Feature

Soul Food

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

April 2010

This article was included in the 2010 edition of Best Food Writing.

One hundred miles east of Denver, a bison herd roams the endless horizon. Silhouetted against the frozen January sky, the beasts' woolly humps and sheer size distinguish them from grazing cattle. We bump along in a dirt-caked GMC truck, following a crude trail of crescent-shape hoof prints. The herd hears us coming from over the rise and scatters, thunderous bodies kicking up dust and churning dried prairie grass into bits. As we get closer, a curious few turn to face us, tossing their massive, bearded heads and sputtering puffs of icy breath.

The truck slows to a crawl. We're close enough to see the thick, tricolored hair tousled and matted by the wind, the black ring of soft fur that encircles both eyes, the sharp horns, and the coffee-brown eyes that look both wild and placid in the same stare. I can read the handwritten numbers on the tags that hang from the bison's left ears.

"She's a beauty, ain't she?" says Larry Higgins, pointing to a cow affectionately referred to as Pretty Woman for her stunning coat and large, sculpted head. She doesn't know it, but she's lucky. As just one of four bison among the 60-plus animals to receive a name, she'll never be carted off to the packing plant. The Higgins slaughter about 30 animals a year and sell the meat—jerky, quarters, halves, and whole animals—under the Heart Rock Bison label. "I just go by ear tags," Higgins says. "I don't like to name anything I'm going to eat." With one hand he adjusts his yellow and navy baseball cap. "Heart Rock Bison" is embroidered on the front; "Jesus is Lord" is stitched in blue on the left side.

We inch along, allowing Larry's wife, Jacki, and their third son, Josiah, a 13-year-old with a baby face and wise blue eyes, time to heave bales of hay from the truck bed. The family has raised bison on its fourth-generation ranch near Genoa since 2000. For most of the year, the herd subsists on nutrient-dense natural prairie grasses. In the winter, though, when food is in short supply, the Higgins supplement with hay from their own land and with protein-packed nuggets they call "cookies."

Larry puts the truck in park and digs a handful of the treats out of a bucket on the seat. He instructs me to keep my palm flat and thumb tucked, as if I'm feeding a horse. He also tells me to which bison I should direct my offerings—and to beware of the animal suddenly throwing its 150-pound head. I stick my arm out of the window, and within a couple of minutes a woolly face sizes me up, gives the cookies a sniff, and snatches them with teeth so white and square they remind me of dentures.

Each year, Larry sizes up the herd's calves and then separates the ones that show the most promise of health and vitality. Instead of roaming the ranch's 6,000 acres, the chosen 450-pound youngsters (all now wearing white ear tags) spend their remaining days in a corral. This high-fenced pen—bison can jump up to six feet—is located about 10 yards from the main ranch house in the shadow of a silvery windmill that never seems to stop spinning. Here, the bison freely graze on hay (about 1,800 pounds every five days), corn, and cookies, until they reach an optimal weight of about 1,100 pounds. This takes about a year—sometimes less, sometimes more. "You learn how to eye it," Larry says, directing my attention to his son's hulking yearlings, whose ear tags dangle with #7B and #142. These animals, plus two others, are due for slaughter shortly.

And that's why I'm here, riding around in Larry's truck and chasing the herd. I knew before I arrived this morning that time was short for four of these beasts. I'm here to follow the process, to track an animal from the ranch on which it grazes to the plate on which it ultimately lands.

Josiah, wearing a too-big Carhartt vest and oversize leather work gloves, helps dump a new load of hay into the corral, and he fills up the feeder with corn. "Everyone knows me at school as the person who has buffalo," he says, mentioning that he's the youngest member of the National Bison Association, and that he wants to be a rancher like his dad when he grows up. He also plays football, basketball, baseball, and runs track at Genoa-Hugo Middle School, which is 25 miles away. There are nine kids in his seventh-grade class. "I did have a pet buffalo one year; I loved it," he says, kicking at the dirt with his boot. "Now I don't name them because I don't want to get too attached."

In just a few days, father and son will load four bison—including Josiah's bull (#142) and heifer (#7B)—into a trailer and drive north 168 miles to Pierce. Their destination is the loading dock behind the town's slaughterhouse.

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.

Years ago, my family owned a sprawling ranch outside of Kirbyville, a town marked by a general store and a dozen houses, in southwestern Missouri. The wooded, smoke-colored landscape was cloaked in American history—the Civil War was fought on many of the 6,000 acres, and the homestead itself was originally owned by the family of author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain. To me, in typical childlike indifference, those details seemed weightless. What mattered, what made the long road trip from Colorado to Missouri worthwhile, were the wide-open spaces, the long horseback rides, and the bison that roamed the land. For as long as I can remember, we called them buffalo, although their proper Latin name is Bison bison.

