Sunday, June 13, 2010

What's Your Beef?

Lascaux, France - Cave painting of wild aurochs, circa 15,000 BC

Yountville, CA - June 8, 2010

Milling around on the lawn of the Villagio Inn in this Napa Valley town, sampling healthy beef dishes created by local chefs, I got to thinking about how important cows are to human well-being.  I was there because I had the great good fortune to be a speaker at the Live Well 2010 conference, sponsored by the National Beef Cattlemen's Association.  Following the opening meeting, which included my address on food & culture, we repaired to the lawn for the opening reception, featuring beef and wonderful Napa Valley wines.  I got to talking with a woman who owns 3,000 head of cattle on a ranch in central Nebraska. She was there with her adorable 9-year-old daughter, and she told me that it truly is a family operation, and that they care about their animals. She was scheduled to speak the next day and was delighted for the opportunity.

But where do cows come from originally? How could these docile creatures survive in the wild? It's a complicated question with an even more complicated answer.  Whole books have been written on the subject. In the interest of brevity (after all, this is just a blog) here is the short answer.

Cows are the domesticated form of a now-extinct critter called the "aurochs," from which we derive the term "ox." The aurochs was larger and more aggressive than the present-day cow, with large, lyre-shaped horns on both males and females.  With a huge, shaggy mane covering its enormous shoulders, it was an impressive beast. The aurochs' naturally ranged throughout Eurasia and south into the Near East. It was killed off by humans - through hunting, loss of habitat, and, ironically, the disease that spread from domesticated herds. The last aurochs died in the 1600's.

By 8,000 years ago, humans in the Near East, or "Fertile Crescent" as it became known, had developed fields of high quality wheat and allied grains. They had domesticated sheep and goats, which were a good source of milk, meat, leather and muscle power. The aurochs were probably attracted to the grain fields, and humans started to see them as potentially better sources of milk, meat, leather and muscle power than sheep and goats.  They were probably captured and the most aggressive animals were quickly killed and eaten. The more docile individuals were allowed to breed. Their offspring were even more docile and the process of domestication began.

The first cows were probably kept by priests, as milk was seen as a ritual gift from the goddess, according to the findings from archeological excavations in Anatolia. But once someone figured out how to yoke cattle to a plow, the stage was set for agriculture on a scale never seen before. Cattle helped the ancient Egyptians gain dominance and used their power to domesticate even more plants and animals.

Thanks to the Egyptians, we enjoy onions, garlic, green peas and other foods. The Egyptians also domesticated cats (some say they domesticated themselves, which makes sense to a cat lover) because the huge stores of grain attracted rodents. Those huge stores of grain and other foods could not have been cultivated without large, strong draft animals.

Meat cows were brought to the New World by the Spanish. Milk cows came with the English. By the time settlers reached the territory of Texas, there were feral cows living free on the range, descendants of escapees from the Spanish stock. They were big and fierce, with large horns -- and the process of domestication began all over again.

If you want to read more about the history of beef, you might want to read Beef: the Untold Story of How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World, by Andrew Rimas and Evan Fraser.


pat said...

Couple points of order. While Egypt surely did domesticate the onion, it in a naturally widely dispersed vegetable. Wild forms were found and consumed in North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. As for green peas, geneticists have identified four separate origins, of different but extremely closely related plants, all eventually domesticated into the common pea. Ethiopia, Mediterranean area, the Near East, and Central Asia. if one had to be chosen, it would likely be Northern Indian subcontinent.
Love the blog.

Deb Duchon said...

Thanks for the info, Pat. Glad you like the blog. Hope you'll come back soon.