Balls in Mouth Disease
The day started out with seven reservations (including Ben and Cate, Peyton and Pauline, and John Taylor) and the working title was “Locals Only Clubhouse…Fuck You!” with a small menu….almost a prix fixe. Simple and cheap, for the locals only: good tri tip, good chicken, good local halibut….not even any salmon. I ordered an Aussie 5up filet at the last minute because………. I wanted some.
Anyway, eventually we got another 40 people….all locals. We sold everything in the house, and I barely got my filet. Dean had one also, and loved it so much that he stayed on in the bar to wait and talk to me about it. I am sure that Chloe’s presence…..with three of her girlfriends……drinking shots of Patron…..had NOTHING to do with it. Yeah, he just wanted to talk to the chef…..
What’s not to love about the filet? It is about six ounces: nicely dredged in organic black pepper, pan fried on both sides in an omelette pan, popped in the oven, finished with butter, shiitakes and a decent beef gravy. Not a glace. Gravy. The beef itself is grass-fed “natural,” meaning no feed lot finishing, no hormones, no antibiotics. I have liked grass-fed beef ever since Telluride, where could only get Western Slope, Colorado beef from a small meat company in Delta. It was the bomb.
When I moved to California, and ordered my first regular ribeye, I found silverside so thick that my sharpest knife could barely penetrate, and this huge blog of fat, smack in the middle of the eye. I tried to excise it, and wound up with two long strings of shapeless lean meat: the world’s most elegant beef stew at that point. I was pissed, and called up the meat company…who sent another identical piece. Iowa corn fed beef. IBP. Iowa Beef Processors. Blecch.
This is before I had any understanding of the horrors of mass animal husbandry. Pamela’s Ever Triumphant Anatomy was still with Tommy Lee, consuming meats of which we know not, thankfully. I have no endemic sympathy for cows. They are dumb as rocks…dumber than pot plants, or sorrel. They used to graze right into our rifle range in Telluride…… while we were shooting! We had to hold shots till they lowered their stupid heads to eat. I didn’t hate the process of regular American beef, just the taste.
My one meeting with Julia Child was along those same lines. She was in town for a AWIF (Always Interested When Free, or: American Institue of Whiners and Fressers) deal and came into the restaurant for lunch. We were serving bobby veal ribeyes, from drop calves. I launched into my spiel about the veal not being little Billy, stolen from his mom, locked in a cage out of the sun…. but from calves abandoned by their mothers……Julia interrupted me: “Young man, I don’t give a damn about a calf…….What does it TASTE like?” Exactly. (No one ever worries about little Bobby Broccoli, torn from the ground before he could ever pollinate……)
Then came Richard Rhodes’ book about mad cow, and American beef processing practices. Young steers are brought into massive feed lots and fed corn, hormones, antibiotics and protein supplements. The antibiotics are only in part to counter the amazing diseases rampant in the disgusting conditions the cattle live in. Turns out they grow faster if they take antibiotics. And, despite what the meat companies say today, the protein supplements often were made not of soybeans, but of rendered diseased cattle, sheep and chickens. Horses. Dogs from the SPCA. Cheaper, you see. Amurrican Beef is graded by the amount of its fat content, and the protein in the feed is converted directly to the fat in meat. Mo’ fat, mo’ bettah, brotha.
Anyway, back to Dean Forzani. He rasises a few head on his family ranch….one of the very few old family ranches left in the Valley. All grass fed….then when the steers hit 500 pounds or so he sells them at auction, and off they go to some shithole like Harris Ranch. I asked him to let us have the Rocky Mountain oysters at his next branding. Oh, no……no way. Not enough to go around, and nobody can cook ‘em like Mom. Now we were off and running….Cow balls are my life!
We were hired by Jimmy Hill back in the day to cater at a branding at the El Sur Ranch. Jimmy is James J. Hill, III. JJ One was the original railroad robber baron of the Union Pacific Railroad, robbing and bankrupting small business people and farmers in the nineteenth century at almost the rate Citi Bank does this century. Almost. Among the spoils that remain from his criminal spree is the El Sur Ranch. It used to consist of all the land between the Little Sur River and the Big Sur…..from the coast all the way to the top of the mountain. Great white sharks to eagles. The Hills gave away Point Sur to the Navy, and Andrew Molera to the State Parks, and eventually the whole ranch to the Big Sur Land Trust.
They still run cattle. At the time of this episode the ranch manager was a crusty old cowboy named Tom. I got a taste of his character right at the get go. He was showing me around the bunkhouse and kitchen, and at one point moved the galley table aside and pulled up the hidden door in the floor to the cellar. Musty, spidery and dark stairs led down to who knows where. The first thing I saw were massive rifle shells on the framing going down the stairs. 30-40 Krag. Designed to blow apart Filipino Muslim suicide fighters wrapped in wire (to cut arterial bleeding) in a previous nation-building adventure of ours. I hesitated, wondering what the fuck was down there that needed the attention of 30-40 Krags. Tom gave me a little push and said, “Go on, son……Heroes are made, not born.” Words to live by.
