Archive for the ‘Fuzzy (and not so) critters’ Category

People often ask what inspired me to become a food writer and cooking instructor. I think they expect to hear heartwarming recollections of a childhood spent beside my mother at the stove, and reminiscences of glorious holiday repasts, table groaning with the bounty from our garden. They anticipate my memories of milking goats, and tangy chevre on homemade bread for an after-school snack. They imagine my Russian grandmother frying latkes for breakfast (using eggs I’d collected from our flock of Rhode Island Reds).

And, to a certain degree, there is truth in these examples. Looking back, I’m quite certain my formative experiences with food are what shaped my career. But the reality is that, while I grew up on a small ranch, the daughter of a large animal veterinarian and a former barrel-racing-champion-turned-homemaker, my own culinary education had a few…inconsistencies.

I did watch my mom cook sometimes; she still has a way with instant mashed potatoes and cracks open a mean jar of Prego. Our neighbors had a garden, and at the age of ten, I established a roadside produce stand, yet Birds-Eye was still a staple at my own dinner table. The eggs I gathered each morning (when I wasn’t being held hostage in the henhouse by our sadistic asshole of a rooster) were whisked by my mother in a microwave-proof bowl, before being nuking into rubbery oblivion. I was in college before I learned that scrambled eggs aren’t traditionally made in a microwave.

My paternal grandmother was the daughter of a Russian émigré. Grandma Miller possessed a heavy New York accent, and she was—my dad will agree—the worst cook this side of Minsk. The (real, not instant) potatoes in her latkes were an oxidized grey, the resulting pancakes flabby and greasy from improperly heated oil. Small wonder I was the pickiest eater on the planet, utterly exasperating my Depression-era parents who, let’s face it, were only trying to embrace the advent of convenience foods.

The one time my mom tried making yogurt and cheese from our goat’s milk (she was having an early 1970’s back-to-the-land moment), the results were not exactly edible. In retrospect, I don’t think she realized the milk required starter cultures. So we instead drank goat milk by the gallon, and in the process my family became huge caprine aficionados. We bred our Nubian doe, Go-Go, every year, and ended up keeping several of her doelings; the bucks we donated to Heifer Project International. For my part, I adored our goats. Even when I fed Go-Go an uninflated balloon, it was with the best of intentions (it was Easter, and I thought she’d appreciate its pretty pink color).

In sixth grade, I decided to follow in my older brother’s footsteps and raise goats for a 4-H project. I bounced out of bed each morning to milk Rose, a distant relative of the late Go-Go (who died of natural causes, not from ingesting peony-hued rubber). Despite my rural upbringing, our property was located in a peaceful canyon only a couple of miles from what is today a populous, yuppified bedroom community of Los Angeles. There were a few other families with children up the road, but I was the only one living on a ranch.

The rooms at Westlake Elementary School were packed with upper-middle-class, mostly white kids, and it turned out they didn’t share my  goaty enthusiasm. It was Jason Racinelli, a criminal in the making if ever there was one, who dubbed me “Goat Girl.” It was the first week of school, and as part of our “What I Did for Summer Vacation” oral reports, I’d waxed poetic about Rose and the wonders of lactation. If memory serves, I even passed around Dixie cups of her milk for my classmates to taste.

I was waiting for my mom to pick me up from school in our geriatric wood-paneled station wagon, when Jason appeared by my side. He looked me up and down, a sneer on his handsome face. “Hey Goat Girl,” he drawled, leaning in close and taking a long, exaggerated sniff. “You smell like a goat. Why would anyone even want a goat? Why do you even go to this school? Why don’t you go back to your stupid farm?”

Mercifully, my mom arrived at that moment, but before I could escape to the safety of the car and the slobbery kisses of our three dogs, Jason yelled, “’Bye, Goat Girl! Don’t forget to wear your overalls tomorrow!”

