This week’s question comes from Andre Dahlman of Bethesda, who wants to know:

“In Bill Buford’s book, Heat, an Italian butcher tells Mr. Buford that cattle who have been fed cheap grain will produce a waxy tasting meat. Specifically, that a diner will taste a waxy residue at the roof of their mouth when eating cattle fed cheap grain. Have you ever heard this?”

The evocative scene that Andre references begins on page 242 of the hardback copy of Heat, when the “most highly regarded butcher in Italy” stops at a Tuscan restaurant for steak, but it culminates on page 248 when Buford recounts the famed Dario Cecchini’s tableside tantrum:

“The roof of your mouth should never be waxy,” he reflected. “The waxiness betrays what the animal was fed on, which would have been cheap grain, to fatten it up.”

A serious-minded steak man once told me that American, corn-fed beef was “white bread with mayonnaise,” by which he meant that the cows were raised to produce “soft, character-less beef.” But he never mentioned, nor had I ever heard, the waxy argument before—-until I read it in Buford’s book many months ago. At Andre’s urging, I put the question to Benjy Mikel, head of the Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion Department at Mississippi State University. Mikel knows cattle husbandry and meat.

Mikel agrees with the contentious Cecchini—-to a point. Fat, a substantial amount of it, is what causes meat to taste waxy, the professor says, and “grain gives [cattle] a higher energy source, so they’re able to deposit more fat on their bodies than if they’re just consuming grass from a pasture.”

But it’s also about inactivity. “That’s one of the reasons that a lot of the feedlots have [cattle] confined to smaller lots sizes, so they don’t get much exercise,” Mikel says. “So that they use that energy from the feed to actually grow and then to get fat.”

“Just like with humans, the more we eat and the less we exercise, the fatter we get,” he adds.

Technically, Mikel says, such weight gain could happen with naturally foraging animals. “I have seen animals that the forage quality was so lush and so forth where they had just as much fat as grain-fed animals,” the good professor says. “That’s not the norm, but it can happen that way.”

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