Almost 10 years ago, I set out to find what was then a little-known delicacy called Kobe beef. The meat had a nearly mystical backstory: The steer were raised on centuries-old farms in Japan where they were practically considered members of the family. They were hand-massaged daily, the better to redistribute remarkable stores of fat throughout the flesh, and served a steady diet of beer and sake. Um, yes, please. I’ll have that with a side of unicorn bacon.
Kobe’s mystique was heightened by how hard it was to find the stuff. Only tiny amounts were exported, and most of that was spoken for long before it left Japan. I finally called the Japanese embassy, which tipped me off to a shipment destined for an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. When I arrived for my $125 New York strip, I was seated in a hushed section of the dining room. One waiter came to the table bearing a large, smooth rock that had been sitting in a hot oven. Another carried the steak, a piece of meat so shot through with delicious veins of fat it almost looked white. Delicately, the waiter picked up one slice of raw beef with chopsticks and placed it on the sizzling rock until it was seared on the edges and just barely warm at the center. He watched carefully while I chewed, swallowed, and took a sip of water. Only then did he lay the next piece on the stone. It remains one of the most reverential and weirdly religious eating experiences of my life.
Magazine convention now requires me to flash forward to a scene that perfectly illustrates how far Kobe beef has fallen in the past decade. But I can’t do it. There are just too many options. Should I describe the buffet line at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, where at least one teenager was asking for his already-gray piece of Kobe prime rib to be prepared “more doner”? Should I take you to Scores, the New York topless club, where a friend of mine paid a stripper to massage his shoulders while he ate so he could more fully understand the Kobe beef on his plate? To Philadelphia’s Barclay Prime, home of the Kobe Cheesesteak? Or Miami’s Prime 112, where you can get a Kobe hot dog? Or any of the dozens of places selling Kobe meat loaf, Kobe quesadillas, spaghetti and Kobe meatballs, Kobe empanadas, and so on—all for prices well above what the same dishes would fetch if made with standard American beef?
Some of these are very good, many are mediocre, and some are awful. But one thing is clear. Kobe beef has moved out of the universe in which we judge edibles by such measures as nutrition, sustenance, tastiness, etc. It has become something else entirely: a social signifier. In other words, jackass food.