Soul Food

Tracing the path of the mighty Colorado bison from ranch to plate.

April 2010

The packing plant smells raw and clean, like blood and iron. The cooler's floor is wet with a wash of blood and water mixed with bits of cartilage, bone, and fat. In the middle of the chilled, gaping space, 18 humped bison carcasses—four of which are from the Higgins' ranch—dangle from meat hooks.

Every few minutes, another steaming carcass is thrust through huge swinging doors on the far side of the room. When the doors close, the whirring of saws and power washers abates. Metal rails crisscross the 18-foot-high ceiling so the bodies can be shimmied from one end of the room to the other quickly and easily. It takes about 10 minutes to kill, skin, and dismember an animal.

On a normal day, Double J Meat Packing processes 120 to 150 head of cattle. At 200 head a week, bison make up a third of Double J's annual business. And with the industry growing about 10 percent a year—thanks to more ranchers raising bison and more market demand from restaurants and home cooks—Double J is poised to accommodate the growth.

This morning, dressed in a borrowed cooler-jacket for warmth, a hard hat for protection, and a hairnet and white frock for protocol, I'm trailing Stephen Cave, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meat grader who's worked for the department for 32 years. He's a self-important 54-year-old with brassy blond hair and tan-in-a-bottle skin tone. Today's load, just 18 bison carcasses, is a small job for a guy who averages hundreds of beef cattle a day.

Cave is assessing these 18 specimens for an upcoming competition. After judging, the carcasses will go up for auction as part of the National Bison Association's Gold Trophy Show and Sale at the National Western Stock Show—at which point, they'll land in top bidders' freezers.

He pulls out his clipboard and begins to methodically evaluate each bison. With gloved hands he handles the meat. He pushes and pulls at the whittled-down, 650-pound carcasses, sometimes using all of his body weight to move the animal so he can inspect every angle. He measures the size of the rib-eye, a muscle that runs the length of the animal, with a clear plastic instrument that looks like a protractor. Afterward, he wipes the wet, pinkish residue on his white frock. Cave inspects sheared-off bones for ossification (cartilage hardening into bone indicates age and lowers the score). He pulls out his plastic ruler again and measures the thickness of fat encircling the rib-eye (four-tenths to six-tenths of an inch is ideal). He evaluates the fat and muscle color—the brighter the better. And then he looks for flaws: bruises, lacerations, abscesses, injection sites. He also looks for something called "dark cutter," an indication that an animal was unusually stressed in the moments before slaughter. When that happens, a build-up of lactic acid and insulin turns the meat dark and splotchy. It becomes ground meat.

When he's finished with his assessment, Cave waves me toward the exit; we'll leave the 32-degree Fahrenheit cooler to talk about his findings. He turns, but I hang back for one last look at the stripped-down bodies. Cave may see the carcasses as bits and pieces to be systematically inspected, measured, and judged, but to me the scene is humbling—and oddly beautiful. Only a few hours ago, these patchworks of raw muscle, fat, and bone were vigorous, curious, living creatures. And only a few days ago, I'd stood inside Larry Higgins' holding pen, just a few feet away from four of these animals. Now, their bodies are indistinguishable from the others, but I silently pay them my respects anyway.