“I did it all for the money, Lord, it’s what it seems…”

by Katie Pizzuto on April 22, 2012

in Beef

I was sitting in the quiet of a few stolen moments before party guests arrived, contemplating this piece, when I received an email from a blogger friend telling me that a fellow soulmate of sorts had suddenly passed away. Those of you that have read this blog for more than a couple of years know that I’ve raved before about Oxford Falls and their amazing bloody mary mixes. Behind that name was a man who, beyond being a mad talent in his R&D kitchen, was a kind, beautiful soul who made a shitload of friends on Twitter that now mourn his passing. None of us ever got the chance to meet him, but his snarky, off-center comments kinda walked hand in hand with a warm sincerity that you knew was genuine and unflinching. I gave pause and thought, damn, I should really just dedicate an entire post to him, but he no doubt would have kicked my ass for putting aside what I had intended to write in the first place. Jim Mosier is too soon gone, but from where he sits now (with a cold, spicy bloody mary in his hand) he wants you to know that you are being had…

I can no longer count—nor to do I care to honestly, at this point—how many menus I’ve perused in New York City that offer a dish made with Kobe Beef. I’d liken that offering to the guy outside just a block down, selling Louis Vuitton purses for 15 bucks, but that would be an insult to the street vendor because at least he isn’t fucking you silly while he’s bending you over…after all, you know that purse isn’t really a Louis Vuitton, and you don’t much care because you’re only paying a fraction of what the real ones cost. But those $40 Kobe burgers at the Scam the Schmuck Bistro? They’re not real, either. Chances are, unless you’ve been to Japan you have not had Kobe beef.

You can’t buy Japanese Kobe beef in the US. No store, no restaurant, no “gourmet importer” in this country carries it. It’s doesn’t matter how much of your paycheck you’ve blown, or what rock star chef you trusted with the beef on your plate, if you ordered Kobe beef in the US you were unequivocally fucked. There is absolutely no way you have tasted the master of meats called Kobe. Why? Because since 2010 it has been illegal to import any Japanese beef. And before 2010 you could only import boneless fresh Japanese beef, none of which was real Kobe. In fact, the only place Kobe beef is exported to is Macao. Ever been there? Can you even find it on a map?! China.

Restaurant critics may rave about it, your favorite food rag may dedicate an entire issue to it, online vendors may gladly ship it to you, but “it” simply isn’t Kobe. And answering how they could possibly get away with it is sadly easy. It’s unregulated. Why? Because we Americans have a flare for thievery. In the same way that a New Jersey winery can call their sparkling wine “Champagne” if they feel like it, “Kobe Meat” may be a patented term in Japan, but it’s not recognized or protected by US law. Here, Kobe means nothing. Actually, wait, no, that’s not quite accurate. Here, Kobe means high profits because it means nothing.

The con the US food industry is selling you is that the paycheck-worthy steak on your plate is somehow linked to a heritage of excellence and culinary superiority. It ain’t. And if you are somehow able to put that aside and think that at the very least…if nothing else…you are getting the domestic equivalent of that Kobe cattle, you ain’t. In Japan, to be Kobe requires a pure lineage of Tajima-gyu breed cattle. The animal must also have been born in Hyogo prefecture and thus raised on the local grasses and water and terroir its entire life. It takes much longer to raise for consumption, must be processed in a Hyogo slaughterhouse—none of which export to the US—and then pass a strict government grading exam. There are only 3000 head of certified Kobe Beef cattle in the world, and none are outside Japan. The process is so strict that when the beef is sold, either in stores or restaurants, it must carry the 10-digit identification number so customers know what particular Tajima-gyu cow it came from.

Here, our government lets the cattle, retail and restaurant industries call nearly anything Kobe beef. You may be buying it because of its reputation, but what you are getting is a trampled version of it. Trampled literally under foot. It’s not Kobe—hell, it’s not even Japanese—it’s just a cow. And if they try to put on an air of transparency and sell you “Domestic Kobe” or Wagyu, know that they are still screwing with your head. That has little to no meaning here, either. US ranchers have crossbred cattle, both Eastern and Western, until they’ve become kissin’ cousins, to produce a bloodline that usually only has a hint of Japanese heredity…yet they still call that resulting breed Wagyu. So the burger may be juicy, it may be really damned tasty, and it will no doubt be costly, but it definitely isn’t Kobe. The only true Kobe you can pay to experience in America graces a basketball court, not a dinner plate.