On April 23, 2012, the sun dawned on an act of revolution. In the night, someone had hung 240 banners along the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, gateway to Red Square and the Kremlin. Each was printed with a familiar Soviet image—an upraised fist— and the slogan: “We demand blood! … with steak, salt, pepper, and [a] glass of good wine!”
It was a publicity stunt for Goodman Steakhouse, a restaurant chain that has been trying to whet the Russian appetite for beef since 2004. While demand has slowly been growing in the last few years, back then, they had their work cut out for them. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when cattle populations plummeted, per capita beef consumption had decreased by nearly 50 percent. But by 2012, Russia’s economy was improving, herds of beef cattle were growing (see A First-Generation Russian Bull Comes of Age), and Goodman believed it could jolt the Russian people from their meatless coma.
The banners were the latest in a string of shock advertising campaigns the company created. In 2011, Goodman leased a billboard at a busy Moscow intersection, and displayed the picture of a woman dressed in a suit, holding a slab of marbled beef. The title read: “Steak-sual. Orientation Obvious.” It was a play on the term “metrosexual,” with the orientation in question being the woman’s preference for meat.
Even more daring, in 2009, Goodman held a fashion show where the models wore clothing and accessories made of raw meat. While they sauntered down the catwalk, a narrator said: “At the dawn of ancient times, people suffered from hunger, cold, and fear. But then everything changed: humans discovered fire. And they used it to fry meat!”
“We are trying to create the cult of steak,” says Ilya Sitnikov, a Goodman marketing manager. “We want to make the connection that if you respect yourself, if you love yourself, the best thing you can give to yourself is a big, juicy steak.”
Public opinion has been mixed. Some found the blood lust unsavory.
“I see this ad every day, driving to work on the Sadovaya Road. It’s disgusting,” one woman wrote on a forum about Moscow restaurants. “Why not show the beautiful meat, instead of the red, bloody flesh?”
But many gave the restaurant a try, ordering from a “revolutionary” menu that paired historical rabble-rousers with grilled meat: Vladimir Lenin was a flat iron steak; Chairman Mao a pork fillet; and George Washington was a lamb sirloin. In pop culture, the phrase “We demand blood!” inspired a song by the band Rabfak, best known for the protest anthem Our Nuthouse (Votes for Putin). (Warning, the video may not be safe for work or young children).
However, Goodman’s “bloody” banners crossed the line of what the government considered decent.
“This slogan isn’t just provocative, it’s a direct call to violence,” said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, a think tank that advises the Russian government. As such, it violated Russia’s anti-extremism law. “The city authorities must respond immediately to eliminate this visual agitation. A lot of questions need asked about those who use such methods in order to attract attention to their commercial objectives,” he told The Russian News.
After two days, the Moscow police took down the banners down.
Owing in part to Goodman’s marketing efforts, “стейк-хаус” (steakhouse) restaurants are now a fast-growing trend in Russia. New restaurants open almost monthly. At one popular metro stop in Moscow, Trubnaya Station, restaurant goers have multiple steakhouses to choose from, plus a number of gourmet burger joints. Even McDonald’s is getting in on the action, naming it latest hamburger the “Стейк Хаус Классик” (Steak House Classic).
The trend addresses a question critics posed at the start of Russia’s cattle-import boom: Would Russian consumers develop an appetite for marbled beef?
At the time, Sergei Yushin, head of Russia’s National Meat Association, described the average Russian as “badly informed about beef, about what you can do with it, and how you should cook it and eat it.” Most traditional recipes call for either stewed or boiled meat, using “regular meat”—that is, slaughtered dairy meat. Yushin explained how, in the 1930s, the Soviet agriculture went all-in on dairy, opting not to specialize in beef breeds of cattle. The reasoning was that a dairy cow produced milk the same as meat. Dairy beef even became known as “milky meat.”
However, the difference in muscle compositions between dairy and beef breeds is significant. Dairy cattle convert most of their fat into milk. That’s why they look bony and have huge udders. Beef cattle are heavily muscled, with fatty marbling laced throughout the tissue (perhaps an evolutionary response to the colder climates where beef breeds developed, such as the Aberdeen Angus’s native Scotland).
Hot off the grill, you can taste a difference between the two meats. Heat causes the fat marbling in a beef steak to melt, infusing it with salty juice. But a dairy steak, which is largely devoid of marbled fat, becomes stiff and dry when grilled. This explains the traditional Russian approach of either boiling or grinding it up.
Since dairy meat was all most contemporary Russians had known, Goodman’s smartest PR move may have been to start a cooking school. Aspiring grill masters can choose from several classes —The Art of Steak, Russian Cooking, Italian Countryside—where they learn how to cook with beef in a way that showcases, not masks, the flavor of beef.
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, travelling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.