The way Mark Schatzker tells it, he set out on a globe-spanning quest for a great-tasting steak after having one overpriced but disappointing steak too many. In search of a steak to write home about, he travelled to seven countries over a three-year period, met eccentric and fascinating cattlemen, beef scientists and connoisseurs on four continents, and ate more than 100 pounds of steak along the way.
Schatzker, a humour columnist for The Globe and Mail, has done an ace job of combining interesting historical facts and stories, dense lessons on food and animal science, and amusing accounts of his steak-seeking travels into an entertaining, story-shaped narrative arc, complete with suspense, clever setups and payoffs, a satisfying steak resolution - this is not a personal redemption memoir about finding oneself through eating, it really is all about steak - and mouth-watering food descriptions.
In Texas, Schatzker learns about meat grading and marbling, and that "fat is flavour." He also visits a feedlot where 32,000 crowded-in cattle, shot up with hormones and antibiotics, gorge themselves on flaked corn feed, and release clouds of lung-clogging fecal dust into the surrounding air. The sights, sounds and scents of the feedlot might be enough to turn some meat eaters off beef, but Schatzker does not (later) abandon grain-fed "commodity beef" on principle; he rejects it on taste, firm in the belief that "despite the veggie-friendly urgings of lentil-eating university coeds and the grumblings of bearded vegans who lurk at the edges of cocktail parties, there is zero doubt that humans are designed to eat meat."
Schatzker delivers some sparkling and playful takes on the food-writing genre
Schatzker's commitment to his search for steak that is juicy, tender and has a lasting, beefy taste leads him to France, where he studies the Lascaux cave paintings of prehistoric aurochs, eats Heck beef, an auroch-like breed developed by Nazi scientists, and hobnobs with Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse.
In Scotland, he witnesses semen extraction from Angus steers, and eats some grass-fed beef cut from a Highland cow, one of the few steaks that he rates A+. On a trip to Japan, he debunks rumours about the care and feeding of Kobe cattle, and extols Japanese cooking techniques.
In Italy, he wanders the countryside with an archeologist food lover who introduces him to the concept of "pure savour" - the taste of the natural surroundings that produce a food - and inspires him to acquire a cow of his own, back in Ontario. Working with renowned chef Michael Stadtländer, he raises the cow on acorns, apples, nuts, vegetables and grass, then has it slaughtered and feeds it to his family.
It's difficult to write well and without being repetitive about how food tastes, and indeed, the adjectives tasty, delicious, nutty and beefy appear often in the book. But Schatzker also delivers some sparkling and playful takes on the food-writing genre, such as when he compares the enticing aroma of a steak sauce made with hay to "a French grandmother … cooking a pecan tart in a wood-beamed hayloft" and "teddy bears toasting marshmallows roasted in honey and almonds over a crackling fire."
His concluding description of the steak he ate that made life worth living - a rib eye from Alderspring Ranch in Idaho, cooked by cowboy ranch owner Glenn Elzinga and eaten on-site - will doubtless move many readers of the book to try some grass-fed organic beef, with or without hay sauce. In a savvy, 21st-century marketing move, the book's steakthebook.com website even provides links to the artisanal ranches, and their online stores, that produced the steaks that brought Schatzker joy.
Kim Moritsugu is the author of four novels, and blogs about food as The Hungry Novelist.