This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Moo-Dunnit: How Beef Replaced Bison on the American Plains—and Plate, first released on September 15, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SONG: “Home on the Range,” performed by James Richardson and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939.
JAMES RICHARDSON: Oh give me a home / Where the buffalo roam / And the deer and the…
CYNTHIA GRABER: I sang this a lot as a kid, but I didn’t really stop to think about the lyrics. Like the range, where macho men on horseback are corralling hundreds of cows?
RICHARDSON: And the skies are not cloudy all day.
GRABER: And the buffalo? They’re mostly gone!
NICOLA TWILLEY: “Home on the Range” is the official anthem of the state of Kansas, but it’s also the unofficial theme song of the American West, the Wild West of Buffalo Bill and the Marlboro Man.
JOSHUA SPECHT: The story of America—a kind of mythos about America—a lot of them are predicated on this idea of a frontier, this idea of westward expansion and settlement. And at the heart of that story is the spread of cattle ranching and cattle raising.
GRABER: Josh Specht is a historian at the University of Notre Dame and the author of a new book called Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America.
TWILLEY: And you are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and this episode, we are taking a bite of the most American of all foods.
SPECHT: What’s more American than the hamburger? All Americans eat beef all the time. And so I think both in terms of how we live our lives and the stories we tell ourselves beef is really at the center.
TWILLEY: Not all Americans eat beef all the time, but Josh’s point is fair. This is a beef-based country. So how did this state of affairs come to pass? Why is beef an American birthright?
GRABER: What happened to the buffalo, or more accurately, the bison? It is America’s national mammal, it’s the only national animal other than the bald eagle—so what did our love of beef mean for bison?
TWILLEY: And for the Native Americans who depended on them.
GRABER: This episode is the story of the all-American dish, the steak, and how it came to claim such a place of prominence at the dinner table.
TWILLEY: We are going to go beyond the beef to tell a tale of cowboys and meat riots and footballs and lipstick. Yum!
GRABER: Nearly all the hamburgers in America today come from cows that spend at least part of their lives on the Great Plains, that famous open range in the American West.
TWILLEY: So that is where we will go to start our story today. To the American West before it was American—before Europeans and their horses started showing up there, in the late 1600s.
SPECHT: So before there were cattle, and before the United States had control of the Plains in the West, you had a variety of American Indian polities. Groups like the Comanche, themselves essentially a very powerful empire across the West. And they were hunting bison.
GRABER: Numbers for that time are kind of hard to come by, but it’s estimated that there were about 30 to 60 million bison roaming through the middle of North America.
SPECHT: These are big grazing animals. And what they can do is they can turn the abundant grasses of the West into animal flesh, which then hunters can eat. And so they become the foundation of the economy.
TWILLEY: Whenever I’m in the same spot as a cow, I’m always kind of amazed at how big they are. But a bison is a heck of a lot bigger. And faster.
GRABER: They can run about 35 miles an hour, faster than most horses, and they can pivot on both front and back hooves and literally turn on a dime. These are terrifying and dangerous creatures.
SPECHT: It’s not the kind of animal you would want to meet on foot. And the other key thing about them is that they’re herd animals. So they gather at times in massive herds.
TWILLEY: Massive herds that would have represented a very appetizing dinner plus some warm and sturdy buffalo hide.
GRABER: I can imagine riding up towards a herd of kind of terrifyingly huge bison if you’re safely on horseback, but how did Native communities hunt them before horses?
SPECHT: Very carefully. So you could really only do it in the spring or summer, when bison gathered together to mate. You would do it on foot and you could work as a group but it was difficult. You couldn’t really do it full time. You could hunt bison kind of part time.
TWILLEY: Before the horse, the Plains really belonged to the bison. What we now think of as Plains tribes actually lived on the edges of the Plains, combining a little small scale hunting with some farming.
SPECHT: But once you had horses, then well-coordinated hunters could hunt the animals very efficiently.
GRABER: The horses came with the Spanish, the Native communities got a hold of some of those horses, and horses quickly caught on. They even changed the politics of the region, the communities that had more horse-power like the Comanche kind of took over.
SPECHT: And they would kind of dominate everybody else and basically built these very successful empires.
TWILLEY: Empires that were built on bison—hunting them and trading them with European settlers on the east coast.
SPECHT: So people like the Comanche and Kiowa were very successful from horseback and they may have actually been causing slow population declines in bison.
GRABER: The story I heard in school is that white people killed off all the bison. And the truth is, they did. But the bison were already under a little bit of extra pressure thanks to the horses that white people brought.