Anyway, the day of the big event was rainy and cold. I thought that no way was anyone from Pebble Beach going to drive all the way the hell to Big Sur on a Sunday morning in the rain and watch a bunch of cattle get branded and castrated in the mud. I brought along The Ray-diator, and Brendan…who was about five. Turns out I had no idea the draw of fresh testicles. Everyone came, and we were slammed.
Jimmy’s new wife, Tracy, was a cowgirl from the area around his Marysville ranch. She was a famous wacko with a short fuse, but very endearing if she wasn’t actually kicking the shit out of you at the time. The branding was a chance for her to shine in her element in front of all the Pebble Beach prisses. Old Tom was right there with her on that. The branding started early, and the first thing they asked for was hot coffee and Jack Daniels.
The Jack, according to Tom, was to use as an antiseptic on the scrotal wounds. After some discussion, the boys had agreed that the best way to get the balls off the baby bulls was to gnaw them off. A smallish slit in the scrotom, pop out the balls, take a swig of Jack, bite ‘em off, spit ‘em in the bucket. The crushing action of the incisors cuts bleeding, you see. Faster healing.
Tracy got right into that, and was soon swigging, biting and spitting. Now, when I say ‘baby’ bulls, it is relative…..about four hundred pounds, and tall. Bigger than a man. Also covered in cattle-like things such as shit and brush and mud and ticks. To bite the balls off requires getting one’s face basically right in the ass of the bulls, even though they are upside down, and held by horses and cowboys……And there were hundreds of them.
I saw Tracy briefly, a couple of hours in. Think Hotel Rwanda with cows. The look in her eyes was both ecstatic and murderous. She was covered in blood and mud and shit, and jacked on Jack. Wow. She carried in two big plastic buckets filled with fresh bloody testicles and said, ‘Here…cook ‘em up.’ Tom stood stoically by, completely poker faced. Utterly dead-pan. And you thought irony was dead in the Country…..
Now….Meanwhile, Ray and I had our hands full with a hundred damp socialites. Wine, coffee, lunch, etc. I turned to Brendan, and said, “Kid, let me show you….”
First, fresh water to get rid of the hair, mud, shit and blood. Then trim the cord off. Ouch! Then pan fry them in oil till they pop open like zits (or stab them to help them along.) Cut off the tough membrane. Then dredge them in flour and corn meal and pan fry them again, gently this time, with butter. Put them on platters and take them out to Ray. No big deal for a five year old, right? Right?
We had the wood-fired cowboy stove in the bunkhouse going, and big cast iron pans the size of bike tires…..about head high on the kid. Two five gallon buckets full of nuts and blood, and more coming. I helped out when I could, but it was all Brendan, basically. We could barely keep up with the demand for fresh-killed nuts. Quite the day.
Three years later, Mrs. Lawn at Tularcitos School had the kids in second grade do a project: "My Favorite Memory with Dad." Sure enough, in a little note book with Brendan’s picture is a drawing of a little kid, a wood stove, the kid working a big pan over his head. In the background is a baby bull, yelling. And kneeling in a most provocative posture near the bull’s ballsack, is a cowgirl. Mrs. Lawn really wanted to know about that one….. Today, Child Protective Services would have been beating down the door......
Anyway, I told Dean this story, and he was all about it. Oh, yeah. The whole biting the balls thing is true, but it works better on sheep. Supposedly. That’s what the old timers say, you see. Everybody actually uses a special crimper and sharp blade, but they USED to do it the other way……Really. .The Jack Daniels thing…..well, iodine works better.
And…. Dean had a yuppie neighbor that really wanted to get into the ranch deal, kind of like Tracy. A millionaire raising sheep for milk and cheese and wool. Dean laid it all out for him: the iodine, the biting, etc. Next day, Dean saw him at the Running Iron, and the guy’s lips and face were dyed bright red. Turns out the guy missed the subtle difference between putting iodine on the cut AFTER he had gnawed off the balls, as opposed to before. No one in the Iron said a word. If there is still irony alive in the Country, the country not be lost, after all.
Finally…… Despite GWB’s and Michael Crichton’s insistence, things are a-changing. As we descend into the maelstrom of global warming and climate change….as my grass-fed cattle in Australia strip away the last remaining soil and nutrients on that continent… we might as well take the lemons we are dealt and make lemonade.
This is the best wildflower season anyone has ever seen, including the 90-year old cowboys that are still kickin’. At the same time, it is far and away the best grass and clover season in memory. So……Dean Forzani’s young steers are just sucking up all that chlorophyll, walking around in the actual Pastures of Heaven Steinbeck wrote about, and developing muscle. Not tough muscle…walking is not work…..nice muscle. Dean would be thrilled to sell us these steers for $2 a pound in September…..in fact, the look on his face at the thought was eerily reminiscent of Tracy Hill’s…..just switch Cachagua cabernet for the Jack Daniels.
My first lesson on entering the world of French cuisine was: “You are what you eat.” Fine. But, we pay slack attention to what that which we eat, eats. Would you prefer Carmel Valley family-owned, record-year-clover-eating natural beef?…..Or shit covered, cannibalistic, disease-ridden, fat-soaked….well, you get the picture.
Call me. Dean has some tons of beef…..Plenty for everyone.