Attention, American carnivores: The next time you pick up your fork and knife at your favorite steakhouse and dig into that perfectly marbled meat, say a little thank you to England's "Beef-Eaters."
Few realize the role England played in the development of America's beef trade. As "the great beef-eaters of Europe" in centuries past, the English (at least the middle and upper classes) consumed far more beef than their continental neighbors. Meat, and particularly beef, was believed to ensure strength and virility.
Beef conveyed affluence and contentment. In the late 1700s, "livestock portraits" were favored, and many an English country estate featured paintings of fat, happy cattle grazing in a bucolic landscape.
So imagine the panic when an anthrax epidemic on the European continent spread to Ireland and England in the 1860s, making British beef scarce and expensive. The British turned to the Americas for their beef.
Meanwhile, North Americans pushed westward, grazing cattle on the fertile and abundant grasses of the Midwest. The big question: How to connect those fields with consumers in the east - as well as the famished in England?
The answer came in the 1870s with the westward expansion of the railroads, which were critical in shipping goods back to populous East Coast port cities. And British companies played a major role in financing the building of those transcontinental railroads in the 1870s and 1880s.
British and Scottish financiers began to catch the cattle fever. "In Edinburgh, the ranch pot was boiling over," recounted John Clay, an agent for English investors, in his 1924 autobiography, "My Life on the Range." "Drawing rooms buzzed with the stories of this last of bonanzas; staid old gentlemen, who scarcely knew the difference between a steer and a heifer, discussed it over their port and nuts." Many an "armchair cowboy" purchased land in the Midwest for palatial vacation homes.
But the most exciting development was the advent of refrigerated railway compartments. The high cost of shipping live animals to Europe encouraged innovations in shipping dressed meats.
A young inventor from New York, John I. Bates, experimented with hanging beef carcasses in rooms that were refrigerated with ice-cooled air circulated by large fans. In June 1875, he shipped 10 carcasses to England. They arrived fresh and sparked a flurry of interest among British investors.
Timothy Eastman, a successful packer, bought Bates's patent and launched an ambitious campaign to ship refrigerated carcasses to Britain. Soon he was shipping 1 million pounds per month. Other companies followed Eastman's lead. By the 1800s, the United States accounted for 90 percent of the beef imported to England.
The advent of refrigerated train cars in the 1870s meant cattle could be slaughtered close to the farm. By 1883-84, the number of cattle slaughtered in Chicago was so significant, the phrase "meatpacking" replaced "pork packing" as the name of the industry.
The British brought with them more than just their capital. They also brought their unique taste for "fatted" beef - heavy, richly marbled with speckles of fat. In Europe, cattle fed on cold-weather grasses that were high in protein and low in fiber and produced cattle that put on protective fat. But in most of the U.S., grasses had with less protein.
The British cattle barons developed a new strategy for achieving fatty beef: feeding them corn. For the first time in agricultural history, cattle production and grain production were brought into a symbiotic relationship. Soon it was common practice to ship cattle from the prairies, where they grazed on grass most of their lives, to be "finished" or fattened on a rich diet of corn before being sent for slaughter.
Slowly, Americans adopted the British taste for fatty beef. In 1927, the U.S. Department of Agriculture codified fatty beef as the standard for judging the value and price of beef sold to consumers. Even today, degree of and distribution of marbling is the primary determinant of quality grade. "Prime," the highest quality, signifies abundant marbling; "Choice," a moderate amount of marbling; "Select" indicates that the beef is practically devoid of marbling.
The Brits still love their beef, although these days it's less likely to be sourced from across the pond. But ask any American steakhouse devotee how tender and flavorful that marbling makes their steak, and it becomes clear: Regardless of origin, that beefsteak is part of our All-American heritage.
Kara Newman is the author of "The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets." She wrote this for Bloomberg News.