Death on the range

Crossing the divide between animal and food

By
March 7, 2007

When the steers arrived in June, I climbed one of the rock cribs anchoring the barbed wire around their pasture and watched them graze. One by one I named them, hoping I’d remember the next day which was which. Unfortunately, they were rarely together in one part of the pasture, so it was tough to be sure which one I was naming at any given time. It was also difficult, at age seven, to remember the names I had chosen the day before. I stuck with the easy stuff: Brownie, Brownie II, Whitefeet.

Every year, my parents bought a few steers — sometimes three or four, one year more than a dozen — and let them graze for the summer in the pastures around our house in central Oregon. The scent of juniper and sagebrush filled the air after an occasional summer rain, but generally the skies were clear, the land arid and sparse.

A steer on the open range.

In my family, I was the only one native to this place. Full of post-Peace Corps idealism and adventurous spirit, my parents had moved away from their East Coast roots and set up a life on 25 scrubby acres, planting the vegetable garden, pruning the apple orchard, swimming in the river that meandered through the rocky canyon.

My father was a country lawyer; my mother was the art history department at the community college. Cattle were not our livelihood. We kept them to prevent the pasture from becoming scrubland and to qualify our household as agricultural for tax purposes. My parents had friends — doctors, lawyers, teachers — who would each buy some portion of a steer, to keep in the freezer over the winter for the occasional steak dinner or holiday roast.

The steers weren’t very attentive pets. They might look up if I yelled, but would rarely budge from their meal, except to stroll to another patch of grass. On the one hand, their slowness and self-absorption relieved my nagging fear of a “Bonanza”-style stampede. On the other hand, they weren’t very engaging, and soon faded into the background of my summer. Every so often, I would climb back up a rock crib, or officiously replace a salt lick, but it wasn’t a 4-H friendship.

Occasionally, from the vegetable garden that bordered the pasture, I’d point one out to my mother.

“That one’s Brownie. I think. It might be Brownie II, but he’s a little taller.”

“You think? I thought that Brownie II was the one with the white belly. Could you get the dog out of the squash, please?” She tucked a stray wisp of dark hair back under the red bandanna on her head, and returned to her weeding.

As the summer progressed, the cattle grew fatter, while the grass that had been so tall just a few months before was shorn to a carpet. I went back to school, to the rigors of spelling tests and the politics of lunch recess.

At this point, I called all the steers Brownie.

One Saturday morning, as I poked at the sodden Grape-Nuts in my bowl, I heard a loud motor coming down our road. Traffic meant an event. I looked up at my parents. They glanced at each other. My mother took another sip of coffee, eyebrows raised.

“Sounds like Gary’s here.” My father got up, put his mug in the sink, and went out the kitchen door.

The author and her mother on a friend’s ranch in central Oregon.

“Are you done with that? Not hungry?” my mother asked, as I escaped through the living room to the glassed-in porch that had a clear view of the driveway.

GARY’S CUSTOM MEATS. The letters on the side of the big white truck that idled at the end of our cinder driveway were a faded red. Line drawings of deer and cattle decorated either side of the word “meats.” My father stood at the driver’s side and pointed to the pasture. The driver pulled up to the gate.

My father returned down the driveway and, seeing me at the window, came in through the porch door. He sat down on the low woven chair next to the window where I stood, still looking.

“Now, Jesso, these guys have come to take the cows to the butcher.” I knew that, eventually, the animals grazing mindlessly on the other side of the fence would end up in the freezer in the garage, wrapped neatly in white packages and destined for the dinner table. I also had a vague understanding that in order for that to happen, they would have to be killed, butchered, and frozen. But I hadn’t really thought about it until just that moment.

“Will they all fit in that truck? Is he going to take them somewhere else?”

“No, he’s going to shoot them, here in the pasture. Here’s something for you to think about. You know why we keep the cattle, right?”

“Yeah, so we can have hamburgers.”

