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.
Next - avoid this sentence if you have high blood pressure - he applies a large palmful of kosher salt to each side of each steak. As he salts, Schatzker talks about evolution.
"Omega-3 fatty acids make up 13 per cent of the human brain," he says. "In fact, there are theories that suggest that human intelligence began when we started to eat oysters on the coast of Africa." He laid out the bare bones of the book's central argument about the human brain's craving for fat, and to his theory about why human beings have always hunted the fattest animals in a herd, unlike lesser primates that opportunistically eat skinny animals that have died.
"The very interesting thing about human beings from an evolutionary point of view is that if we eat meat that's too lean, it'll kill us." Schatzker believes the human longing for tasty beef is an evolutionary advantage, because deliciousness means survival and smartness. Handy theory! He's not intellectually macho like too many barbecue writers, but Schatzker's no vegan: He all but implies vegan mothers are endangering the future mental capacity of their offspring. It will be interesting to witness the public smackdowns sure to happen once the anti-meat crowd read Steak. Schatzker, whose grandfather was shot by the Nazis, enjoys making the point that Hitler was a vegetarian.
We pad across Fleurance's hide to the patio. "I wasn't even sure that Thornbury [Ontario]grass was good enough," Schatzker says as he lays the steaks on a hot gas barbecue for 10 minutes. ("Gas isn't as bad as the Argentines say.") Grass-feeding is by no means a sure thing, as the quality of grass-fed beef can be affected even by the time of day a steer grazes. Yield and consistency (the virtues of corn-fed beef) are tricky. Schatzker has eaten way more bad grass-fed than good.
But the good stuff is really good. "I've ruined steak for my father," he allows. "He goes to a steak house now, and I say how was the steak, and he says, terrible."
The Idaho rib-eye is too rare for Laura, and goes back on the grill for two minutes more. When Schatzker met her, she was a vegetarian. "Everybody thinks that the secret to steak is in the cooking," Schatzker says. "It's not. It's in the steak." Back at the table he carves half-inch slices of steak for each of us.
We are to begin, Schatzker says - he's a slight control freak with his meat, and anxious about details - with the commodity steak, move on to the black wagyu, and finish with his Idaho grass-fed beauties.
I admit to liking steak in any form. I have and will eat occasionally at McDonald's, with pleasure. Even the butcher shop steak seems delicious - at first. The scent of flamed beef and the foretaste of fat make my mouth water - at first. But the taste in my mouth lasts only a matter of seconds, hardly beyond the first "chew". (Chews are a matter of some discussion in Steak.) Then it goes flat.
The black Wagyu is like the cosmos exploding by comparison: juicier, richer, altogether more indulgent. It is like eating some kind of gloriously rare thing. I actually feel guilty. There is also more middle, more amplitude, to the trajectory of the steak's taste, and the taste sustains for five and more chews. It feels rich - in fact, almost too rich, loaded as it is with fat. I have five slices of the wagyu, and that is all I can manage. It's not that it isn't good: It is too good, and akin to candy.
Frankly, I think the Idaho grasser will be a letdown. The wagyu, however rich, was as good a steak as I have ever eaten. But the grass fed rib-eye is a revelation. I realize that is the sort of statement that makes people think food writers are wankers. But, baby, it is true. The Idaho steak has the middle, the robustness of the wagyu, but without the fattiness; it also tastes, unmistakably, like beef. It shouts, but it also lasts, like an interesting lover. It is like being inside a cave of beef taste. The complexity of the grass fed steak becomes greater, not less, with each chew: I think I detect a lemon-grass flavour in the middle of what is otherwise a meaty, even nutty taste. It is - forgive me again - steaky. I have five more slices of grass-fed Idaho beef, and two more of the butcher steak, just to make sure I wasn't tasting things, and then two more pieces of Idaho. Then I think I had better stop.
"We actually eat less meat now than we did before," Schatzker says. He knows the good stuff now, and the good stuff from Idaho runs more than $25 a pop. (The commodity beef had put him out $8.60.) But the cause of taste is worth paying for. Schatzker believes his mission is akin to that of author and food localist Michael Pollan. "He's just about the environment, whereas I'm about flavour. So much of our food is about industrialized product, and it has lost favour."
We stay another hour, talking about meat and all the other subjects a good meal inspires: theatre, children, writing, books, what's funny and what's not, the Nazis. "Flavour is, primarily, a personal experience that is very difficult to communicate," Schatzker says. Fortunately, it's easy to taste.
Mark Schatzker's weekly humour column can be found in Globe T.O. on Saturdays.
How to cook a steak in 15 easy steps
Step 1. Find a source of tender, juicy, and, above all, flavourful steak. This is by far the most difficult step in this recipe.
Step 2. Decide on a cut. There is a rather large selection to choose from: strips, flank steaks, rump steaks, tenderloins, rib eyes. Get to know each cut as intimately as your pillow. If you follow Step 1, any and every cut will be eminently palatable.
Step 3. Choose a thickness. Don't fall into the trap of believing that bigger steaks are always better.
Step 4. Examine the steak. Prod it. Poke it. Pick it up and waggle it.
Step 5. Choose a cooking surface. It can be a grill or it can be a pan. Both are fine. That's right, both are fine.
Step 6. Let the steak warm to room temperature. Don't cook a cold steak on a hot grill or pan.
Step 7. Pat the steak dry with paper towel. A wet steak, no matter how it's cooked, may end up tasting boiled.
Step 8. Salt the steak. Sprinkle both sides. Only experience will tell you how much is enough, and it's always better to err on the not enough, because too much salt is a disaster.
Step 9. Figure out how you want it cooked. Don't be one of those people who run around uttering bombastic statements like "I have no respect for anyone who eats a steak over medium rare." Roughly three quarters of all Argentines eat steak well done, and they probably eat more steak than you do. What matters is your preference. Figure it out. Stand by it.
Step 10. Cook the steak. Make sure your pan or grill is hot. You want to brown the exterior, but you don't want to burn it. Browning starts at 70°C (158°F). Burning happens when rich men with big barbecues - loudmouth types, usually - cook thick steaks on a torrid grill for too long.
Step 11. Flip the steak. After the first side has browned, which could take anywhere from one minute to eight minutes, flip.
Step 12. Assess doneness. Poke the surface. As a steak cooks, it becomes firmer. Pick up the steak with your tongs and waggle it. It should show signs of stiffening. When beads of red liquid start to form on the surface, the steak is approaching medium rare. If your steak feels like a cutting board, you've overcooked it, in which case you might try moistening it with the tears dripping off your cheek.
Step 13. Rest the steak (optional). Resting allows heat from the exterior of a thick steak to radiate inward and cook the meat in the centre. But resting is overrated. It is acceptable and often quite enjoyable to cut into a steak that's raw in the middle.
Step 14. Resist the temptation to smother your steak in a sauce or rub. Steak sauce is like crystal meth - habit forming and ruinous. If you're dealing with good steak, the flavour of steak will be the best thing on your plate.
Step 15. Eat the steak. A fine steak knife is not essential, but using one is fun.
Adapted from STEAK by Mark Schatzker. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2010 by Mark Schatzker