it's not the be all and end all, grass versus corn (grass wins), the vast chemistry of flavour (there are 25 different kinds of fat in steak), evolutionary history and its relation to carnivorism, Roland Barthes's love of meatiness, and the difference between a Beef Loyal eater and a Variety Rotator, which is what Schatzker was afraid he was becoming - to name a handful of its concerns. The result is an often funny and immensely readable ode to mouth-feel, meat and joy.
But while it's one thing to read Steak, it's another to be invited to eat some at the home of the man who wrote it.
My wife and I arrive after 8 p.m., as Schatzker's wife, Laura McLeod, is putting their brand new twins, Violet and Henry, to bed. (The babies get mashed grass-fed beef in their baby pap.) Schatzker is laying out three of his own cherished babies on the kitchen counter.
There is an ordinary corn-fed rib-eye from a local butcher shop - what Schatzker calls "commodity steak." This was the standard and ubiquitous steak that inspired him to travel to seven countries in search of something better.
There is a larger grass-fed black Wagyu rib-eye, inspired by his experience with kobe beef in Japan, cut from a steer Schatzker helped raise in Ontario after Fleurance was, sadly, all gone. Schatzker hasn't done the per-steak cost amortization yet, but the animal cost $2,000.
Beside them are two grass-fed rib-eyes from Idaho's Pahsimeroi Valley.
One good thing about eating a steak dinner at the home of a man who has written a book on the subject is that he knows what he's talking about. A lot of people don't these days, given the fractious and dogmatic state of the food world: They have opinions, but narrow tastes. Schatzker set out to tear apart every meat stereotype he could find.
His search for a sublime piece of meat starts in Texas (disappointment and despair, and a lungful of fecal dust from the state's endless feedlots). He makes his way to France (where he visits the cave drawings at Lascaux - "pictures of steak" - and feasts on ersatz aurochs, a Nazi-inspired reintroduction of cattle first domesticated 10,000 years ago); to Scotland (terrifying details about scrotums and artificial insemination, and inspiring grass-fed Highland cattle steaks); to Italy (yum), Japan (double yum) and Argentina (an education in open-fire grilling); and then back, by way of Fleurance (whom he raises with the help of chef Michael Stadtlander, on grass north of Toronto, finishing her with lots of apples, acorns, Persian walnuts, and carrots, to name just a few of Fleurance's excellent taste notes). Finally, he lands in Idaho, at the Alderspring Ranch of Glenn Elzinga, with whom he ate the steak that finally transported him to heaven.
"Smell them," Schatzker says in his kitchen, motioning to the specimens before us. We do. The butcher steak has what, until that point in my life, I thought of as meat smell. Meat smell good. But if the Wagyu smells darker and richer, like a sexy girl at a dangerous party, it is the clean, fresh Idaho rib-eyes that made me realize the local butcher shop steak didn't smell much like meat at all. Meat concept, maybe.
Schatzker tears himself a flag of paper towel and begins to pat the steaks dry. Drying is essential before salting and grilling "to avoid boiled flavours." Schatzker talks like that sometimes, lapsing into meat scientist mode. A Frenchman he met in Scotland insisted in using a ridged grill pan for the same reason, especially when a steak had been vacuum-packed.