Just some goats at Bee Tree Farm’s happy hour.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that someone, somewhere, eventually kicked Jason Racinelli’s ass to Kingdom Come or incarcerated him. Unfortunately, before that could happen, I essentially became known as Goat Girl for the remainder of the year, and developed several nervous tics that abated only after we sold Rose and I instead concentrated on raising rabbits (fuzzy, rodent-like creatures were apparently on the list of “cool” pets to own). I don’t recall exactly when I allowed my goat obsession to resurface, but suffice it to say, I’m now a contributing editor at culture: the word on cheese and live in Austin, one of those few enlightened cities that permit backyard goats (don’t get me started on the yoga).

So, while my somewhat dichotomous culinary upbringing played a large role in my career of choice, I usually opt for a shorter, easier, wholly truthful answer. “I became a food writer because when I was eight years old and walking my brother’s goat at the county fair, a middle-aged man asked me, “What type of dog is that?It was at that moment I realized: most people don’t have a fucking clue where their food comes from.

Thanks, Mom and Dad. And yeah, you too, Jason Racinelli.

On assignment at Pure Luck Dairy, in Texas.

On assignment at Pure Luck Farm & Dairy.

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Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch.

Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch, Sustainable Settings.

Every year at this time, my family and I duke it out over the turkey. It’s not about, “Should we brine it or deep-fry?” or, “Do we baste it with cultured butter made by blind Norman nuns or massage it with a dry-rub of hand-harvested spices grown on an 8th-century Kerala plantation?”

Sorry to disappoint, but with the Miller’s, the conversation always comes down to this (the following are direct quotes I’ve received from family members this month):

“I found a pre-brined turkey at Trader Joe’s. ”

“Why would you pre-order a turkey? You’re the only one who cares about its upbringing.”

So, despite the Butterball currently residing in my parents’ refrigerator (my flying in from out-of-state makes lugging a fresh turkey from a friend’s farm logistically impossible), I’d like to share my recent Edible Aspen article on pasture-raised turkeys.

In this big, complicated country of ours- where we have so many choices with regard to our food supply–  it’s about doing the best you can. Armageddon will not occur when said Butterball lands on the dinner table- but I firmly believe that as consumers all, we have a moral obligation to educate ourselves and our children about where our food comes from. As consumers, we deserve to have access to that information, regardless of our socioeconomic status. Wholesome, responsibly-raised and -grown food shouldn’t be a luxury for anyone, but realistically, we must rely upon integrated agriculture to feed our growing domestic- and global- population.

Worrying about how my Thanksgiving turkey was raised is a First-World problem, and for that, I’m thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Photo love: Epicurious

Photo love: Epicurious

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A year ago today, a 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. I missed the disaster by 24 hours. I’d been in Nepal for two weeks to trek, run the remote Tamur River, and research a feature for culture: the word on cheese, on Nepali cheesemaking. The story, which was slated to run last fall, was by necessity postponed to this spring; most of the cheesemakers I profiled were affected by the earthquake, but fortunately, they suffered only minor losses and no casualties.

Churrpi- dried yak cheese- air-dries in Gufa Pokari

Churrpi- dried yak cheese- air-dries in Gufa Pokari

On this, the anniversary of Nepal’s deadliest natural disaster, I’m sharing my culture feature in its entirety. It includes relief donation information (still critically needed), but it also it shows the beauty, generosity of spirit, and resilience of the Nepali people. It’s my dairy-centric love letter to the most incredible country I’ve ever visited.

“It’s perhaps the most unlikely spot on earth to taste locally made, French-style cheeses: the rooftop of an apartment building in the Lazimpat neighborhood of Kathmandu. It’s April 10, 2015, two weeks before a devastating earthquake will level much of the city and villages throughout this region of Nepal, causing an avalanche on Mount Everest and resulting in over 9,000 fatalities. An aftershock on May 12 will cause further devastation and increase the death toll.

