It's about 5 on Saturday evening. Slowly, insidiously, the aroma weaves its way into the air, until even passing motorists get a redolent whiff, a tantalizing, mouth-watering scent. And even if they were heading home to chicken stir-fry, they may begin to think, instead, about . . . grilling steak.
Or maybe it's Dad's birthday, and Mom and the kids want to do something special for him. Maybe take him out to dinner, at his favorite place -- a steak house.
It's true that hard times and leaner living have taken a bite out of Americans' red-meat consumption. Grocery shoppers say they are buying less red meat, and vegetarianism seems to be on the rise, especially among younger people. And for a while there, it seemed that amid some legitimate concerns about fat and cholesterol, eschewing red meat became almost a fashion.
But it's also true that few things are more dependable, more comforting, more timeless, or more un-give-up-able than beef.
"Baltimore's definitely eating beef," says Patrick Raum of McCafferty's, a Mount Washington restaurant that specializes in prime beef. The restaurant opened in February, and business has been good, Mr. Raum says. "Baltimore is more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of town. People don't look at us as a special-occasion place, but as a place that serves really good beef. That's what people are coming here for. I see the same faces in here week after week. They like their beef."
Indeed they do. Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service show that Americans still consume more beef per capita than chicken or seafood. Preliminary figures for 1992 put beef consumption at 62.8 pounds per person per year, down slightly from 63.1 pounds in 1991, with chicken at 45.9 pounds, up from 43.9 in 1991, and fish and shellfish at 14.7 pounds, basically unchanged from 14.8 pounds in 1991.
Beef consumption has fluctuated up and down since the '70s, when the first messages of health-consciousness began reaching mainstream Americans. It was at a high of 88.8 pounds in 1976; three years later it was at 73.5 pounds. In the same period, fish and seafood consumption hasn't changed much -- it was 12.9 pounds in 1976 -- while chicken consumption has almost doubled -- it was just 28.5 pounds in 1976.
The most popular beef dishes at McCafferty's are the New York strip, filet, prime rib and Delmonico steak, Mr. Raum says. "We're probably doing 1,000 to 1,200 pounds a week," among those four items. On any given night, he estimates, two-thirds to three-quarters of the entrees served are beef.
McCafferty's beef comes from its own ranch in Montana; it's aged right at the restaurant. Beef lovers run the gamut from old people to young, and include men and women, Mr. Raum says. "People still enjoy a 32-ounce piece of prime rib. We get little old ladies coming in here and ordering it. They eat half and take the rest home."
"My customers are eating beef on a regular basis," says Steve deCastro, owner of Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Baltimore. "Maybe it's once a week, or twice a month -- whatever, they're going out and getting the best beef they can find."
Ruth's Chris is a nationwide chain of 40 restaurants that started 28 years ago with a single restaurant in New Orleans. Mr. deCastro's restaurant opened last year and business is good, he reports. "We're 35 to 38 percent ahead of last year," he says. In the chain as a whole, revenues were up 16 percent in 1992, over 1991.
What's the appeal of beef?
"It's plain, basic food," Mr. deCastro says. "You're not talking fancy sauces -- people just want to eat a nice piece of juicy prime beef."
At Ruth's Chris, Mr. deCastro says, the most popular item is the filet (which is also the leanest cut, he notes), followed by the strip steak (the most heavily marbled, hence the fattest), then the prime rib and then the rib eye.
While people still like their steaks when they go out, when they prepare
beef at home, it's most often ground.
"By far, still the No. 1 item, especially at any major holiday, is ground beef -- hamburgers on the grill," says Matt Wineinger, director of retail programs for the Beef Industry Council, an industry group that is part of the National Live Stock & Meat Board of Chicago. "Between 40 and 45 percent of the [per-year beef] tonnage sold is in the form of ground beef."
But there has been a change in ground-beef consumption, Mr. Wineinger says: Retailers are offering customers more choices in the fat content of the mix. "There's not a retailer in the country not offering a minimum of 3 different varieties of ground beef," he says, "and I've seen as many as six to eight."
Five years ago, he says, the most common range was 80 percent lean meat, 20 percent fat meat ground together. Now, he says, it's 85 percent lean and 15 percent fat.
And, while burgers and steaks still dominate beef-lovers' plates, there have been some changes in the way people prepare and serve beef at home.