Great Steak

Unapologetically American and totally indulgent, it's the ultimate in red meat.

Christopher Hirsheimer

Mel Coleman is a cowboy, the son of a cowboy—the son of a cowboy's son, for that matter. He manages more than 4,000 head of cattle, part of the family's beef business, on 250,000 acres of public and private Colorado ranch land. And he eats beef six days a week. He has spent much of his adult life convincing other people to do the same—even, he claims, converting the occasional vegetarian. "Chicken," insists Coleman, "will not thrive unopposed."

Of course, Coleman is biased. So am I, having grown up in Kansas City, the home of legendary barbecue and even better steak, especially my dad's. I am happy to report that Coleman and I are not alone: According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, in 1997 some 76.5 million servings of beef are consumed daily in the United States for an average of 67.6 pounds per person, per year. That's nothing compared with the 94-plus pounds that each of us put away annually in the mid-'70s, but it represents a steady climb upward from 1993, when consumption bottomed out at 65.1 pounds a head. Call it what you will—low-fat backlash, anti-tofu reaction, chicken overdose—but beef is on its way back. And steak, the Kansas City classic that is the quintessential red meat, is at the vanguard of the movement.

"Blame it on the martini," says butcher Mike Abbondante of Akron Prime Meats in New York City. Martinis, cigars, and steak. Perhaps they just go together. This lusty fusion has become a hot trend, well documented in the press, and heartily welcomed by restaurateurs: More than a thousand new steak houses have opened across the country since 1994, and despite the increase in competition, traffic at all steak emporiums has risen some 24 percent in the same period. "Steak is back on the table because it tastes good," says food writer William Rice of Chicago—a town with a distinguished reputation in such matters. "People these days want food with more flavor, and that's what steak is all about." (Rice has his own tribute to the subject: Steak Lover's Cookbook, published by Workman, 1997.)

Steak, like apple pie, is also irresistibly nostalgic, with warm connotations of hearth and home. (The word itself comes from the Old Norse steikja, meaning "to roast on a spit.") A steak dinner is an important event, reserved for special occasions, or, in some families, is cause for celebration in itself. For restaurateur and chef Lydia Shire, steak brings back memories of Saturday nights growing up, when her father would spread newspapers on the floor in front of the stove and panfry a family-size piece of beef flank in a white-hot skillet, filling the kitchen with smoke and splattering grease all over. His technique was messy, but "he made beautifully crusted steak," Shire remembers. "It was blackened on the outside and really rare on the inside, always sliced very thin, laid out on my mom's best china, and topped with melted butter." At the end of the meal, she adds, "The meat juices would be drained into a Chinese Canton teacup and given to me to sip."

Shire's father was on to something: Steak should always be cooked over very high heat. If restaurant steak often tastes better than our own, it's partly because steak-house chefs sometimes fire their grills up to as much as 800 degrees. Heat sources at home are often just not hot enough. That's one problem. Another is finding good meat. To connoisseurs, that means two things: relying on prime or choice beef (prime, the highest grade of meat available, is expensive and can be hard to find), and buying meat that has been dry-aged—left in a cooler until a hard crust forms on the outside and muscle fibers and tissue break down on the inside. Dry-aging is an endangered tradition, practiced by comparatively few butchers and even fewer restaurants. Today, beef is most likely to be wet-aged, a process that occurs naturally as the vacuum-sealed package of meat travels from processing plant to supermarket case or restaurant—and that, frankly, doesn't do much for flavor.

Since some of my favorite steak is sold under the Coleman Natural Products label, I called on Mel Coleman for another expert opinion. I asked him about what makes steak great, and he invited me out to his company's headquarters in Denver to find out.

Coleman is the nation's largest producer of natural beef, which means that the cows are raised on pesticide-free grass and grain, with no growth-stimulating hormones or antibiotics. His procedure involves more time, more trouble, and more money (an estimated 30-50 percent more) than conventional ranching, but has no effect on the nutritional value of the beef: "Coleman's is probably a more consistent product, but as far as fat, calories, and cholesterol are concerned," says animal science professor Dr. Dan Hale, "there is no significant difference between natural beef and that from the general industry." Given the high cost, it is not surprising that drug-free beef accounts for a very small percentage of the U.S. market.

Coleman, who previously made a living wrangling and riding across Colorado, founded his company in 1979, after his daughter-in-law complained that she could not buy the kind of natural beef she used to get at the ranch. From there, he says,"the idea just grew out of my saddlebag." He's always lived in Saguache (pronounced Sah WATCH), a dusty dot of a town sheltered by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on one side, the rolling San Juans on the other. All eight of his great-grandparents settled in Saguache starting in the 1870s, just as Colorado became—as he says—"Coloradah".

But in 1993, however, to better run what he calls the "bells and whistles" of the company, Coleman relocated to Louisville, just outside Denver, with his wife, Polly—who is Saguache-born as well. He has kept his Saguache home on Cemetery Road, along with the spread that he still runs with the help of his younger brother, Jim.

On the day I visit, Mel is driving a new Chevy truck with a digital compass in the rearview mirror, and Jim, atop a 10-year-old horse named Rose, is rounding up a herd of cattle. Mel is smartly dressed in pressed shirt and denims, straw Stetson, and personalized belt buckle (from the Colorado State Board of Stock Inspection Commissioners—a reward for 25 years of exemplary service); Jim is sporting dusty chaps, stirrups, and a jacket that, well, has seen better days. Jim has a day of wrangling ahead; Mel gives me a tour of town, filling me in on some recent cow-related history.

In the 1950s, he recounts, ranchers countrywide began to vastly step up the inbreeding and crossbreeding of cattle to produce the kind of meat that the market demanded. In the '70s, consumers wanted a fatty piece of beef, but now they prefer leaner cuts. "Man has improved the bovine," says Coleman, who disagrees with the common wisdom that the flavor of beef is directly related to the amount of fat. He insists that genetics and feed make the difference, and also says that stressed or overworked muscles may contribute to toughness in meat. So he strives to produce a kinder, gentler cow. For years now, he has been emphasizing European breeds like Angus and Limousin. Such a mix, he says, makes for a structurally sound animal with superior marbling, a straight back, and a "good, long stretch." As an example, he points out a four-month-old, 300-pound calf. "See," he says, "it looks like you're getting an extra T-bone there."

Coleman says that when he was growing up, "cows were for sale, not for eating. If an old one broke her leg, then Mom would fry up some steak, but it would be tougher than tough." He shakes his head. "Mom never thought to blame the cow, though." What Coleman now realizes is that she should have, for therein, he says, lies the secret of the perfect steak: a good cut of meat from a healthy, well-fed, contented animal.

Coleman reiterates the point at the ranch house. Arranging a pile of charcoal briquettes, he offers me—what else?—the cut of steak of my choice. I tend to lean toward the fat-equals-flavor school of steak thought, so I request a rib eye. "I usually go for the strip," he says. "It's not as greasy. But it all depends on the critter."

Just like I remember it as a girl, it seems to take forever to cook a steak. Of course, once the grill is ready, it takes mere minutes, time enough to finish the salad and drain the sweet corn. My rib eye arrives (eventually), charred and rare, just the way I like it. Yes, ours is a simple dinner, but my steak is great—really great—and I can't imagine needing anything else. Not even a martini.