(From “The Cowboy and the Machine”)
To my dismay, I find that one of the first questions people ask me when I say I’ve been working on beef is whether or not I eat it. I guess they want a quick type casting to know whether I’m for or against the eating of cows. Well that’s easy. I love meat. I’m a full red-blooded carnivore who eats omnivorously up and down the food chain because I know that the chain is circular, and that if today I’m eating pork chops, tomorrow I’m food for worms. I’ve always taken the anti-anthropocentric but egalitarian view that all created life is equal, and that just because a raw turnip doesn’t scream when I bite into it doesn’t mean that a turnip is of lesser value than a pig. It is simply less like me. But does that make it okay for me to cannibalize a turnip? Ask the turnip. A more interesting question is why, since we all must eat life to live, have human beings for millennia wanted to eat meat, craved it, died for it? Why do I like the smell, taste, texture and even the sound of a thick beefsteak sizzling on a grill? I’m not talking about nutrition. I’m not talking about health. I’m talking about the experience. What intimacy is involved in our relationship, the steak and I?
To find out, I set out for the territories – west, east, north, and south. In the past four years, I’ve branded Highland cows on a ranch in Montana, stalked Nilgai in Texas, watched cows butchered by hand in a slaughterhouse in Colorado and toured a Cargill plant near Dodge City that kills six thousand cows per hour. I’ve attended conventions of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in San Antonio and of a breakaway group in Denver, applauded lectures at the American Grass-Fed Society in Indiana and whooped it up at rodeos at the National Denver Western Stock Show. I’ve talked with a New Jersey housewife investigating mad-cow disease, with an ex-bull rider turned political activist, with an animal scientist who transformed MacDonald’s. I went to Florida to see Piney Woods cattle in the palmettos, to Cheyenne to “Eeeeehaaaawwww” with the Cowgirls of the West in the Pioneer Days Parade. I even enrolled in Beef 101 at Texas A&M, in order to get some hands-on experience in how we turn cows into meat.
I am grateful to them all, for helping me to put together the steps of the process that we’ve disassembled and kept separate for so long: breeding, feeding, slaughtering, processing, rendering, marketing, cooking, and eating. Yet while they filled in the story of beef in a way that neither the vast literature of the West nor the vast letterpress of agribusiness could, they also told more than one story. For whether they were corporate industrialists talking efficiency or small ranchers talking calves, all of them wore cowboy clothes, talked cowboy talk, sang cowboy songs, watched cowboy movies, ate cowboy steaks, just as our president does. All of them saw themselves at once as progressive independent businessmen and also as cowboys – just as our president does. The content might be Cattle-Fax statistics, but the packaging was white Stetson and custom-made boots. I should know – I kept a pair hidden in my own closet.
So the story of beef turns out to be two stories – the story of the head and the story of the heart. And boy, am I glad I’m an American because putting them together has meant eating a lot of great steak.