The Cowboy and the Machine
A lithograph poster of "The Moving Picture Cowboy," 1914, shows "Tom Mix Doing Stunts . . . The Way He Told the Story . . . And What He Really Did." Printed by Goes Lithography Co., Chicago. Copyright 1914, Selig Polyscope Co.
—From the Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Being American is to eat a lot of beef steak, and boy, we’ve got a lot more beef steak than any other country, and that’s why you ought to be glad you’re an American.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., City Limits I DIDN’T GROW UP
eating beefsteak. I was a child of the Depression, and our fancy meat for Sunday-noon dinner was boiled chicken or boiled beef tongue, or else a shoulder of lamb, boiled until cuttable with a spoon. Steak was a luxury for the rich, and when I ate my first steak at seventeen, in the company of college chums fed up with our dorm swill, I didn’t know how to cut it. I’d never before had to cut meat with a knife in order to get a bite-size piece. Nor did I know how to chew it. The meat we cooked at home, including the rare holiday treat of Swiss steak in the pressure cooker, was designed to give way at the first touch of my grandparents’ dentures. My family were enthusiastic proponents of the Puritan principle that all food aspired to liquid, so that you could flush it out of your body as rapidly as possible. Maybe this was just an elaborate rationalization for not being able to afford steak.
I did grow up American, however, in a small town in Southern California, shaped by two kinds of stories, one Spanish and the other British. Riverside, our town on the banks of the Santa Ana River, had first been mapped by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza in 1774, on his overland expedition from the Sonora desert to San Francisco. Every year everyone in town dressed up in Spanish clothes for De Anza Days, with a fine parade of horses and caballeros magnificent in black silver-studded leather, prancing before carriages of women in flounced skirts and lace mantillas. In our cheap imitative costumes, we kids danced the Mexican Hat Dance and sang "La Golondrina
" as if to the hacienda born. Though Scotch-Irish born and bred, I didn’t think this in any way odd. Our Calvary Presbyterian Church had been built in the colonial Spanish style that dominated the town’s main buildings, like the famed Mission Inn with its tiled roofs and arcades. We knew that mission fathers had been followed by Hispanic rancheros
who grew rich on cattle until the War with Mexico in 1848 shook up the land grants and an Eastern consortium tapped the Santa Ana River for water to turn the desert into orange trees. Water brought émigrés from the East and Midwest, and what started as a trickle grew in the 1920s to a flood of farmers from Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.
My family arrived in time to get me born there, but I was an anomaly. Nobody we knew had been born in California. My family saw California as the last frontier, the New Eden that God had promised as they journeyed from Edinburgh to Londonderry to Philadelphia and points west. The native heritage of our clan of Harpers, Erskines, Stevensons, and Kennedys was strictly British, but our relocated heritage was Spanish, and the majority of kids growing up in the 1930s in my town were, like myself, Midwestern WASPs in Mexican clothing. It seemed a happy hybrid.
It was the same hybrid, I would discover, that had produced, over the course of five hundred years, American beefsteak. Bred from both Spanish and British traditions, as well as from both Spanish and British cattle breeds, American beefsteak is more characteristic of our hybrid national identity than apple pie (which came from the English), popcorn (from the Native Americans), or the hamburger (German). True, every country has its beef, branded with chauvinism. England has its bully roast beef, evoking not only the coziness of hearth and home, but also "the marrow of political freedom," as historian Simon Schama would have it, whereby the Society of Beefeaters proclaimed that "Beef and Liberty" would vanquish the effeminate French. France, in turn, has its entrecôte et frites
, typifying in its full-bloodedness, as literary theorist Roland Barthes would have it, "the very flesh of the French soldier." Argentina has its parrillada
, evoking the fierce independence of the gauchos on the vast and lawless pampas. Japan has its soft-as-butter Kobe, treated as a work of art by aesthetic islanders devoted to the refinements of umami
Copyright © 2008 by Betty Fussell
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