Friday, April 3, 2015

Why Not 'Very Good', 'Good', and 'Good Enough'?

In my sixty-seventh year of life, I still haven't figured out the US Department of Agriculture's beef grading system. The problem is that the three grades that one finds in the supermarket – Prime, Choice, and Select – all sound top-of-the-line. I can never remember which is really the top grade.

I went to the USDA website and read this, though I will no doubt forget by the next time I'm sent to the store and told to buy something – with, no doubt, the final admonition, “And this time, don't screw up and buy some piece of crap.”
Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling (the amount of fat interspersed with lean meat), and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling. 
Choice beef is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are suited for dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if braised, roasted or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan. 
Select beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
This reminds me of my time working in a department store, where I learned that one popular brand of pantyhose, to avoid the horror of telling any of their customers that they were large, sold their product in four sizes: Extra Petite, Petite, Medium, and Dutchess.

A similar case is England's soccer leagues, where the top level, as most folks know, is the Premier League. The second level, though, is the Championship League. Championship of what -- mediocrity?

And then there are the states (Arizona used to be one, but reformed recently) where the high school sports leagues are all variations of 'A': the lowest level is A, then AA, then AAA, etc. Illinois went to AAAAAA, as I recall it, or maybe AAAAAAA. God forbid that any kid be told he or she is playing in a B or C league. It might traumatize them for the rest of their lives.

Getting back to the USDA, there actually are some other grades:
Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store brand meat. Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades of beef are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products. 
Still, I think my suggestion would be much clearer.

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