Award winning producer Jared Stone presents his informative adventure after buying an Angus cow direct from the rancher in Year of the Cow (Flatiron Books, 2015). Stone explores the consumption habits of previous generations. While working his way through his steer, he becomes more mindful of his diet and bravely confronts challenges with a humorous attitude.
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“You bought a what?”
“No, you heard right. I bought a cow.” It’s noonish. I’m in a diner too hip for its zip code, sitting across the table from my friend Mike. He’s a television editor I used to work with, a paragon of dry wit and keen intellect. Los Angeles by way of Chicago. We do lunch from time to time.
“Well, what are you going to do with it?”
“You’re gonna die.”
“I’m not gonna eat it all at once,” I counter. “Nobody’s trying to reenact a Monty Python scene here.”
“You’re gonna get so sick of beef.”
“Maybe. I’m gonna try not to repeat myself, though. Try and make the most of the beast. Branch out. See what I can learn.”
“Well, good luck to you, man. It’s honest, at least. That’s a hell of a thing.” He raises a glass. “Here’s to your cardiovascular health,” he toasts with a wry gallows grin. I raise my own glass. “To a hell of a thing.”
Our glasses tap, and he continues. “So, this cow. Is it a heifer, then? What are you working with here?”
First things first: I should really stop calling this beast a cow. Technically speaking, a cow is a girl of the species, specifically one that’s had a calf. (Girl cattle that haven’t had a calf are indeed called heifers.) The beast in my backyard is actually a steer. A boy cattle, if you will. Boy cattle that have been — ahem — “fixed” are steers, and steers that have been trained as draft animals are oxen. Boy cattle left unaltered are bulls.
That’s a lot of terms for different ages and sexes of what is essentially one species — but cattle have been with us a long time. It stands to reason that we’d have a huge number of very specific terms to describe them. Similar highly specific language has cropped up around sheep and chickens, for example — themselves agricultural staples we’ve long relied on.
This steer came to my house in the back of a Prius from Oroville, and as a species, it’s come even further. Yet in our imaginations, beef is the quintessential American food, associated with wide-open spaces, the Wild Wild West, and backyard barbecues everywhere.
How precisely this happened can’t be completely definitively answered. But we know of some key moments — sort of a This Is Your Life review of American beef cattle.
The World’s Aurochs
Ten thousand years ago, what we think of as modern beef cattle didn’t exist. Instead, a species of massive horned ungulate dominated the landscape from Spain, all across Europe and North Africa, and through large swaths of Asia. This was the aurochs (like “deer,” the plural and singular version of the word is the same). And by any measure, aurochs were terrifying.
A complete aurochs skeleton can be seen on display in the National Museum of Denmark. The animal stood six feet tall at the shoulder and weighed in the neighborhood of 2,200 pounds. That’s about twice as heavy as my steer weighed when it was alive and somewhere around ten inches taller, give or take. (My animal provided me with 420 pounds of beef, but the steer on the hoof weighed much more.) Aurochs were more comparable in size to American buffalo (or bison, if you prefer) than beef cattle.
The aurochs on display in Denmark was found along with three stone arrowheads fired by Mesolithic hunters. The arrows didn’t bring the beast down, though — he fled and drowned in a bog. The hunters were denied a meal, but they were also spared what could have been the fight of their lives. Even wounded, the aurochs were more than capable of killing a human.
Aurochs are depicted in the famous Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux as fearsome beasts. They share wall space with rhinos and bears — animals firmly at the other end of the kill-or-be-killed spectrum. In a Lascaux chamber called the Hall of the Bulls, two tremendous black aurochs dominate the walls. The largest of the two animals is a whopping seventeen feet long, drawn so that the natural curvature and undulation of the water-carved walls accent the musculature of the beast. Clearly, these animals were revered, even in prehistory.
Nobody knows precisely how the first cattle were domesticated from aurochs — Neolithic hunter-gatherers didn’t keep written accounts. All we have to go on are the archaeological record, a timeline of genetic changes coaxed from cattle DNA, and a rough history gleaned from those pictures daubed on the walls of caves. From these, we can tell that the first cattle were likely domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, approximately 8,800 years ago. These cattle would eventually become Bos taurus, or the taurine cattle breeds. Then, fifteen hundred years later, in the Indus Valley along what is now the India/Pakistan border, a second domestication event occurred, giving rise to the cattle that would become Bos indicus, or the modern zebu.
The Spread of Cattle Opens Doors to Protein Without Dangerous Hunting
Two domestication events, giving rise to all the cattle in the world. Domestication is rare, and domestication of a bad-tempered herd animal the size of a Volkswagen is rarer still. Then, as Neolithic humans spread out from the cradles of civilization, they took their cattle with them. Very generally, the taurine cattle breeds went west, and the zebu went east.
