Soul Food

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

April 2010

The sun warms the chilly January morning when I meet up with Bob Dineen at the National Western Stock Show. I find him atop a concrete platform overlooking the stockyards, where scores of bison and cattle fidget in their pens. The scent of dust, hay, and dung mixes with the cold winter air. It smells of honest work. The lanky Dineen, who is the president of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, is wearing a black cowboy hat, dark Wranglers, and a denim jacket. He has a turquoise bandana tied around his neck.

We hop down from the platform and join the throngs of people, many clad in dusty boots and crisp-brimmed hats, moving in the direction of the livestock auction arena. The Gold Trophy Show and Sale, the National Bison Association's annual auction of carcasses and live animals, starts in about 30 minutes. We find seats in plain view of the auctioneers, which is important because Dineen will likely be the day's biggest bidder.

Rocky Mountain Natural Meats buys 400 head of bison a week, with the prime cuts (about 11 percent of an animal) going to local outlets of Ted's Montana Grill and Whole Foods Market, and the ground meat destined for the grocery stores. "This is a handshake business, and we like that," Dineen says. "In 2008 we bought 19,470 head on a handshake."

The Higgins sit behind us: Larry, Jacki, and Josiah drove from their Genoa ranch this morning. Like everyone in the arena, they're poring over the auction program, which details how each of the 18 bison carcasses fared. Stephen Cave's USDA-assessed findings are outlined in chart form, with numbers adhering to each category, including the all-important rib-eye size, fat color, and percent yield (the carcass weight versus the live weight) for each animal. In a matter of minutes, four medals will be awarded—one gold and one silver for the top two bulls, and another gold and silver for the top two heifers.

I turn to greet the Higgins—and congratulate Josiah. Not even the shadow of his black cowboy hat can hide the boyish elation: His heifer took gold in her category, and his bull took fourth. While Larry and Jacki's animals didn't do nearly as well, Josiah's winning heifer is virtually guaranteed to bring the family a high price per pound.

Across the auditorium, a local contingent from Slow Food USA—a national organization championing the farm-to-table way of eating—fills a row of the plastic seats. They sit together, all wearing the same T-shirts emblazoned with "Slow Food." Their presence underscores their belief in knowing where one's food comes from. Today, they're bidding on five animals, the meat of which will be divvied up among interested members. Several weeks ago, I had contacted Krista Roberts, president of the Denver chapter, and asked if I could go in on one-sixteenth of an animal.

Just after 11 a.m. the auction begins with the announcement of the winning bull's measurements: He weighed 680 pounds after slaughter, showed no signs of ossification, had a 12.1-inch rib-eye and excellent fat and muscle color. The gathered crowd nods in approval. Soon after, the head auctioneer begins his singsong and Dineen kicks off the bidding with a sharp nod. He's procuring meat for both Ted's Montana Grill and for Rocky Mountain Natural Meats. He plans to purchase five or six carcasses, depending on size and price.

The gold-medal bull goes for $3.20 a pound, despite Dineen expecting prices closer to $4. (Josiah's 586-pound bull, the lightest in its class, ultimately sells for $3.10 a pound.) But the final bid for Josiah's 583-pound, gold-winning heifer comes in at $3.60—a fair price.

After the auction concludes and the crowd filters to the exits, Roberts makes her way over to tell me the news: Along with four other carcasses, Slow Food Denver is the proud owner of Josiah's bull.