The Best Of Beef


April 09, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Hagerstown -- When I saw the cows, I relaxed. For me the sighting was proof that I had cleared the city and was traveling in the land where the cattle, not the Miatas, roam.

Somewhere between Frederick and Hagerstown, on the north side of Interstate 70, I saw the cows, a barn, grass and dirt. The sight of cows feeding gave me a liberating feeling that comes from being "in the country."

I felt even better a short while later when, as one of three judges for the Maryland Beef Cook-Off, I sat in the Hagerstown Sheraton Inn and feasted on the beef dishes competing for the title of best in the state.

After much chewing and some second helpings, we judges declared the winners. Margaret McConnell of Annapolis won the top prize of $250. For her winning dish she cut some top round into cubes and soaked them in a marinade made of soy, ginger, molasses, garlic and apple butter. She put the marinated meat and some pearl onions on skewers, and cooked the skewers over a charcoal fire.

Second place went to Marjorie Farr of Rockville, who fried a tenderloin, then covered it with a topping of Roma tomatoes and herbs. Frank Mullin of Washington, D.C., got third place for his steaks crowned with onions and bell peppers. Dorrie Mednick of Baltimore, who covered steaks with a ginger and apricot sauce, and Karen Stephens of Middletown, who made tortillas stuffed with sausage and beans, received honorable mentions. (Recipes are available by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to Maryland Beef Cook-Off, P.O. Box 259, Sykesville, Md. 21784.)

As the nation's appetite for meat has been trimmed, so have the trappings around beef-cooking contests. (The state contest is sponsored by the Maryland Beef Council; the national by the American National Cattle Women Inc. in cooperation with the Beef Industry Council and Cattlemen's Beef Board.) Once an annual event, the National Beef Cook-Off is now held every two years. And the practice of inviting a cook from each of the 50 states to the finals has been scaled back. Now only the cooks of the top 15 recipes, determined by a national board, are invited to compete for the top prize of $25,000.

Cooks are required to use no more than eight ingredients in their recipes, and must whip up their dishes in less than an hour. Speed and convenience reign. Ms. McConnell, who manages a lighting store in Pasadena, told me she probably won't know until June whether her skewered beef recipe earns her an invitation to the national cook-off, to be held Sept. 22-23 in Little Rock, Ark.

When it comes to cattle, Maryland is not exactly the Ponderosa. There are 315,000 cattle, both beef and dairy, in the state. This puts Maryland 40th among the 50 states in number of resident cattle, according to Bruce West, who keeps the cattle count, and other statistics, for the state's Department of Agriculture. Texas leads the nation in cattle with 15.1 million, followed by Kansas with 6.8 million head.

While there are crossbreeds of cattle in the state, the two dominant breeds seem to be Angus and Hereford. I found this out when, after finishing my duties as a beef taster, I ventured into the section of the hotel where the Maryland cattlemen were holding a trade show. I picked up literature touting the breeds of cattle, including a glossy publication that looked like a magazine, complete with centerfold. It turned out to be the program for the April sale of bulls, cows and calves of the Wye Angus herd in Queenstown.

I leafed through the publication, looking at lineage charts, admiring the photographs and names of the prize bulls. I decided that if, in another life, I come back to this earth as an Angus bull, I want to come back as Bolton of Wye. What a body.

Later, to find out more about the Angus breed, I telephoned Bill Knill, an Angus cattleman from Carroll County. Knill talked about his cattle the way a car salesmen might describe an expensive car. Perfectly proportioned, classy, no wasted space.

"Angus are a little smaller [than most cattle] and that means you don't have as much body to feed," Knill said. These midsize cattle produce the medium-sized cuts of beef that buyers want nowadays, he said.

Eleanor Free spoke to me by phone on behalf of Hereford cattle. She and her husband, Joe, have about 200 head of the cattle on their Frederick County farm. "Herefords have a good temperament, they are very easy to work with, you don't have to chase them all around field," she said. They "are good, muscular animals." Recently the breed has been refined so that less fat, or "white meat," as it is called in the trade, appears on the animal, she said.

Most beef shoppers, of course, don't ask about breeding lines when they buy meat. Most behave like Ms. McConnell, the Maryland Beef Cook-Off winner. Right before the contest began she went to the grocery store to buy the meat to use for her contest entry. She bought the top round, she said, not because of its lineage. She bought it because it was on sale.

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