“Right. I think it’s important for us to realize that we are responsible for the food that we eat. If you’re going to eat beef, you should have the stomach to watch how it gets to the table. In a little bit, I’m going to go out to the driveway and watch them dress out the steers. I think it might be a good idea for you to join me, so you can see the process.”

My mother was leaning against the doorframe, both hands in her pockets. “Only if you want to,” she said to me. “If you feel weird about it, you don’t have to go, okay?”

“Maybe,” I said, not quite sure what it was I was signing up for. I went into my room, sat on the wood floor, and fidgeted with a book. I could hear my parents’ voices on the other side of the wall.

“She’s too young. I think this might really upset her.”

“Maybe you’re right. But it’s up to her; if she wants to see it, she’ll come out. Will you help me get them over there?”

The author and her father.

I heard them leave. I wandered around my room, sifting through piles of stuffed animals, picking at the peeling paint on the windowsill. I tried to picture what I thought might be in store for the Brownies: heated pursuit, a struggling, gory death. I tried to be horrified. I willed tears. But no matter how hard I thought about it, I wasn’t sad, or horrified, or sick. I was fascinated. Unsure of what I would see, I went outside.

The pasture here was bordered on two sides by a barbed-wire fence, on one side by the cedar fence that defined our back yard, and on the fourth side by the truck. Between the back of the truck and the cedar fence, there was just enough space for the steers as they were herded in, their eyes on the fresh hay that Gary’s lanky adolescent assistant, Randy, was spreading around. Randy wore a clean white apron over jeans and a black T-shirt. Gary, a thick man sporting an identical apron and bristly, graying hair that stuck out from under his blue-and-white mesh hat, was sitting on the back bumper of the truck loading a long, thin .22 rifle.

It was an unexpectedly ordinary-looking, lightweight weapon, and it was difficult to believe it could have any impact on our dense, enormous cattle.

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1. by anonymous on Mar 7, 2007 at 1:41 PM PST

I remember it being very much like that when I lived on a farm as a kid down in Cambria, CA.

Good for you.

M

2. by Charlotte Freeman on Mar 8, 2007 at 2:27 PM PST

Similar to walking into my boyfriend’s garage to the startling sight of a big doe hanging from a hook, and watching as over the next week or so she goes from being Bambi, to a dead animal, to a carcass, to a winter’s worth of meat wrapped in butcher paper and stored in the freezer. By comparison, it makes those polystyrene trays in the grocery store with their little sanitary pads seem creepily divorced from any actual animal.

3. by Carrie Floyd on Mar 8, 2007 at 5:21 PM PST

When I was a kid my dad thought if we named the animals appropriately we wouldn’t forget their purpose. Hence, Chuck and Porterhouse, the steers, and Weedeater, the goat.
And how’s this for a coincidence: Gary is my husband’s uncle.
Sign me, Dependent 3

4. by Walter Jeffries on Mar 9, 2007 at 11:09 AM PST

On-farm slaughter is something we’re fighting for here in Vermont and I hope that other farmers and consumers will push for across the nation. On-farm slaughter means less stress for the animals and farmers. It means better quality meat for the consumer. The offal can then be composted on the farm and returned to the soil where it belongs. This is a direction to take for sustainable agriculture.

Cheers,

Walter Jeffries
Sugar Mountain Farm
Orange, Vermont
Pastured Pigs & Sheep
http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog
http://HollyGraphicArt.com
http://NoNAIS.org

5. by DawnHeather Simmons on Jul 7, 2009 at 9:25 AM PDT

Unlike the others above, I have never experienced the slaughter of my meat. My brother, however, spent a summer with cousins who raised a cow each year for slaughter. After playing with and riding on Joey all summer, at the end of it, he just couldn’t face Joey burgers or Joey roasts or any other meat for about a year. I do think it’s important to recognize that our meat didn’t start out in those antiseptic little white trays. Thank you for sharing this reality. Great article.

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