The Cows Behind the Cowboy

The human cost and conflict behind ‘beef for everyone’.

Cattle roundup on the Cimarron river, Colorado, 1898 © Bridgeman Images.

In August 2019, American Congressional representative Liz Cheney, arguing against the restoration of Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears on behalf of ranchers who claim the animals hunt their livestock, blasted ‘radical environmentalists intent on destroying our Western way of life’. This idea that the ‘Western way of life’ – cowboys, ranches, the open range – is deeply patriotic, natural and good is ingrained in American iconography, on the right (Cheney is a staunch Republican) but also on the left. At the heart of everything ‘Western’ is the cow, as Joshua Specht shows in his absorbing new book.

Specht’s narrative follows the American cattle industry from its patchy, upstart beginnings to the emergence of a national market. Although this book may seem on first glance to be a comprehensive ‘commodity biography’, à la Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, Specht’s work only covers about half a century – a time, he convincingly argues, that was so crucial to the making of American beef production that it stands on its own. Specht’s idea is to move beyond what he describes as the ‘standard story’ of these few years. That narrative, he writes, ‘stresses technological and organizational change’ – the railroad, the refrigerator car, the slaughterhouse, the managerial revolution. It frames these innovations and their outcome (beef for everyone!) as inevitable. Specht hopes, instead, to illuminate the human cost and conflict along the way: native people whose land was taken for ranching; cowboys struggling for better working conditions; local boosters fighting for their town’s status as a pre-eminent cattle depot; ranchers enforcing ‘Winchester quarantines’ with shotguns, to prevent sick cattle being driven across their lands; and, later, meatpackers seeking complete domination of the ranchers, railroads and local butchers.

The strength (and weakness) of this book lies in its ambitious scale. Some of the historical actors in this story are huge: capital, the emerging federal government, Mother Nature herself. Cattle were turned loose to forage on range grasses, so that exact headcounts were always loose; bad winters, like the ones in the late 1880s that froze thousands of cattle in their tracks, could wreck everything. Specht shows that the chanciness of 19th-century ranching on arid, marginal lands meant that ranches backed by big capital could succeed where smaller concerns might fail. ‘Especially when landscapes are first integrated into an economic system, the slippage between the rationality of business and the unpredictability of nature is a tremendous source of profit’, Specht writes – for those who can afford the risk.

Later, as ranchers gained the ability to move cattle over longer distances and a national market was established, the standardisation and regulation ranchers called for strengthened the federal government which in turn favoured the larger ranches, which could afford to comply with those regulations. ‘The national market that so many local people and communities helped create would abandon them’, Specht says.

Lost in the sprawl, I found myself seizing upon the moments in the book where humans and animals peeped through the larger arguments and became briefly visible. In an unexpectedly heartbreaking section on what he describes as ‘the ecology of cattle trailing’, Specht explains how cowboys got cattle from ranch to market, overland. Although romantic tales of cowboy life, consumed by Easterners eager to hear of Western derring-do, made it sound like the trail was fraught with chances of ‘Indian attack’, the real drama of the trail centred around finding water. Cows in herds led by cowboys who failed to secure potable water at the end of a day, or even a week, went completely mad – sometimes even blind – with thirst. Calves born on the trail, some of Specht’s sources show, were killed each morning, because they slowed the process down and the babies were ‘unable to stand the tortures of thirst’.

As for the cowboys, their work was seasonal, difficult and poorly paid, but they were emotionally tied to the job. Some of them participated in the creation of ‘cowboy culture’ – books and songs about the West, sold to Easterners. Specht argues that the celebration of ‘cowboying’ obscured the work’s poor conditions – for cowboys and for the public who consumed this culture. Like many things in the story of American beef, the romantic idea came to stand in for the actuality.

In its last chapter, Specht’s book makes another large leap in geography, from the ranch to the city – where, by the end of the 19th century, the expanded cattle industry made beef into a standard American protein. In a fascinating cultural exploration, Specht shows how Americans, inundated with newly cheap cuts, found ways to retain and reshape beef’s previous status as a signifier of power for those who consumed it: ‘Democratization was not the same thing as equality. Beef was widely available, but distinctions of race, class, and gender remained as important as ever.’ In newspapers, ‘a barrage of articles attacked women’s inability to cook a good steak’. Articles promoted beef-eating for ‘brainworkers’, or elite white men at the top of the social-Darwinist hierarchy. A union pamphlet arguing for the policy of Chinese exclusion, ‘Meat vs. Rice’, explicitly associated meat with white American workers and rice with Chinese labourers.

This association of American beef with whiteness, maleness and privilege has been shockingly durable. In March 2019, the Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented on a talk show that her Green New Deal for climate change might require a remaking of the American food industry, including a reduction of so-called ‘factory farming’. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner’, she said. The mere suggestion of a reduction in consumption sent her critics off the rails. A Republican congressman ate a hamburger in public at a press conference, saying ‘If this goes through, I could no longer eat this type of thing.’ For many in the US, being able to eat beef whenever they want now feels like a fundamental American freedom. But, as Specht makes clear, the system was built by people and people could change it. In coming years, they may have to.

Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America
Joshua Specht
Princeton 368pp £22

Rebecca Onion is a staff writer at Slate.