 At the moment, however, I’m sitting with French cheesemaker François Driard in a high-rise urban oasis that seems a million miles from the smog and chaos below, watching the sun set and sipping Pastis between bites of his superb tomme. Driard owns Himalayan French Cheese and produces a diverse array of pasteurized cow’s and yak’s milk cheeses at his two creameries in the foothills of some of the highest mountains in the world.

 I’ve been fascinated with Nepali cheesemaking since researching my book, Cheese for Dummies, mostly because little has been written about it. Last spring I traveled there to explore both rural cheesemaking traditions and how Kathmandu-area producers such as Driard are modernizing their craft for a feature in the Autumn 2014 issue of culture. But nature had other plans. Now it’s also a story about how Nepal and the cheesemakers I met there are moving on, one year after the country’s deadliest natural disaster on record.”

Read the rest of the story here.


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Yes, this was necessary.

As a former cheesemonger, marketing director for a cheese company, trade show ho and educator, I’ve done my share of schlepping dairy products. While packing cheese into a cooler requires some organizational skills, it’s not exactly rocket science. This, of course, excludes the time I accidentally left an empty box from a shipment of washed rinds (read: stinky cheeses) in my car overnight during a heat wave. I spent nearly 15 minutes the following morning crawling underneath my car and peering into the fan belt and engine block trying to find the dead animal causing the unholy stench, before cluing in to my error.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to sit sort-of shotgun on a cheese delivery in the Kathmandu Valley. I was working on a Nepal cheese feature for culture: the word on cheese, and was on my way to Himalayan French Cheese (owned by entrepreneurial genius Frenchman Francois Driard). It’s located eight kilometers north of Kathmandu, epicenter of the quake. Accompanying me was Francois’ Nepali business partner and a driver, who was later going to drop me at Francois’s sister’s farmstay on the other side of Kathmandu.

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Suzuki Maruti?

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Maruti Suzuki?

Let me explain something about driving in Nepal (beside the fact it’s done on the left). It’s motherfucking terrifying. I had just come off of a 17-hour ride in a clapped-out Indian bus (I suspect Uttar Pradesh traded it to Nepal for a plate of dal bhat), returning to Kathmandu across the Terai (Eastern Plains) after a 12-day trek/whitewater trip on the Tamur River. Tip: Xanax is also essential for developing nation long-haul bus rides, especially in cultures where the main objective is to drive as fast as possible whilst playing chicken with oncoming semi’s and other buses on high-mountain passes with blind curves. Good times.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of rice on the floor which made for good sleeping.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of bagged rice on the floor which made for comfy sleeping.

I digress. The point is, when you have a car the size of a Maruti Suzuki- essentially a SPAM can on wheels- there’s not much room to spare. With three passengers, my 40-pound backpack,  a loaded daypack, and what turned out to be over 300 pounds of cheese (hefty wheels of lusty Belkot- Francois’ signature creation- as well as dozens of tommes, Reblochon, camembert, St. Marcellin, some trial bries, and buckets of yogurt, cream cheese, and ricotta- there wasn’t much room to spare). It was also hellishly hot and humid.

After the cranky driver tied my backpack to the roof of the car with a piece of twine, I folded myself and my daypack into the back seat (which was broken, so it flipped forward at every application of the brakes, which in Nepal, like the use of the horn, is constant). Behind me were two loaded coolers and boxes; beside me was a cooler and a weathered cardboard box of tommes that split at the corner seam the first time our driver slammed on the brakes to avoid an oncoming suicidal motocyclist.

Francois' lovely cheeses at rest

Francois’ lovely cheeses at rest

Thus, I spent the next 90 minutes with my left arm awkwardly bracing the torn box to prevent the pristine tommes from flying through the windshield, and having 175 pounds or so of Bellecotes slamming into my back and effectively bending me in half every time we braked. Because Kathmandu’s pollution (hello, inversion layer) is so epic, most locals wear face masks; I developed what I affectionately called KTM black lung on day two of my arrival. Thus, I was forced to wear a scarf around my nose and mouth to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning whilst holding down the dairy fort, so to speak.

