Can Steak-umm take Malcolm's mind off of losing Anheuser-Busch?


Belgian brewing goliath InBev is about to pry Anheuser-Busch from our tremulous hands. The Bowling Hall of Fame is fixing to quit us, and even those fat losers, the Rams, are thinking they deserve finer digs than our symphony in artificial turf, the Edward Jones Dome.

We may have the country's cheapest gas, but there's really no way around it: These days we are taking a drubbing.

How to find consolation amidst the tumult?

Simple: Tear into a box of Steak-umm.

Now I know, I know: A chopped, shaped and thinly sliced meat food is not going to put the bubble back in our beer. Still, comfort food is important in times like these, and for more than 40 years, Steak-umm has been synonymous with frozen-beef convenience. This is nourishment for the ages, and, for my money, as American as apple pie.

Better yet, since announcing that Steak-umm would sponsor Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the 2008 NASCAR season while simultaneously launching a new line of Steak-umm Burgers, it's safe to say that Steak-umm, the little guy done good, is as American as Mello-Yello, Viagra and Skoal Bandits.

Inspiring though the Steak-umm story is, I somehow managed to pass from childhood to adulthood without ever having parted my lips to receive the savory Steak-umm sacrament.

Needless to say, then, I was plenty excited as I peeled my first plank of shaped meat and tossed it in the frying pan. It hit the skillet with a pleasing crackle. Per the instructions, I cooked my Steak-umm for a minute on one side, flipped it, then cooked it for twenty seconds more.

But as I lifted the dishwater-gray slip of meat from the pan, I began to doubt whether Steak-umm could live up to its august legacy. It smelled and looked like nothing more than a wet sheet of unseasoned ground beef. Limp and sweating oil, its gustatory promise did not sweeten on the plate.

How did it taste? Like a bland meat blanket.

And that got me thinking: Is it possible that Steak-umm, after all these years, was never really that good to begin with? Maybe the mist of nostalgia clouds our memory of this vaunted meat food — just like, perhaps, it obscures our perception of Anheuser-Busch, our "hometown" brewery.

We like Steak-umm because we associate it with pleasant childhood memories. Even if we didn't drink Budweiser as children (and God knows some of us did), we like A-B because we think of it as the quintessence of a hometown, family-owned company. That's why we gnash our civic teeth at the prospect of its sale: It represents (yet again) the crumbling of the city's folksy heritage before the market's globalizing and consolidating ways.

But in truth, that horse left the barn nearly three decades ago when A-B went public. August Busch IV may act as A-B's president and CEO, but it has been ages since the family wielded financial control. Today the Busch family owns a mere 3.5 percent of the company. Its biggest shareholder is Barclays, an English banking firm, with roughly 43.7 million shares. (With about 35.6 million shares and a 5 percent ownership stake, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is the second-largest stockholder.)

With owners like these, can we even call A-B a St. Louis company any more? Sure, its headquarters may be here, but most of the stockholders who profit from the company live elsewhere. Similarly, the vast majority of its brewing operations take place at the company's other 26 breweries — 14 of which are in China.

It would be a shame if InBev were to decide to move upper-management jobs from St. Louis — it would certainly be a blow to the city's anemic tax base — but the Belgians say they plan to keep the St. Louis operation running, and that means the jobs that matter most — the brewing jobs, the union jobs — aren't going anywhere soon.

Cry nostalgically in your beer if you must, but remember what Steak-umm has taught us: The past is rarely what we think it was.

Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to [email protected].

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