When I was growing up in the 70s, cows were the last thing on my mind. Even though we lived in a suburb of Dallas, and I went to a rodeo or two, I never considered the cow itself. I saw cows getting roped, or maybe it was calves, and cowboys riding wild bulls. It was the cowboys I noticed, who wore jeans so tight, you could tell if they hung right or left.
The creature I recall from childhood is the crawdad. After sheets of hard rain swept across the Texas plains, rivers would crest in the concrete gutters along our street, rivers full of crawdads flooded from their dirt hole homes, scores of crawdads waving their little claws as if to say, Help me, please, save me! Poor little crawdads. Their pinchy claws scared me. Who wanted to save a vicious little crustacean, even if it was drowning?
Cows, unlike crawdads, were merely part of the landscape we drove through on our way to Town East mall in Dallas. The mall was my dream destination, my teenage Shangri-La. I daydreamed about pet rocks and Kiss posters, Famolare sandals and denim stitched with rainbows. My parents hardly ever took us to the mall, even though it was only thirty miles away. The mall was reserved for special adult-approved missions, like shopping for school clothes or during holidays.
When we traveled to the mall, we drove past field after field of cows, I’m positive. I mean, I don’t remember a particular field of cows, just a generic version of a field of cows that’s repeated over and over in my head: fence, field, cows, fence, field, cows, fence, field, cows, like a Warhol painting of a northeast Texas interstate.
Cows became personal when I had my first experience in a field. In the meantime, without being conscious of cows, I encountered their products every day: milk, cheese, beef, and leather. I admit I’ve never really liked milk. I was given it as a child and told to drink it because it would grow strong bones and healthy teeth. Maybe I’m of above average height because my parents made me drink so much milk, or maybe it’s genetic because my parents were tall, or maybe they seemed tall because I was a child and they could tell me what to do.
I don’t drink milk now, though it’s a necessary ingredient when making a béchamel or pudding. A béchamel is basically milk gravy, what my mother made with sausage to pour over biscuits. Cow milk, to me, is a bodily fluid produced naturally to feed calves. Although a man once called me a heifer, I’ve never liked drinking milk.
Cheese, on the other hand, is delicious. My current favorites are asiago and gouda. My memories of cheese are of processed American slices, which my mother turned into creamy grilled cheese for lunch, or macaroni and cheese, or maybe bologna and cheese on white bread with mayonnaise. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I was allowed to walk home all by myself for lunch. The school was three blocks from our home, though the street passed by a dark, scary woods. No one worried that I’d be kidnapped. No one worried that I’d get lost. Bologna and cheese sandwiches were my reward for making the lonely journey, and they’re still one of my comfort foods. When I was a young girl, I was required to wear dresses to school. At least some things have changed.
While my mother knew how to cook with cheese, she was terrible at beef and all meats. She never really liked cooking. She once told me that her ideal house didn’t have a kitchen in it. Dinner generally consisted of a protein, a carb, and a canned vegetable. I never particularly enjoyed dinner, but I didn’t know enough to complain. I thought everyone’s evening meal consisted of fried meat, boiled potato chunks, and soggy corn seasoned with salt and margarine.
Only later, even decades later, did I experience real butter, which caused me to question everything I had been fed as a child. There were people in the world who actually enjoyed cooking, who considered it an art. There were fragrant spices and fresh ingredients. People ate different kinds of things, foods like sushi and hummus and bagels.
And cows, beef, what exactly is the attraction? I never particularly liked hamburgers or the sirloins my mother fried on top of the stove. In time I discovered that cows were sacred and unavailable for consumption in India due to Hindu belief. I began to think that we might save the planet if the cow became sacred to Christians. Cows require an inordinate amount of grain and water and are raised in medieval cow cities sustained by antibiotics; they expel excessive methane gas and manure, and their meat isn’t even healthy, though, in the end, it’s the environmental costs that kill me. I’m not even a Christian, but if we made the cow sacred and stop eating beef, we would be doing the planet a favor.
Cows have always been political, from Gilgamesh to Texas. My first personal experience with cows involved breaking the law. I was dating the son of a veterinarian, a young man who happened to own a jeep. He picked me up at dusk, and we drove into the night, deep into the country. He picked a field and turned into it, straining the barbed wire fence with his massive jeep bumper until the wires snapped. Then we drove into the field and parked under the open sky where we were surrounded by a herd of cows. We drank Southern Comfort while the cows serenaded us. They mooed and lowed as we kissed and made out, trespassing and drinking underage. We didn’t care, and neither did the cows. I appreciated their disinterest.
Even though I’ve never made personal friends with a cow, their musical grazing is soothing. When cows die a natural death, is it okay to turn them into leather? The longer a cow lives, the larger is grows, and the more skin its carcass will yield, thus the more boots, the more purses, the more belts. Maybe if leather were the point, we would let cows live out their life expectancy, roughly twenty years. We could make the cow sacred and have more nice shoes. I think it’s a win/win.