Eventually, after bumping (shock absorbers? Hells no!) through back alleys and potholes big enough to swallow a water buffalo, we made it to the Kathmandu office of the cheese company, from which our precious cargo would be distributed to nearby restaurants and hotels.

All in a day’s work for an immgrant cheesemaker in Nepal, and a terrifically entertaining cultural experience for me. My thoughts are with all of my new Nepali friends and cheesemakers; thank you for an incredible trip and for showing me, in the words of churppi maker Mitra Kala Khanal, that, “In Nepal, cheese is life.”

Yak in the mist

Yak in the mist

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Yes, I slaughtered this lamb. Don’t judge.

People (and by “people,” I mean, friends, visitors to my home, landlords, and former boyfriends) often ask me, “Laurel, why are you such a freak? What is it that compels you to collect animal skulls and other skeletal fragments?” The former boyfriends are also wont to comment, “Laurel, your obsession with forensic reality TV and willingness to participate in livestock and poultry slaughter frightens me.” Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m impervious to animal urine, shit, vomit, and roadkill. Changing a diaper? Hells no. Curing the skull from a found deer carcass for three months as a cool “souvenir” from a summer living in Telluride? No problem.

From a work standpoint, my editors love that I’m also a human garbage can, willing to eat anything (sketchy street food, insects, tadpoles, animal testicles and weird meaty odds and ends). They’re somewhat baffled by my enthusiasm, but as long as it results in a good story, they’re cool with it.

I’ve given my strange proclivities a lot of thought, and the only source of blame I can point to is my dad, Dr. Robert M. Miller, aka RMM, Bob, or “Doc.” Most people assume that being the child of a veterinarian (a large and exotic vet, at that) isn’t all that different from having a parent who’s an MD, if they think about it at all.

At the castration of a circus elephant. No, really.

At the castration of a circus elephant.  I was allowed to miss school for this. No, really.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When your dad is a large animal vet, you grow up with a very skewed idea of normal. My older brother and I never got the birds-and-the-bees talk, but by first grade, I knew what AI (artificial insemination) was, and how it’s done. One of my favorite pastimes was hanging out at my dad’s clinic, gaping at what my sibling and I dubbed “The Shelf of Horrors.” It was stocked with dozens of jars of formaldehyde-pickled specimens: Horse fetuses, a two-headed calf fetus, and other pre- and post-natal abnormalities and floaty bits and pieces. It both fascinated and repelled me, but I know I spent more time there than was probably healthy for a formative mind.

I started going on calls with my dad at age five. As a result, I became very cavalier about removing stiches, loading syringes, fetching drugs and supplies, watching rectal palpations (I was in my late teens before I realized what K-Y jelly was really used for- true story), and assisting with surgeries and necropsies (the animal version of an autopsy). On one occasion, we necropsied one of my prized 4-H show rabbits, which were all dying of a horrific mystery disease. We were told to send their eyelids to the UC Davis vet school for pathology. The results came back positive for myxomatosis, a deadly virus amongst wild rabbits that hadn’t been seen in California since the 19th century. As a result, my family obtained the first trial vaccines in the U.S., which were, er, gifted us from a French veterinarian. My dad also administered my family our annual flu shots- as a kid, I had a deathly fear of needles, and one year, fed up with my namby-pamby attitude, he injected himself in the thigh with a horse syringe. “Look!” he shouted. “Do you see me crying?” Needless to say, I got over it.

A bear getting dental surgery

A bear with a bit of a toothache.