SPECHT: But it waited until the spread of ranching and commercial bison hunting from Euro-Americans to really collapse. And by 1900, there’s only maybe 300 bison left across the West.
TWILLEY: From at least 30 million bison to just 300 in about fifty years. The bison were systematically wiped out in only a few decades.
GRABER: And those 30 million bison were eventually replaced by 30 million cows.
TWILLEY: This de-bisonizing process really got started in the mid-1800s, when people of European descent were slowly beginning to move out West to the Plains and start settling there.
SPECHT: It was all sorts of people, particularly at first when it was small scale. So, when what is Texas belonged to Mexico, you had lots of Mexicans who were setting up ranches. Then you got kind of poor white settlers, Anglos, coming into the region setting things up. As the American Civil War approaches, you got people who are kind of second and third sons of wealthy, Southern plantation families, who can’t inherit the family plantation. And so they kind of go West to a place like Texas to set up kind of these small-scale ranches.
GRABER: These settlers looked out at the plains and they thought, okay, there are huge rangy creatures that live there, why not replace them with other huge rangy creatures.
TWILLEY: But why didn’t they just stick with the bison that were already living there? Bison meat is freaking delicious, and there is more of it per animal because bison are bigger And—bonus—bison were already perfectly ecologically suited to the native grasslands and climate conditions.
SPECHT: That’s a really interesting question. I’ve thought about it a lot. Because in some ways bison would be a very natural animal to raise. But then when I was reading diaries and things, I found that these people… they were kind of disgusted by bison. They didn’t view that as an animal that could be farmed. They saw it as a wild animal. And so what’s interesting about that is on one level, people go with what they know. Euro-Americans know about raising cattle. But another thing gets into their ideas of what is civilized. And they view the bison as not the kind of animal that, in their minds, a civilized people would raise. And so cattle is the way to do it.
GRABER: So why couldn’t settlers just leave the bison alone and raise cattle separately?
SPECHT: Well, they could, but the animals can’t live on top of each other. So if 30 million animals are occupying most of this land, it has to be taken. Another thing, though, is that the bison are the foundation of wealth of Native peoples. And if the settlers want to take control by force of this land, well they want to eliminate the means of support and the foundation of power of people like the Comanche. And so they view attacking the bison as a way of achieving their other goal, which is taking as much land as possible for themselves and for the United States. And what’s funny is, that difference in cattle is what justifies to them taking the land. But the similarity is what means they can be successful as ranchers; that similarity between bison and cattle.
TWILLEY: At first, these early cattle ranchers were small potatoes. They and their cows were outnumbered and overwhelmed compared to the Native people and bison.
SPECHT: Well, the herds were relatively small. It’s kind of like a few hundred animals. So it’s a few enough animals that the same people who manage them and kind of ride around taking care of them are the same ones who own them. And it’s pretty mobile. You know, you don’t have kind of official ownership of the land. You’re just kind of occupying land where you don’t find any other settlers. And you’re hoping that the nearby fort or the U.S. military will protect you from violence. Even though you’re of course using land that other people live on, like the Kiowa.
GRABER: As Josh pointed out, the ranchers would let their cows roam anywhere, even on Native land. They didn’t see the tribes as really owning the land, because they weren’t maintaining or using it quote “properly.”
TWILLEY: According to the American sense of land ownership, which came from England, you earned the right to a place by enclosing it, and raising cattle on it. The Native peoples of America did neither, so to the colonists, this land wasn’t really their property.
SPECHT: And what they see is, they believe this landscape to be kind of a wilderness and they want to settle it. And so they never quite question what they’re doing. They just want help taking control and making this place kind of stable and, in their minds, civilized.
GRABER: So obviously the settlers and the Native people were not on the same page. The settlers were taking and using land that belonged to Native people—but then there was another disagreement when it came to the animals themselves.
SPECHT: So Native peoples viewed a lot of these animals initially, especially as invaders. You have land you kind of live on and all of a sudden, there’s this weird animal, or animal you’re familiar with, but it shouldn’t be where it is. Well, then you should have a right to kill it or remove it. But the settlers and the kind of earliest ranchers, right, they had this concept of branding an animal. They would burn a mark in its side and say, “Wherever this animal goes, it’s my property.” And that different understanding drove a lot of this conflict because you’d get this fighting back and forth of killing wayward animals that ranchers said “we own.”
TWILLEY: And so these early ranchers, who remember, were pretty much outnumbered—they went looking for government assistance.
SPECHT: What you did is, every day you went to the nearest fort you could find, and you complained. You said, “I need help recovering these animals. These animals have been stolen.” Or the word they liked to use was depredation. They’d been the victim of a depredation. And so they would constantly be agitating for help.
