Beef 101

An agricultural extension course lets students study a prime subject.
Beef 101
Meaty: Griffin’s class covers topics like food safety and history.
Illustration by Ed Patton

MANY TEXANS COMPLAIN about America’s growing indifference to beef, but few, as the saying goes, do anything about it. But not Davey B. Griffin, an associate professor and meat specialist in the agricultural extension service at Texas A&M University, who devised his Beef 101 course a decade ago and has watched it turn into one of the sleeper hits of the College Station extension program.

Subtitled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Beef,” this three-day, twenty-hour class makes good on that promise with a series of lectures, demonstrations, and participatory events. Griffin’s first 101 classes were a joint project with the Texas Beef Council for industry representatives across the country. As the word spread, though, the course began attracting more food service personnel, especially when a writer for the trade journal Food Arts penned a glowing review after taking the course. Now Griffin runs two spring sessions—one with mostly Beef Council representatives, the other with mostly food service students—plus a fall course primarily designed for the latter group.

On the first day of the September 1998 session, 25 students heard lectures from A&M professors on subjects such as inspection and food safety and the history of the beef industry. That morning, they also viewed six steers in their pens, estimating weight, fat content, grade, and the like; in the afternoon, as one student whistled the theme to The Andy Griffith Show, the class walked to the slaughterhouse to see those same six animals “harvested” (as the process is now called). On the second day, students donned smocks to cut the sides into wholesale cuts and then into individual portions, while learning how close their original estimates were. The final day is spent tasting their cuts and checking the quality of the meat.

Oprah would need a cross and several wreaths of garlic to take this course, but students give it high marks. “This lets me see the larger industry hands-on,” said Joe Gamils, the national boneless beef sales manager for a Connecticut agricultural commodities broker. “Normally, I don’t see the meat day to day, because we’re importers who buy and sell fast. I never knew how the rest of the industry works.” In addition to Gamils and a co-worker, last September’s group included an Indian college professor, a butcher from a German mom-and-pop meat shop in New Jersey, representatives from a Southern supermarket chain and a national sausage manufacturer, and restaurateurs from Phoenix and New Orleans. Tuition is $300 and includes some pretty good barbecue and steak at mealtimes. Every two years, Grif-fin teaches another extension course called Beef 202, which deals primarily with marketing and health and safety issues, as well as other specialized classes for ranchers and feeders. If anybody else in the country offers a similar curriculum, he hasn’t heard about it. To get to the meat of the matter, you have to go to him.

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