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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

First we admire them, then we eat them

Denver has an extra season. It's called Stock Show weather. From the beginning of time the frigid icy weeks in January when the National Western Stock Show is going on have been designated as wweather weeks from hell. There are nights when the Nine News forecasters simply tell us, "well, it's Stock Show weather." And we know what they mean. Dreary gray overcast, bitter winds and zero temperatures. Enough said. It is Stock Show time and I am all about cows. Or, rather, cattle. And horses. You will not believe how many breeds of cattle are out in the fields, and pens, these days. Limousin and Red Angus, Simmental, and the up and coming Gelbiveh. And Lowline and Maine-Anjou and South Devon and Tarentaise. Our Estonian Intourist guide told us years ago that, "here in Estonia we have two breeds of cows: the black ones and the brown and white ones." I remember those days two: Herefords and Angus. And, for exotica, Charolais. There are a few magical memories mixed in with the mundane from childhood and many of mine involve trips to the Stock Show with my dad. I miss him. I miss him telling me for the umpteenth time about how to 'get ahead' of the steer and get it roped and penned. I miss his funny story about his "Catch It Calf" contest win when he was 16. My kids have now heard them umpteen times from me but I tell them anyway. The idea is, you're a kid in a big arena with a bunch of other kids, and they open the chutes and turn loose a herd of cattle. With their bare hands, the kids struggle to catch and wrestle a calf to submission. There is an art to this. And a science. And grit, strength, and a bit of luck. In my dad's case, grit played a larger part. He caught a calf. Quickly. He turned its head to the side and wrestled it to the ground. He held it for 18 of the requisite seconds required. But it fought him like a mad cow. And wriggled and twisted and almost got away. My dad caught it again --- by the tail. And my dad held on, please do picture this! for three rounds around the dusty arena, the calf running, straining, pulling my dad on his butt, cowboy boots dug into the dirt, being dragged around in circles again and again and again by this recalcitrant beast. And on each pass, dad pulled himself up a little more, edging over the hind end of the calf until, finally, he got his arms wrapped around it again, wrestled it down, and held it for all 20 seconds this time. The crowd whooped and hollered, cheering for him -- not the animal -- and when he finally had it, they went nuts! His picture made the bigtime newspaper with a quirky headline that I've forgot, like "Lucerne 4-H'er hangs on for the ride of his life." His jeans were worn clear through the bottom. And he was sore. But he'd won his calf. And raised it for the next year, tending it every single day, feeding, brushing, training it for the show ring. He loved that calf. And then it was Stock Show time again. He brought a half-ton steer back to show, won a prize, sold it, and gave it up. Somebody had some mighty fine pot roasts and brisket that year. We admire them, then we eat them. Being at the Stock Show does a number on your omnivorous inclinations. I sat in the arena watching gorgeous Angus yearlings being admired and judged from quite literally every angle. Enjoyed seeing the boys I'd met earlier in the morning, as they scrubbed and vacuumed and brushed and shaved their animals and got them all ready to show, using a special prodding stick to hold their legs just so, take the blue ribbons in their class. Their steers were damn weird looking. A newer breed called Gelbiveh. See photos. I read later that one of its best features is "biggest scrotal circumference." I don't think I've ever been to an event before where that came up. Besides these cattle, the arena was crowded with black angus and red angus and cows that, I must say, were really beautiful. You get up close, you look in their big black cow eyes, and you feel their sweet soft fur (hides, okay). And then you head into the Cattlemen's Grill and eat them. Or not them, but their daughters and sons. I had brisket. Where else but the Stock Show would you count on getting the best prime beef you've ever eaten. Amazing. Lean, and very tasty. What a weird world. The Omnivore's Dilemma, indeed. This is not exactly my daddy's Stock Show anymore. "World's Best Semen" signs fought for my attention as I walked through the cattle barns. The emphasis is on breeding. The cattle are shown for the sake of establishing breeding lines, of selling 'product.' Most of these cattle will not be sold for food, not yet, but for stud, or breeding. It doesn't feel quite so warm and cuddly as it did when I was a child. But I will walk up and down every aisle, ponder every bovine beast, marvel at the variety and the abundance of creatures that share the planet. Then, it's time for horses, ranch horse riding, steer roping, cattle cutting and penning, range riding. I could watch horses gallop all day. Um, come to think of it, I did. And go back for more.