GRABER: At first, the U.S. military wasn’t so interested in getting involved in what must have looked like petty arguments over cows.
SPECHT: They didn’t want headaches. But the thing about it was, they shared some of the exact same assumptions that the ranchers and bison hunters had. They thought nNative peoples weren’t putting this land to its highest use. And so it would be better if it was United States property and we had cattle ranching. And so even though they wanted to avoid conflict, they would often side with ranchers. So that was the first kind of key. They were the kind of enablers and supporters. And eventually all those complaints built up to the United States military saying, “we need to solve this problem.” And the way of course they wanted to solve it was to take control of the region once and for all. So those settlers were kind of driving the conflict that leads to the United States seeking a military solution.
TWILLEY: That military solution involved a series of skirmishes in the 1860s, building to a major war in the 1870s that basically crushed the Comanche and Kiowa peoples. They surrendered and they were moved to reservations in Oklahoma.
GRABER: Part of the reason the tribes surrendered is that the bison had also been decimated by this time. Like we said, white hunters had wiped them out, nearly entirely—from dozens of millions, there were maybe only a few hundred left.
TWILLEY: Commercial hunters in the 1860s and 70s would kill up to 50 bison each, every day. One hunter called Orlando Brown is said to have shot 6,000 buffalo by himself. He lost hearing in one ear from the constant firing of his rifle.
GRABER: In terms of the meat, the hunters often only took the animal’s tongue, which at the time was considered the most valuable edible part of the animal, it was a delicacy. And they also skinned the animals and sold the hides, which were furry and warm and in high demand on the East Coast and in Europe. They were used to line carriages and make winter coats.
TWILLEY: But all the rest—hundreds of pounds of good meat on each animal—they left it to rot on the Plains in huge mounds. One person at the time wrote that the Plains looked like quote “a charnel house, with so many skulls staring at a man, and so many bones that newcomers felt nervous.”
GRABER: And the Native Americans, who depended on the bison, were reduced to collecting those bones to sell as fertilizer.
SPECHT: They lose their means of subsistence. And of course they become very poor. And then Anglo settlers look and they say, “See, these people are poor. We were justified the entire time.” And the kind of final tragedy of the story is that then many ranchers, early ranchers, make their money selling cattle to be slaughtered and provided to these reservations. And so there’s a really, kind of a feedback loop that is leading to taking land and justifying taking it.
TWILLEY: Yep, just when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse. The ranchers that stole the land from the Native peoples and exterminated the bison so they could raise cattle now made money selling beef to the reservations. And believe me, they weren’t sending the prime rib.
SPECHT: This was the kind of part that is tragic but also interesting as a historian, where the whole time I had kind of suspected that what they were sending was their worst meat. Because you want to send your best stuff to market. Whereas with a government contract, you would think of it as a way to unload what you don’t want. And I couldn’t ever find any evidence of this. And then finally, one time when I was in an archive, I was looking at this letter between two ranchers and one guy said to the other, you know, he was complaining that his meat had been rejected in Chicago. And the other guy said, “Well, why don’t you just send it for this government contract. They won’t know the difference.”
TWILLEY: So yeah. It was exactly what Josh suspected.
SPECHT: These contracts and these supplies to reservations were often kind of the worst possible meat.
TWILLEY: So that’s the story of how ranchers and cowboys—and their cattle—ended up taking over the West. But it’s not the story of how they came to embody the West—how cowboys and steak became so iconic and so American.
GRABER: Part of the reason that beef became so important to us is because of those very ranchers and cowboys. Until this point, we’ve told the story of how the bison disappeared and how cows took over from a vantage point that’s not particularly generous to white people on the Plains. But it’s the opposite of how they saw things at the time. From their point of view, the story went more like this:
SPECHT: “Hey, this land, when it was roamed by bison and controlled by the Comanche, that was a wilderness that nobody was using. And now look at what we’ve done. We’ve set up herds of cattle. We’ve started to maybe establish towns.” “We’ve,” to quote one official in the 19th century, “converted a barren waste to a scene of enterprise and thrift.”
TWILLEY: One of the most iconic characters in this storybook version of the American West is the cowboy, the lone ranger, saddled up and spurs jingling, eyes narrowed beneath the brim of his Stetson, lasso in hand.
SPECHT: You know, the myth of the West is this myth of kind of hardy men going and on their own kind of, like, creating the United States through their own force. To some extent that myth, parts of that myth, might be true. They were young men, they were kind of striking off on their own. And they were working in often grueling conditions and some of the romantic aspects were true. You know, they were out on the range. They might not see many people. They were traveling vast distances.