I mention all of this because on July 18, my 87-year-old father required open heart surgery to replace the defective aortic valve he didn’t realize he had. I flew from Colorado to the small Southern California ranch where I grew up, and my brother and his family came down from Lake Tahoe. The night before his operation, Dad played his harmonica while my 18-year-old nephew accompanied him on acoustic guitar. We were all extremely concerned about the procedure, mostly due to Dad’s age, despite his active lifestyle and overall good health. He sailed through the surgery, but at 3am, we received a call from the hospital that he had pulmonary edema and unexplained bleeding, and was being rushed back into surgery for what turned into a second open heart operation to replace his mitral valve.

Since the initial surgery, Dad has been heavily sedated, because he keeps trying to remove his trach tube and IVs (we’d expect nothing less; he’s a feisty SOB). While he hasn’t actually been conscious during our visits, he’s responded to some questions with hand squeezes (most notably, “Are you ready to go to Hawaii?”).  He’s scheduled to lecture at the Hawaii Horse Expo next month, and cancelling isn’t an option, as far as he’s concerned.

Hitting the slopes in the early 50s

Hitting the slopes in the early 50s

Dad has, in fact, cancelled only two speaking engagements in his 50-year-plus career. The first was when I was born, three weeks early (something I’m still getting grief about from both parents; my untimely arrival forced them to cancel their annual veterinary ski meeting), and this week’s seminar at the AVMA conference.

Over the past decade, Dad has had more surgeries than I can readily count (mostly to replace/ remove/repair failed body parts, including a hip, knee, ankle, cataracts, some vertebrae, his appendix and gallbladder, and in the most extreme instance, drain two liters of blood from a subdural hematoma that was the result of a four-month-old concussion). The latter nearly killed him while he was in the midst of judging a horse show; after months of worrisome decline, he called me minutes post-op and sang out, “I feel 30 years younger!”

The point I’m trying make is that the man is a freak of nature, a cyborg who, were it not for his fused ankle, would still be skiing with my 81-year-old mother. A world-renown equine vet and behaviorist, he rises at dawn every morning to write or cartoon (he’s the author of over a dozen books on horses and eight rather warped cartoon books, has been contributing to veterinary journals and equine publications for over 50 years, and is probably the only living journalist who can get away with submitting longhand, as he doesn’t know how to type). He rides and swims daily, and still travels all over the world lecturing on natural horsemanship and equine behavior. If he were wont to use such language, he’d say, “Retirement is for pussies.”

Not as popular as the December issue of Veterinary Journal that had a St. Bernard eating a reindeer carcass

My fave cartoon was the December cover of a vet journal, which depicted a St. Bernard on a roof, eating a reindeer carcass. PETA sent hate mail (for reals).

Last night at the hospital, my mom and I received the first truly encouraging news we’ve had since the second surgery. Once a day, Dad’s care team wakes him up and performs neurological and brain function tests. Gaby, our favorite nurse, told us, “Everything looks good; his behavior is normal, except that today, he indicated he wanted to write. We gave him a pen and paper, and he drew an unintelligible doodle.” Her brow wrinkled, indicating that perhaps there was a bit of brain damage, after all.

To the contrary, this was the best possible indicator that all was well in Dad’s mind, beneath the fog of Propifol (what Gaby refers to as “Michael Jackson juice.”). If he’s trying to cartoon, Dad is clearly on the mend. Since they didn’t save the scribble, I asked my mom to stand lookout while I snagged a pair of latex gloves and dug through the trash, trying to find it. We figured family friends would find it as hilarious as we did, but unfortunately, Gaby caught me. “You really don’t want to be dumpster diving in there,” she admonished, giving me a severe look.

I also need to credit Dad with my interest in eating. I mean this literally, because as a kid I only ate what my mom describes as “white foods,” with the exception of Kraft Mac & Cheese. Despite my aversion to anything not in the high-glycemic food index, when I accompanied Dad on calls, lunch was one of my favorite parts of the day.

