In April 1902, Owen Wister published The Virginian, widely considered the first cowboy novel. Dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, the bestseller contained many of the tropes we associate with the Western — the open range and the gunfights at high noon — and established a genre that would make Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and countless others famous.
Toward the end of The Virginian, the tenderfoot narrator urges his (presumably) Eastern reader to avoid black and white value judgments, especially when it comes to cattle country: “Gentlemen reformers, beware of this common practice of yours! beware of calling an act evil on Tuesday because that same act was evil on Monday!” The realities of right and wrong can change quickly, he explains with several examples. But even as he attempts to defend the West, to show that it requires a nuanced approach, he concedes defeat: “Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist should expect of his reader.”
I’ve thought a lot about that section of The Virginian recently, as I struggle to reconcile my position on cattle country’s defining export — beef — with the realities of climate change. Is it possible that something that was right yesterday — right for my entire life, really — is wrong today? If so, what do I do about it? What about those who can’t necessarily afford the plant-based alternatives promised by the coming veggie-burger revolution? And are acres of monoculture soybeans really the answer anyway?
The Virginian takes place when beef was first becoming democratized, a period of upheaval that changed consumer habits throughout North America. As a result, most of us eat a lot of it, around thirty-two kilograms annually, according to Statistics Canada. It’s an amount that would have been unimaginable before the late nineteenth century. And while our consumption of other proteins, like chicken, has increased over the past decade or so, our beef intake tends to vary only slightly — plus or minus a few hamburgers each year.
The global demand for beef is projected to rise, as more and more countries adopt diets like those found in Canada, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the United States, and Uruguay — the six leading consumers. And while it’s long been a classist hobbyhorse for educated elites to complain about the non-educated masses who feel entitled to steak, these projections are problematic.
Livestock production, particularly of beef, is a leading contributor of greenhouse gases, second only to energy production. In terms of GHG emissions, producing a one-kilogram pot roast is akin to driving seventy kilometres in a car. Among the many steps that individuals can take right now to combat climate change: drive less, and dramatically cut back on or eliminate those hamburgers and bavettes.
If the future of beef consumption gives me pause, so too does, increasingly, its past. It’s no accident that we eat beef, as Joshua Specht shows in his new book, Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a coterie of packers actively reshaped the North American food industry. Technological advances, like the assembly line, which dramatically reduced food waste, played important roles, as did more aggressive food inspections and health regulations.
The refrigerated railroad car was also a key development. It was patented in 1867, but it took years for the invention to really get rolling. Eventually, it would enable the meat-industrial complex — with centralized operations in places like Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago — to ship dressed beef to hungry markets on the East Coast. But initially the railways were skeptical of the cars, which would be filled with goods heading east but empty heading back west. (Their modern counterparts have no such scruples when they haul mile-long trains loaded with coal one way and empty the other.)
At first, the railroads conspired, forcing the packers to buy the new cars themselves and then refusing to let them on their tracks. That’s when Montreal’s Grand Trunk Railway — a perennial also-hauled — saw an opportunity. It was more than happy to pull the chilled goods from Chicago, through southern Ontario, and onwards to Boston and New York. Today, we’d call Grand Trunk a disruptor. In the 1880s and 1890s, it was a linchpin in the explosion of beef consumption.
Specht also shows how the beef revolution was as violent as it was innovative. In addition to refrigerator cars, evocative advertising, and new standardization techniques, the industry needed to dispossess Indigenous peoples of vast swaths of land that could be transformed by cattle and cattlemen. Nineteenth-century ranches played pivotal roles in decimating bison herds and in instigating and fighting the Indian Wars that followed the U.S. Civil War. When they could not sell their low-quality or rotting meat to Eastern markets, they found takers in the U.S. government, which bought it to distribute on reservations. And in addition to selling dressed beef to Eastern butchers, the packers sold immense quantities of canned beef that powered imperialist armies and their conquests around the world. While we might associate environmental violence with the beef industry today, the human-on-human violence of its origin story is just as sobering.
Of course, it’s easy to paint an entire industry with a broad brush, and Specht focuses his critique on the corporate players who exploited wage labourers, local butchers, and family farms as much as they did the Great Sioux Nation. Clay Chattaway and Warren Elofson offer a gentler look at the industry with Rocking P Ranch, in which they tell the story of a family-run operation in the foothills of southern Alberta. Chattaway and Elofson draw many of their conclusions from a newspaper, the Rocking P Gazette, which the family’s two teenage daughters, Maxine and Dorothy Macleay, edited and published between 1923 and 1925.
The Gazette, which is fully available online through the University of Calgary’s library, had a limited print run — one copy per issue — but it circulated widely on the sprawling Rocking P. And although the paper ran for just seventeen issues, it captured a unique, surprisingly thoughtful account of what Chattaway and Elofson (and others) describe as “the second cattle frontier,” which followed the period described in The Virginian. While their usage of the frontier metaphor is fraught, the pages of the Gazette itself often display the subtle understanding of cattle country that Wister’s narrator calls for: as a region built on farming and ranching but also deeply committed to environmental stewardship, the blurring of gender roles, diversity, and community building.
In the September 1924 issue of the Rocking P Gazette, the Macleay sisters published an article by Tommy McKinnon, one of their father’s ranch hands, who had just attended the Calgary Stampede. “The Stampede was perfect and the parade it was grand,” he reported in rhyming couplets. “And lots of pretty girls sat in the Grand Stand.”
The parade that McKinnon observed continues today, with this summer’s edition attracting some 130,000 people — far less than a Toronto Raptors victory parade but still respectable for a gathering of cowboys. Admittedly, attendance was down compared with last year’s 300,000 because of rain, but by the end of the day, with the weather clearing, a record number of people had passed through the Stampede gates.
Most of those who attended opening day, on July 5, walked down the midway, and many bought something to eat. Among their options: Corndog Poutine, the Flamin’ Philly Cheesesteak, the Cowboy Wrangler Churro Burger, and the Wildboar Bacon Elk Smokie. And then there was something else, something that speaks to the nuanced thinking The Virginian encouraged more than a century ago: one vendor offering the plant-based Beyond Meat Burger amid the greatest celebration of cattle country in the world.
Can we reconcile the realities of climate change with beef consumption? Or is this a zero-sum game? I admit that I continue to struggle. But if the Beyond Meat Burger can cohabit the Stampede Grounds with Stetson hats and team penning, the way forward may be less black and white than many of today’s more strident “gentlemen reformers” would have us think.