GRABER: This imagery of the rugged individualist cowboy making his way in the world has totally permeated American culture, and even the way American culture is seen overseas. When I was a teen exchange student in Switzerland, a Swiss teen asked me if all of America was like the Marlboro man.
TWILLEY: A lot of American men still kind of want to be John Wayne, let’s be honest. Just think of all those Westerns—the cowboy as the hero, pursuing justice and taking on wrongdoers. Including of course the cowboy’s arch enemy, the Indian.
GRABER: We’ve already talked about what actually happened to Native Americans, but of course in the popular imagination at the time, and, frankly, in a really harmful and racist portrayal, the cowboys were always the good guys, the Indians almost always on the wrong side of the law.
TWILLEY: The funny thing is, cowboys participated enthusiastically in their own myth making—they came up with cowboy songs that mourned the passing of the cowboy and the true spirit of the American West before either of things was even gone.
COWBOY SONGS: “The Campfire Has Gone Out,” by Don Edwards and “A Cowboy’s Meditation,” by Buck Ramsey
SPECHT: And so you get songs just about trail rides. But you also get these very self-referential songs. Songs that I talk about in the book like, “To Hear Him Tell It,” which is the story of an old cowboy spinning these kind of very elaborate yarns about his life. Or this other story called, “The Disappointed Tenderfoot,” about this boy who hears these stories of cowboys and goes West to be a cowboy and finds out that it’s not quite as glamorous or as romantic as he thought the whole time.
TWILLEY: The cowboys said that they had to sing to keep the herd calm at night and stop cows from wandering off. Of course, they could have sung songs about anything, but instead they sang about bad coffee and cold nights and the fear of ambush and the wide open sky.
SPECHT: And so I just love these songs because they’re both making the myths at the same time this story is happening.
COWBOY SONG: “The Cowboy’s Life is a Very Dreary Life” by Sloan Matthews
GRABER: The cowboys might have played up the solitary, rugged, independent side of their life, but the work itself was really hard. They had to round up and count the herds, and prepare for the winter, and ride along fences to look for people encroaching on land or cattle thieves. They moved around, the work was seasonal, they often barely scraped by and had little to do in the winter.
SPECHT: They were actually workers just like workers anywhere else. And one way you can know they’re workers is, I write about 1883, how cowboys in Texas organized a strike. They said, “Our labor conditions are too rough. And so we need better conditions. We’re not doing the spring roundup until we get a raise.”
TWILLEY: The cowboys were looking to double their salary, and they demanded an improvement in the quality of the ranch coffee too.
COWBOY SONG: “Trail of the Buffalo (Buffalo Skinners),” performed by Alan Lomax
GRABER: The public wasn’t too comfortable with how cowboys were being written about in the press, as basically the equivalent of factory workers. They didn’t like the idea of their idealized heroes refusing to head out on the range, and threatening violence against the ranches, like setting fires. These were supposed to be the good guys.
TWILLEY: The cowboy strike lasted two and a half months, but it eventually fizzled out. The ranchers called in government help, again—the Texas Rangers helped defend the ranches against strikers—and then the ranchers also just hired other cowboys. In the end, cowboys were just like today’s replaceable gig workers.
GRABER: Meanwhile the ranches themselves were the subject of another major myth from the American west. They were portraying themselves as these independent, small family businesses out there making a go of it on the range. But that wasn’t the reality.
SPECHT: And the myth of the independent rancher is this idea that maybe that’s, like, a more authentic, you know, truly American way of life. That you’re kind of out there, you know, remaking nature in your image; living on these pre-capitalist values. You’re not a bean counter. You know, you don’t have an account book. You’re not super obsessed with prices. The reality is ranchers were essentially business people.
GRABER: And, by the 1880s, ranches were big business. Those ranchers, those business people, had taken major investments from wealthy people on the east coast and in Europe who had never even set foot on the plains. These absentee owners didn’t give a hoot about the traditional independent cowboy and the small family-owned ranch—except as a marketing tool.
TWILLEY: That’s what’s so weird and fascinating about this story. It’s not just that these myths of independent, individualistic cowboys and ranches are not true—although they’re not. It’s also that they’ve had such a huge impact on the mythology of beef and America.
GRABER: First, they helped sell beef. I mean, if you’re a big company where the meat is slaughtered and broken down and shipped out, these meat packing factories, you don’t want anyone to think of the words beef and factory together.
SPECHT: So what do you do? Well, you advertise with images of cowboys. You advertise with ideas about the West. And so the myth of the West as this place not of big business, as this place of the kind of cowboy riding the empty plains—that becomes a marketing strategy. And at the same time it’s becoming a marketing strategy, it also becomes a story Americans tell themselves about who they are. They’re the people, to themselves, who conquered the continent.
