In August 2019, US Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who spoke out against restoring endangered species for grizzly bears, commissioned livestock farmers who claim that animals hunt their cattle to be "radical environmentalists who want to destroy our western way of life", blown up. This idea that the "western way of life" – cowboys, ranches, free-range farming – is deeply patriotic, natural and good is anchored in American iconography on the right (Cheney is a staunch Republican), but also on the left. The cow is at the center of Western, as Joshua Specht shows in his fascinating new book.
Specht's story follows the American cattle industry from its inconsistent beginnings to the development of a national market. Even if this book appears at first glance as a comprehensive "commodity biography" à la Mark Kurlanskys codSpecht's work spanned only about half a century – a time that was so decisive for the production of American beef that it stood on its own. Specht's idea is to go beyond what he calls the "standard story" of these few years. This narrative, he writes, emphasizes technological and organizational change – the railroad, the refrigerated truck, the slaughterhouse, the management revolution. These innovations and their result (beef for everyone!) Are classified as inevitable. Instead, Specht hopes to shed light on the human costs and conflicts along the way: indigenous people whose land was taken for the ranch; Cowboys fighting for better working conditions; local boosters fighting for their city's status as an outstanding livestock camp; Ranchers who enforce "Winchester Quarantines" with shotguns to prevent sick cattle from being driven across their land; and later meat packers who strive for full rule over ranchers, railroads and local butchers.
The strength (and weakness) of this book lies in its ambitious dimension. Some of the historical actors in this story are huge: capital, the up-and-coming federal government, mother nature herself. The cattle were loosely placed on forage on forage so that the exact number of people was always loose. Bad winters like the late 1880s, when thousands of cattle were frozen in their tracks, could ruin everything. Specht shows that the fact that ranching was carried out on arid, marginal areas in the 19th century meant that ranches that were supported by large capital could be successful if smaller companies failed. "Especially when landscapes are integrated into an economic system for the first time, the slipping between the rationality of business and the unpredictability of nature is an enormous source of profit," Specht writes – for those who can afford the risk.
Later, when the ranchers were given the opportunity to move cattle over long distances and a national market was established, the ranchers called for the federal government to be strengthened, which in turn favored the larger ranches that could afford to comply with these regulations. "The national market, which so many local people and communities helped to shape, would give up," says Specht.
I found myself lost in the moments of the book when people and animals looked through the larger disputes and were briefly visible. In an unexpectedly heartbreaking section about what he calls the "ecology of animal husbandry", Specht explains how cowboys brought cattle from the ranch to the overland market. Although romantic stories about the cowboy life consumed by Easter, who wanted to hear from western Derring-Do, gave the impression that the trail was full of chances of an "Indian attack", the real drama of the trail, in which it was about finding water. Cows in herds run by cowboys who had no drinking water at the end of a day or even a week went completely crazy with thirst – sometimes even blind. Calves born on the trail were killed every morning, according to some sources of woodpecker, because they slowed the process and the babies "could not stand the agony of thirst".
As for the cowboys, their work was seasonal, difficult, and poorly paid, but they were emotionally attached to the job. Some of them helped create the "cowboy culture" – books and songs about the West that were sold to Easterners. Specht argues that the celebration of "cowboying" hid the poor conditions of the work – for cowboys and for the public who consumed this culture. Like many things in the history of American beef, the romantic idea came up to date.
In his last chapter, Specht's book made another big geographical leap from the ranch to the city, where the expanded livestock industry made beef a standard American protein in the late 19th century. In a fascinating cultural exploration, Specht shows how Americans, flooded with new cheap cuts, found ways to maintain and transform beef's earlier status as a sign of power for those who consumed it: “Democratization was not the same as equality. Beef was widely used, but the distinction between race, class and gender was still important. “In the newspapers, women's inability to cook a good steak has been combated by a flood of articles. Articles promoted the consumption of beef for "brain workers" or elite whites at the top of the Social Darwinist hierarchy. A union brochure that advocated Chinese exclusion policy, “Meat vs. Rice,” explicitly linked meat to white American workers and rice to Chinese workers.
This association of American beef with whiteness, masculinity and privilege was shockingly permanent. In March 2019, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on a talk show that her Green New Deal for climate change may require a redesign of the American food industry, including a reduction in so-called "factory farming". "Maybe we shouldn't have a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," she said. The mere hint of a reduction in consumption brought their critics off the rails. A Republican Congressman ate a hamburger in public at a press conference and said, "If it works, I wouldn't be able to eat anything like that." For many in the United States, it now feels like being able to eat beef whenever they want American freedom. But, as Specht points out, the system was built by people and people could change it. They may have to in the coming years.
Red meat republic: a story of how beef changed America
Princeton 368pp £ 22
Rebecca onion is an employee of Slate.