Until I was 13, I spent every spring break and many autumns at the ranch. Some mornings, I would wake to find the herd grazing outside the fence that enclosed the homes, barn, and gardens. I'd pull on jeans and a fleece, run outside, and clamber to the top of the fence for the best vantage point. The animals were so close I could smell their muskiness, and from my perch I could look down and spot where the calves' humps were gradually pushing up under their rust-colored fur. I'd try and make eye contact, and I'd quietly talk, but I was never allowed to reach my hand out. They were, by all accounts, still wild.

When we ran into the herd on horseback, we kept our distance—sometimes even backtracking over difficult terrain. The buffalo never charged, but we kept our voices low and our eyes alert for a lifted tail, a sure sign of aggression. I recall my parents and the ranch hands instinctively edging their horses between my docile pony and the powerful beasts.

My deference for the bison was born of observations made in the saddle and at the top of the ranch's fence. That's where I studied the animal, where my American history lessons came to life, and where I tried to imagine our ranch without the animals' magnificent presence.

For such a celebrated symbol of the West, the bison has suffered a grim history. When the White Man arrived on the Great Plains, the herds were so robust that early explorers reported that the horizon appeared to be in constant motion. But, in the 1800s, the fur trade's unrelenting demand for buffalo hides and tongues, the railroad's cavalier slaughtering (bison were considered a nuisance), and the government's determination to starve and weaken the American Indians decimated the population. At the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 700 animals remained—down from some 60 million. Today, there are about 200,000 bison, few of which are truly wild, in the United States.

On my family's ranch, the herd's numbers were closely monitored—too many bison meant the land couldn't sustain their grazing. Too few, and noxious weeds would encroach upon the rich expanses of Savannah grass and alfalfa. Unlike cattle, bison are not stagnant; they tear at grass tufts and chew as they walk. They can easily roam 10 to 15 miles a day, eating along the way. Their hooves constantly till the soil, uprooting unwanted weeds and giving fallen grass seeds a new beginning. It's a symbiotic relationship: The land nurtures the herd as the herd nurtures the land.

Each fall the men would hunt. They'd suit up in leather boots and cold-weather gear, load their guns, and set out in the ranch clunker. I was never allowed to tag along: I was too young. But I remember the crack of gunshots cutting through the crisp, misty morning during our last trip to the ranch. The air smelled of wood smoke and soggy oak leaves.

Later that afternoon, a pickup truck carrying a massive, lifeless body trundled through the gates, and I ran across the wide lawn in pursuit. The truck came to a stop just outside of the meat locker, which sat adjacent to the big yellow barn. Using a pulley system looped around a tall white oak, the men suspended the bison, head down, until it dangled a dozen feet off the ground. After a long while, the animal's stomach lurched loudly and emptied its contents onto the dirt below. Chewed-up grass and acorns mingled with bright red blood. The real work was about to begin—the task of skinning and breaking down the body. The meat would age in the dark chill of the meat locker before finding a new home in the freezer—and then on the dinner table.

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.

I'm standing in my basement, in front of a freezer with the door wide open. Inside, 40 pounds of Josiah's bull, long since cut and neatly packaged into steaks, short ribs, roasts, and ground meat, are stacked to the top. I pull out a brick of short ribs, close the door, and head upstairs to find a plate for defrosting.

It's been a week since I drove to Roberts' house to pick up my share of meat. As we transferred the vacuum-sealed parcels from her deep freeze to my car, I was flooded with an unexpected sense of pride and appreciation. It was not unlike the satisfaction of pulling the season's first carrot from a patch of tended earth. I drove away vowing to honor the animal whose frozen muscles rattled in the trunk of my car.

Back in my kitchen, I pluck fresh thyme leaves from their stems, zest a lemon, and crush garlic with the blade of a knife. I rub the mixture over the now-thawed short ribs before placing them in a heavy pot for searing. With the addition of onion, fennel, and celery, the house blooms with scents that are rich and full. I pull a wooden spoon from a crock near the stove, and stir. This moment—the smells and the spoon, which once belonged to my mother—pulls me to the center of a childhood memory: I'm standing at the knee of my mom as she prepares dinner with meat from the ranch. Onions and garlic sweat and perfume the air. I've got a spoon in my hand and an apron tied in a bow at my back.

I pull my attention back to the stove, give the mixture a final stir, and cover the pot. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter wanders in, pulling a small red chair behind her. She scrambles up and asks for a peek. It's bison, I tell her. From a ranch I visited. She sniffs and grins.

In a couple of hours, I'll call my family to dinner and we'll sit down to a meal of slow-cooked short ribs. As we eat, I'll explain that, not long ago, this majestic animal—Josiah's bull—was grazing on Colorado prairie grass and wearing ear tag #142.

Amanda M. Faison is a senior editor of 5280 who covers dining and food trends. Her last piece for the magazine was about Denver's 25 best restaurants. E-mail her at [email protected].

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