TWILLEY: And these two myths get inextricably woven together into a whole belief system about beef and Americanness and manhood.
SPECHT: If cattle raising is a business engaged in by real men out on their own fighting with nature, well, eating beef would be the same kind of view. And so I think you tap into that kind of primal myth of settlement in the West by consuming beef. The other thing is if cattle ranching is a story of like American conquest and success in this myth, then being able to consume red meat becomes also connected to a vision of success. And so that all contributes to this idea that to eat beef is to be successful. And I think that’s what’s put meat at the heart of American food and American identity.
GRABER: So that’s that first way that beef came to represent the American soul. The other thing that had to happen was that beef had to become cheap.
TWILLEY: Which meant that beef had to become big. Like we said, back in the early days in the 1850s, the ranches were small and scrappy.
SPECHT: But after the American Civil War and after all these conflicts between the United States military and native peoples on the Plains, following that, well, then, all of a sudden, setting up a cattle ranch became a pretty straightforward and potentially lucrative proposition.
GRABER: Remember, by the 1870s, the bison hunters and the U.S. military and the ranchers had collaborated to wipe out the bison and lock the Native Americans up in reservations. Suddenly there was a lot of land available, and ranchers could scale up.
SPECHT: All of a sudden you could invest to set up a big corporate ranch and just kind of, in theory, sit back and make money. And so all of a sudden, all these people—people who kind of maybe were familiar with a place like Texas or Colorado—they kind of went up to Chicago, or over to Boston, or even to England, or Scotland. And they said, “Hey, I’m setting up a ranch. You know, you can all buy shares and we’ll all get rich because there’s all this land that has been newly cleared by the United States military.”
TWILLEY: The other part of the back story here is that in the 1870s and 1880s, there were a series of epidemics that just totally decimated cattle herds in Europe. The British Parliament was so upset about the skyrocketing price of beef that it sent a pair of envoys to investigate this ranching situation in the American West, to see whether American beef could maybe pick up the slack. When these two guys came back to London, they reported that there wasn’t just plenty of beef in America—there was the potential to make a fortune.
SPECHT: And there’s this bonanza right? Huge ranches of a hundred thousand animals get set up. The Economist starts covering American ranching. There’s just this enthusiasm for investing.
GRABER: There was a lot of money pouring in, but for cattle to become the huge industrial complex it is today, and for beef to become really cheap, the cattle industry needed a few new technologies.
TWILLEY: One thing that had to be invented was a way of fencing off these huge ranges. You can’t go properly corporate until you have your ranch fenced off. Hedges worked in teeny tiny England, split rail fencing did the trick on the smaller fields of the East Coast, but for the huge expanses of the American West, you needed barbed wire.
GRABER: And this might sound a little weird, but barbed wire didn’t exist until the 1870s. And we will be telling the story of that invention and its impact in our special supporters newsletter, gastropod.com/support.
TWILLEY: But long story short, thanks to barbed wire, these new corporate ranches could spread out across a huge area, which is great—if you’re going to have a lot of cows, you need a lot of land. But there weren’t a lot of people to eat all that steak on legs—at least not living there, out on the range.
SPECHT: And that presents a challenge. Pigs in the 19th century lived in cities. So it wasn’t complicated to get them to hungry people. Cattle had to be shipped a long way to market.
GRABER: Before there was mechanized cattle transportation, the transportation was the hoof.
SPECHT: You would convince the cattle to walk themselves to market. Now that’s pretty tricky. I couldn’t do it. But people were pretty good at that. But if you think about it, the animals, if they’re walking themselves, they’re also losing a lot of weight.
GRABER: And that meant the ranchers were losing a lot of money.
TWILLEY: Enter another metal-based technology: the railroad. Which was spreading its iron tentacles across the West in the 1870s and 1880s.
SPECHT: What railroads do is they say, okay, you only have to walk your animals from a ranch in Texas to a Kansas cattle town, like a rail town. And then a train will take the animals from Kansas to Chicago. The animals won’t lose any weight. A few of them might die in transport, but it’s much easier. And so all of a sudden you can move animals much more easily and much more quickly. And spread them out much farther away from where hungry people are, allowing a lot more animals to be raised.
GRABER: And then you need one more thing, and that’s refrigeration.
TWILLEY: Ka-ching! Refrigeration, my one and only love. Other than Gastropod. Did you have a refrigeration question, Cynthia? Because I am writing a book about it.