These new bovine allies conferred tremendous benefits on human populations. Cows eat grass. Suddenly, grassland could be converted into a reliable protein source without the risk associated with hunting game. Cattle could provide enough milk to feed both their own offspring and their human herders, allowing humans to incorporate dairy into their diets on a regular basis. Hides could be converted into any number of leather goods, and — though over time they became generally smaller than aurochs — domesticated cattle were the best source of draft power available.
Aurochs didn’t immediately vanish, however. They still roamed Europe during the time of the Romans, where they were popular antagonists in the arenas of the empire. Julius Caesar himself noted in his Commentaries on the Gallic War that aurochs were “a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast … But not even when they are taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed.” The last true aurochs died in 1627 in a forest in Poland.
Meanwhile, the taurine cattle multiplied and diversified into animals of all shapes and sizes: huge white cattle in France, mousy-brown cattle in Switzerland, short-horned red cattle in England, shaggy brown cattle in the highlands of Scotland. Then in the late 1800s, cattlemen began actually recording their pairings, leading to the formalization of many of today’s cattle breeds: France’s Charolais, Switzerland’s Braunvieh, England’s Shorthorn, Scotland’s Highland cattle.
Speaking of Scotland, the beef in my backyard came from a Red Angus/Black Angus cross — named for County Angus on the northeast coast of Scotland, where the breed began in the eighteenth century. There, in the counties of Aberdeen and Angus, the native cattle were a unique strain of hornless, or polled, cattle. These cattle came to be called humbles, for their lack of horns, or doddies, because names are more fun when they sound utterly ridiculous.
Scottish Breeder Hugh Watson’s Aberdeen-Angus
These cattle were something of a curiosity, until a breeder named Hugh Watson began assembling a herd of doddies in County Angus. Watson came from a family of cattle breeders and had a knack for breeding the animals to bring out the traits he was looking for. In Angus, he developed a herd of polled cattle of exceptionally high quality — strong, symmetrical animals with gentle dispositions. Besides breeding exceptional animals, however, Watson had two notable insights. First, he showed them off, taking the animals to livestock shows to tout their quality far more than was common at the time. And second — he selected only for animals that were entirely jet black.
Hugh Watson was branding. Not in the Ponderosa, iron-in-a-fire sense, but in the modern marketing sense. He was forging a brand identity.
At a time when most steers were multicolored, Watson’s jetblack animals stood out. And they were naturally hornless, which also stood out. And because he was an excellent breeder, they were big, beautiful examples of the species, which definitely stood out. As a result, Watson’s distinctive beasts started winning livestock competitions. And they won a lot.
Watson’s herd was the foundation of what would become known as the Aberdeen-Angus breed. Other breeders in those counties started breeding for similar characteristics. Then in 1867, Queen Victoria herself accepted a gift of beef from an Aberdeen-Angus steer for her Christmas dinner, and the Aberdeen-Angus was famous.
The first Aberdeen-Angus cattle arrived in the United States in 1873, when George Grant, a Scottish expat, transported four bulls to Kansas with a mind toward starting an empire. He called his new town Victoria, after the monarch who enjoyed Aberdeen-Angus beef. That fall, two of the bulls were shown at the Kansas City Livestock Exhibition. American cattlemen, however, weren’t used to seeing polled cattle and considered them freakish. Grant’s venture failed, and he died penniless a few years later.
The Aberdeen-Angus Thrive in America
The Aberdeen-Angus cattle, however, had arrived. They proved adaptable and hardy on the High Plains, and an American breeders association opened ten years later. In 1917, the association forbade the registration of any nonblack cattle, in accordance with Watson’s desire for a solid black breed (hence, Black Angus). Then in the 1950s, the name was shortened to the American Angus Association. Today, Angus cattle are the most prevalent beef cattle breed in the United States.
My steer, however, isn’t a Black Angus. It’s a Red Angus/Black Angus cross. As one might surmise, the difference is a matter of coloration. Black is a dominant genetic trait in Angus; red is recessive. (Really, it’s more of a reddish brown, but who am I to quibble?) Watson, back in the 1800s, kept only the black individuals, and other breeders followed his lead to capitalize on the marketing campaign that Watson had set in motion. In the United States, however, savvy ranchers quickly realized that quality animals were being eliminated from Black Angus herds simply because of their color. Some ranchers began buying up these otherwise excellent Red Angus. In 1954, the Red Angus Association of America was founded.
My Red Angus/Black Angus cross, then, is an Angus steer, without regard to coloration. I like that. I like that my rancher valued form and function over fashion. Seeing Angus beef in restaurants or supermarkets is a branding statement — just as it was for Hugh Watson’s herd in the early 1800s. It isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality in the same way that, say, Prime, Choice, or Select is. It’s an indicator of the breed of steer that the beef came from.
Because Angus beef reaches full size so quickly, everyone raises them. They’re an impressive breed of cattle, if not a unique one. Even if beef isn’t specifically labeled Angus beef, it probably is anyway.
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Excerpted from Year of the Cow: How 420 Pounds of Beef Built a Better Life for One American Family. Copyright © 2015 by Jared Stone. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Buy this book from our store: Year of the Cow.