The Mythical, Bloody and Contested Story of American Beef

The Mythical, Bloody and Contested Story of American Beef
Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/dpa via AP

In the film Red River (1948), all John Wayne wants to do is run a cattle ranch. But this is Hollywood and this is John Wayne, so there's a lot more to the story. Wayne's character, Thomas Dunson, embodies the old-time cowboy ideal of building a small herd of cattle into a thriving Texan ranch. It is the late 1860s, and Dunson plans a long cattle drive to Missouri to reach booming midwestern cattle markets. He and his men start north on the 1,000 mile drive, but on the journey the men heard rumours of a railroad connecting Chicago with the closer Kansas town of Abilene. Wedded to the old ways of the long cattle drive, Dunson refuses to change course, prompting a mutiny, but the herd – with Dunson in pursuit – ultimately makes it to Abilene, completing what becomes (in this telling) the first great cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. After a lot of bravado and a fair bit of violence, Dunson and the mutineers make peace. 

The drama of Red River was not just about a cattle drive. It was also about America. John Wayne's character helps to incorporate Texas into the United States, despite the efforts of menacing Mexicans. He defeats hostile American Indians and pacifies the land. Though it appears that the cattle market – and coming railroad – have moved beyond him, it is a world that Wayne's character has built.

The story of beef has never been far from the story of America, and in both there is a tension between the darker elements of the history and the sanitised myth. Tales of brave cowboys effectively conceal the ambiguities and violence of American development, becoming a justification for the American way. In Red River, the rancher is a hero, but we get little of the sense of ranchers as shrewd capitalists, which any history of the 1883 cowboy strike might reveal. In Red River, they bravely settled the West in the face of hostile American Indians; in reality, this was a process of violent and ruthless dispossession of American-Indian land.

This was not a dark history forgotten as we became more and more distant from the production of our food. Rather, the mythmaking started even as the system took shape, as a way of justifying its emergence. Ranchers and writers of westerns spun tales of progress and development as they worked to dispossess American Indians. Meatpackers downplayed labour violence, and assuaged consumer fears of contaminated meat with stories of technological marvels such as the refrigerated railcar and idyllic western scenes plastered on trade cards and advertisements.

The sanitised story of American beef has taken two overall forms. The first presents the shape of the ranching and meatpacking industries as an inevitable consequence of technological changes such as railroads and refrigeration; deployed by meatpackers and business-friendly politicians, this account casts any attempt to rein in the industry's excesses as hopeless or misguided. The second presents a romanticised vision of ranching that connects beef production to the march of American progress. Both approaches are evident throughout American history.

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