GRABER: Well, in this case, Josh kind of tells the story, though I’m sure yours will be far more complete and obviously totally fascinating, I can’t wait to read it. But in terms of cows, before there was refrigeration, they could only be shipped live. Because the meat would spoil.
TWILLEY: Once the railroad was invented, people very quickly started trying to figure out how to make a refrigerated rail car. This was actually a lot harder than you would think, because people were relying on ice to keep things cold at the time. And if ice actually touches the meat, it turns that surface nasty and greyish brown. But they figured it out.
SPECHT: And this revolutionized things. Because it meant certain companies headquartered in a place like Chicago could do most of the slaughtering for the country.
GRABER: So now we have the set-up of the shape of the meat industry. Cows raised out west, and slaughtered in one central location. Chicago.
TWILLEY: And thus, at last, we reach the dawn of truly cheap beef.
SPECHT: If you slaughter a thousand animals in a day, you could sell them for much cheaper than a local butcher that’s slaughtering only a few hundred. But the place they really made money was on byproducts.
GRABER: The list of what those cow byproducts were and are used in is practically endless. Cow hair for those so-called camel-hair paint brushes. Gelatin for photographic film. Footballs are called pigskin but they’re actually made of cowhide.
TWILLEY: You could boil down the fats in cattle carcasses to make lipsticks and shaving cream and linoleum and cellophane. And then the bone went into fertilizer and explosives and piano keys and buttons.
SPECHT: And so once they could realize all these profits and also when they could kind of design factories that could do this as cheaply as possible, they could both undersell people and provide cheaper meat.
GRABER: Those factories that could do this as cheaply as possible—Josh is describing the literal invention of the assembly line.
SPECHT: Actually, you know, it was a disassembly line. Henry Ford in his autobiography talks about his idea for the Detroit assembly line from watching a side of beef in Chicago. And what these companies realize is rather than having one highly skilled butcher doing kind of all parts of the animal, you have—and this seems obvious to us now, but was a big innovation at the time—lots of different people doing one little task. And that meant you could train people very easily, so you could pay them less, because it was less skilled. And you would make everybody work kind of in a line, working at the same pace. And so you could push people faster and faster by moving the animals through the assembly line faster.
TWILLEY: These jobs were dangerous and hard and repetitive and relatively unskilled and really badly paid. And guess who you get to do a job like that?
SPECHT: Overwhelmingly, at the time, they were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe in places like Chicago. And if you remember your high school English class, in The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist, is from Lithuania. And so you get all these people who have recently moved to Chicago from places like Eastern Europe and they start taking these jobs because they don’t necessarily have great English skills, they’re familiar with versions of agricultural work.
GRABER: This time period, the late 1800s, it’s a perfect convergence of all these things happening at basically the same time: major investors, corporate ranching, railways, refrigeration, the invention of the assembly line. Suddenly beef is cheap, all around the U.S..
SPECHT: And across this period, across the 19th century, what happens is beef just goes from a special occasion food to an all-the-time food.
TWILLEY: Back in the early 1800s, the only way to eat a lot of beef if you weren’t super rich was to raise it yourself. Which meant living in a rural area.
SPECHT: But if we’re talking about in major cities, places far from ranching areas, beef was really kind of an elite food. You know, only people who are better off could afford to have it all the time. If you were a poorer, working class American or someone in a city back in Europe, you would really only have meat on a special occasion—a religious holiday, saint’s feast day, et cetera. Beef is relatively expensive. When you could get it, it was lower quality. That’s the beginning part of the story.
GRABER: By the end of the 1800s, there were big Chicago meatpacking factories sending out cheap meat. The three biggest companies were Swift, Morris, and Armour, and the whole set-up was called the Chicago system of dressed beef.
TWILLEY: Philip Armour used to say, “I brought meat to the common laborer.” And the common laborer was pretty happy about that.
SPECHT: Well, they thought it was great. That’s the short answer. The longer answer is that beef kind of became the metric for success. How do I know this? Well, you get letters, people writing home saying, saying, “At least I can have meat.”
GRABER: Immigrants to America at the time didn’t have the easiest life, as we’ve talked about in other episodes, but they did have one thing: beef. One Italian woman went home to visit, to a small village near Milan, and everyone there wanted her to describe everything about life in America. Back in America, she told a researcher who was interviewing immigrant women, “Mamma mia, but that was hard for them to believe. Poor people in America eating meat every day!”
TWILLEY: And not just any old meat. This is also the point where you get the invention of the first American cut of beef—a steak so big it can fill your plate. Enter the porterhouse. Which is essentially a supersized version of the T-bone. Which is already huge.
