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A Steak by any other Name

Somewhere around the time of the American Revolution a rectangular cut of pork roast from the shoulder region of the hog was salted and packed into barrels for shipping. Taken from the name describing the ends of the barrel, this piece of pork became known as a pork butt, and then picked up the name of the town whose harbor was the center of the colonial world to become known as the Boston Butt. Today, this cut of pork, popular with the barbecue crowd, is known by this name in most parts of the United States, except of course Boston where it is still sold as a pork butt.

On April 4th, 2013 all of this, along with hundreds of other names were changed by Harvard graduate, Madison Avenue marketing experts of the pork (National Pork Board) and beef (National Cattlemen's Beef Association) industry in conjunction with the bureaucrats of the USDA. They have issued a list of recommended name changes including the transition of the Boston butt to the boston roast, with its generic, lowercase "b". While most of the nearly 350 recommended changes will not be noticed by most, a few stand out. However one, this one, is actually rather sad. In a name, "Boston butt" stands out for its connection to the earliest days of America, the revolution, tall ships, and the great patriotic epicenter that is Boston. This city witnessed the massacre, the tea party, and Israel Bissell. Though history may not have definitively preserved the marrying of the butt of the barrel to the piece of meat, it isn't difficult to imagine the connection between this cut of pork and America's truest culinary tradition with the very origin of the nation. All this because someone sitting in a room overlooking Bryant Park, has decided that cuts of meat shouldn't included words like rump, butt, eye, or pot.

When I first read the recommendations, I thought of Byron Chism of Santa Rosa Beach, FL. Sixteen years ago, (the same year I started writing about barbecue) Byron introduced a product which in many ways revolutionized modern barbecue. Ask most barbecue retailers and they will not only admit to carrying it, but agree it is one of the best sellers in the category. Byron, you see, is the inventor of Bad Byron's Butt Rub. Not only is this one of the first barbecue rubs to hit the market, it centers its marketing efforts on the longest standing pun in all of barbecue, the butt joke. Sauces, rubs, competition teams, and restaurants have all played this pun, which if marketers and bureaucrats get their way will be meaningless in a generation.

Why do this? The official purpose of this mass renaming is to reduce consumer confusion. That certainly isn't a confusing statement, simply an untrue one. It can easily be argued that names like the boneless shoulder top blade steak, while anatomically correct, are largely meaningless to most of us who would rather buy a flat iron steak. The new guidelines (purely voluntary) are at most, 5% clarifications and 95% marketing. Think of it this way, one of the most popular steaks is the rib eye, and without having say that it is beef, most fans not only know what I'm talking about, but can detect its smell on the grill. Now, we can all enjoy a good ol' rib eye chop (pork), just the way mom used to make it, or a New York chop, or a porterhouse chop. Do you think that some parts of the country will sell a Kansas City chops next to the Kansas City strip steaks, or maybe even a Delmonico chop?

On that note, a Brazil nut in Brazil is called a castanhas-do-Pará. In Boston, a Boston butt is a pork butt, so, if I can get anything out of all this, I hope that no butcher or restaurant in Denver changes the name of the beef eye roast on their shelves to a Denver roast. It can be called that anywhere except Denver. And why not, on the meat labels at the stores I frequent, I see names like Chateaubriand (a recipe), Delmonico (a restaurant), and London Broil (a recipe). These names are not official and haven't been according to the meat marketers; yet they persist. If a strip chop leads to too many confused consumers, stores will drop the name and it will become something else; whatever sells.

This brings me back to the Boston butt. No self respecting barbecue aficionado is going to tweet about throwing boston roasts on the smoker, at least not for a very long time. Meat markets, butchers, and even grocery chains still need to deal with the questions. So, while they may jump on the opportunity to market a good London Broil chop or whatever it is now called, they will not be taking the butt out of Boston anytime soon. Personally, I hope that the name becomes "Boston Butt Roast", just to rub in the point that the clever ideas of marketers mean little to the rest of us.

Just make sure that when you order a rib eye at your favorite restaurant that you specify rib eye steak or rib eye chop and remember to seek out a trustworthy butcher, after all, what's more important, a great steak, or a great name?


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