SPECHT: So two of the most popular cuts of meat at the time, a porterhouse steak, which is still familiar, and a round steak. At the time a round steak was seen to be kind of the lower quality thing. And so workers constantly would write about how what they wanted was a porterhouse and they didn’t want round steak because that wasn’t high enough quality for them.
TWILLEY: These immigrants, before they came to the US, they might have had meat two or three times a year. Now they were so accustomed to being able to have beef that some cuts weren’t even good enough for them.
GRABER: This transformation happened in only a couple of decades. I mean, on some level it’s not surprising—people always loved the taste of beef, they just couldn’t afford it. But it only took about twenty years for beef to become not just more common, but absolutely critical.
TWILLEY: Exactly how critical became obvious in 1902, when the big meatpacking companies decided they were going to raise prices.
SPECHT: And when they raised their prices, customers in New York were furious.
GRABER: There was a meat riot.
SPECHT: So there are stories of crowds of several hundred people. There are stories of smashing windows of butcher shops. Stories of people pulling meat out of people’s hands and stomping on it. But the key thing for me is that, you know, it wasn’t like people couldn’t just buy some other food. There were stories of fish sellers and people selling chicken saying, “Well, we’ll supply what you want,” but no one wanted that. What they wanted was beef. Because this was a thing that was a way of defining their success and now they couldn’t afford it. And that kind of broke the social contract for them.
TWILLEY: More than five hundred police were needed to disperse the rioting crowds, which according to newspapers at the time was mostly quote “maddened women.” But these women won! After three weeks, the meatpacking companies backed down, and the price of beef returned to rock bottom.
GRABER: The women doing the protesting were mostly Jewish women, because for a variety of reasons this was affecting mostly kosher butchers at the time. The women were all new to protesting. But their meat riot worked, and it kind of pumped them up. They were ready for some even more important protests a few years later, like the Shirtwaist Protests. And these are some of the foundations of our modern labor movement.
TWILLEY: Now you might be thinking, here are these social justice-oriented righteous women. Why are they not protesting the horrible conditions in the meatpacking factories, and agitating for higher wages for the people who did those horrible, dangerous jobs?
SPECHT: People were so excited they could afford this food, this food they couldn’t afford before, that they would overlook the working conditions.
GRABER: Those working conditions were far away, and they were kind of invisible, really.
TWILLEY: But honestly, even when they were in the news, like when the book The Jungle came out in 1906, people still didn’t care. They cared about the dirt and the gross conditions, they wanted their beef to be sanitary. But, really, they wanted it to be cheap above all. And they didn’t really care what it took to make it that cheap.
GRABER: This came to a head when small local butchers protested that the Chicago meatpackers were collaborating to illegally fix the prices and undercutting them and putting them out of business.
SPECHT: And so local butchers went to Congress and they said, “Hey, these are predatory pricing practices. This should be illegal. You should investigate.” But they had a problem because what the meat packers would always say is that they had brought cheap beef to the common laborer. And any proposal not to use the Chicago system of dressed beef would increase prices to consumers. And so all of a sudden there became no way to criticize how our beef in the United States was being produced without looking like an elitist. And this is a dynamic that persists ‘til today. The meat packing industry says any critique of their methods or any reform of their methods will increase prices for the consumers.
TWILLEY: Of course the meatpackers weren’t looking out for their poorer customers out of the goodness of their hearts. They just wanted to make more money by selling more meat using the industrial, high-volume techniques they’d perfected.
GRABER: But the argument from the meatpackers was a strong one, and it’s still an argument that people make today. Any time people fight for ways to change the current industrial system, this is what they get back—that meat will get more expensive, and that’s unfair to everyday Americans. So that makes it really hard to challenge the system.
TWILLEY: Which is why the system that Josh describes being built a hundred years ago is basically the same today.
GRABER: One thing is different, we do eat slightly less beef per person today.
SPECHT: Beef consumption in the United States, per capita, peaked in the 1970s. So two things happened. One is across the 20th century, people started eating a lot more chicken. So the broiler chicken industry—the chicken you eat—took off.
TWILLEY: This is a story we told in one of our previous episodes, “The Birds and the Bugs.”
SPECHT: And so that became a major part of the diet. And then starting during the 1970s, concerns about connections—which have since been debated and disputed—but concerns about connections between red meat and heart disease meant people became nervous about consuming too much red meat and people started to eat less. But I don’t think that means beef is less important. People still, in the United States, consume a huge amount of beef per year. And the other thing is that there’s still this connection between beef and success. You know, some of the fanciest restaurants are steakhouses. The most expensive restaurants are steakhouses. If times are good, you might go out for a steak dinner. People still talk about cattle ranching as kind of the center of what it means to be American. I mean, you see cattle raising and agriculture as such an important political constituency. And for all these reasons, I think beef is still hugely important. I mean, what could be more American in our minds than the McDonald’s hamburger?
TWILLEY: What’s more, you still have just four or five big companies that control the nation’s beef—they have different names now, but it’s still just as centralized.
SPECHT: You know, you still have these even larger slaughterhouses that produce beef as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible. And so that logic has stayed the same way. Meat packing work is still dangerous. It’s still done by recent immigrants. In 1890, they were mostly from Eastern Europe, today they’re often from Latin America or they’re refugees from places like Southeast Asia or Sudan.
GRABER: And a few months ago, when the pandemic hit the U.S., those immigrants working in slaughterhouses were considered essential workers.
TWILLEY: Thousands of workers in meat processing plants have been infected with COVID so far, and many have died. The American beef supply is apparently more essential than these workers’ health, and in some cases, their lives.
SPECHT: On one level, it’s not essential. We don’t need to eat beef to survive. On the other hand, beef, and food in general, is an important part of how we make our lives and how we determine who we are. And in that sense, any food is essential. But in that sense also, shortages and problems with the supply of beef become a massive political problem. We just were talking about a riot over meat prices in 1902. And what essentially things like the executive order a few months ago now that was intended to keep meat plants running were doing was basically putting the consumers’ interests ahead of risk to workers. Because there was a recognition that a beef shortage would be a major political problem. And so it’s, kind of, beef is “essential”—in quotes here—to the social contract that we have in America.
GRABER: But should it be essential to the social contract that we have in America? Is beef our national birthright?
SPECHT: I think … In a sense, I mean, that’s really interesting. In a sense, no. You know, history has made it one and I think beef is an important part of what it means to be American. But of course, at times of great national sacrifice or difficulty, we have to think about our priorities. And I also think that maybe this is a chance to think about our priorities in general. And we shouldn’t be just saying, “Yes or no, beef.” We should be saying, “Beef at what cost?” And perhaps, “How should we relate to it? Can we relate to it in a way that’s more equitable?”
TWILLEY: But as soon as you start asking these kind of questions, guess what? You’re accused of being elitist.
SPECHT: When you organize the entire system around low prices at all costs, any change to address any part of that system will make beef more expensive. So it’s true. Any reform is likely to make beef more expensive. So what that means is, I think, to avoid a charge of elitism, we have to recognize that changing how we produce our food has to happen in concert with building a more just society. We need to think of ways to make people better able to afford better-produced food. And we can’t just focus on one facet of that story. We have to think holistically about that. And what that means is that this is an even bigger challenge of what already was a big challenge. But it’s also perhaps even more powerful and even more important.
GRABER: To be honest, changing even just the beef system is a lot harder than deciding to stop eating industrial meat and voting with your dollar for local pastured beef. That’s not bad, of course, but to really improve the beef system as a whole would take a lot of things, such as better pay and safety measures and healthcare and time off for workers, to not have them treated like their lives are totally expendable.
TWILLEY: Those things would make beef more expensive. But if wealth was more evenly distributed in America, then raising the price of a hamburger wouldn’t be the elitist dealbreaker it is today. Of course, like Josh says, changing the system of American capitalism as it’s currently implemented is an even bigger challenge than changing the system that produces beef. But he still has hope.
SPECHT: I hope a few things. I hope that rather than being the kind of main event to an American meal, that beef and meat in general is more of an accompaniment. So a reduction in the amount of meat people eat I think would be good for everyone, both health-wise, for workers, for environments. But I also think that working conditions are one thing that really concern me and I think the pandemic has driven home. And so I think safer conditions for workers, better pay for workers. And so I think thinking towards some of that aspect, as well as changing how we relate to meat, are the things I hope would change.
TWILLEY: Me too! It’s more than time for change.
GRABER: Also don’t forget to vote!
COWBOY SONG: “Goodbye Old Paint” by Jess Morris
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Josh Specht, his new book is called Red Meat Republic: A Hoof to Table History of How Beef Changed America, and we have a link on our website at gastropod dot com.
GRABER: And a very special thanks this episode to some Gastropod superfans, those of you who are particularly generous in your support of the show. Amanda Glaser, Patrick Jung, Tanya Hansen, Sue Tolleson-Rinehart, the Strecker family, Jany Xu, Camilo Martinez, and Julia, Alex, and Emil Sit.
TWILLEY: Thanks of course and always to Sonja Swanson, our Gastropod Fellow who is also a superstar.
GRABER: We’ll be back in just two weeks with a tale of meat’s significant other—the potato!