Daddy's girl with one of our Australian Shepherd pups

Daddy’s girl with one of our Australian Shepherd pups

Unless we had one of his assistants riding shotgun, I was always allowed to pick where I wanted to eat (We loved the stacked, bloody-rare roast beef sandwiches from a certain Calabasas deli, and the ravioli at an adjacent Italian restaurant with sawdust-covered floors). There was a Hunan dive in Woodland Hills that made amazing Mongolian beef, and a Thai place- in the late 70s a virtually unknown cuisine in Southern California- in Encino. Taquerias were the lunch stop of choice. The carne asada burritos from Somis Market were the Holy Grail for hungry large animal vets and their tiny assistants. There, I learned to like cilantro. For dessert, we’d pluck tangerines from the surrounding citrus groves. Sometimes, if it was a night call, we’d stop at Carvel Ice Cream or Farrell’s for a black-and-white sundae (ah, those blissful days, pre-lactose intolerance).

I also inherited my travel jones from my dad, who early in his career finagled ways to combine his passion for the outdoors, skiing, horses, and veterinary medicine with long plane trips. A WW II veteran from a poor family, his two years in post-Occupation Germany ignited his addiction to travel. I remind my parents of this every time they give me shit for moving (again) or taking off on an extended trip to one sketchy destination or another.

A young Doc Miller with one of our colts

A young Doc Miller in his backyard

Family trips are what first got me to expand my limited palate. My dad took a summer sabbatical when I was 10, and we explored Europe in a borrowed camper van while he lectured at various vet schools. I tried venison, chanterelles, non-Oscar Mayer sausages, and beer for the first time. For some reason, what would have made me recoil at home was intriguing overseas, so I’d request tastes of whatever he was eating, unless it involved raw or pickled herring (something I still find repugnant).

Post-Europe, I branched out, culinarily-speaking, although I was still far from what you’d call an adventurous eater. At 11, I tried “calf fries,” aka testicles, while working a cattle drive with my parents. I described the experience thusly in an article on Santa Maria Style barbeque:

When my dad proudly presented me with a testicle taco, how could I refuse?  To say no would be to disappoint the man who had given me life, himself a former wrangler. It was time to grow up, and grow a pair of my own.  I grabbed the dripping tortilla and bit down….chewed…swallowed. It was good!  Smoky, salty, a little bit chewy, just a touch of heat and sweetness from the salsa, the tortilla a perfect foil for the savory juices now dribbling down my chin. Yep.  Tastes just like chicken.

Mom and Dad, 2012

Mom and Dad, 2012

The takeaway from of all this reflection is that my dad and I are more alike than perhaps we’d care to admit. Since my adolescence, we’ve had an often-contentious relationship, mainly because we’re both stubborn as hell, tough as the proverbial rawhide, and will debate endlessly because neither of us are willing to admit defeat. It’s doubtless been a challenge for him, given his generation, to have an opinionated, foul-mouthed, dirtbag daughter entirely lacking in maternal instinct (except where animals are concerned), and for whom marriage is an antiquated notion (meanwhile, he and my mom have been married for 58 years).

Lake Powell, 1972. I do have a mom; she's our photographer.

Lake Powell, 1972. I do have a mom; she’s our photographer.

While he no doubt prefers I’d shut the hell up, find a man, and stop this crazy nomadic behavior, Dad has long been supportive of my gadding about the world, and subsequent attempts to eke out a living writing about it. The Millers aren’t the most verbally communicative folk, and given my dad’s love of the written word (another trait we obviously share), I wanted to use this forum to publicly share my admiration of him, as well as give our friends and family a bit more insight into the man behind the elbow-length OB gloves.

I love you, Daddy. Get well soon.

Postscript, August 29, 2014:

One month to the day after my dad’s cardiac surgeries, he landed on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he conducted his seminars at the Hawaii Horse Expo. As I write, he and my mom are enjoying a much-deserved rest on Maui. Their 58th wedding anniversary is September 16.


Big Island, August, 2014

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CB signs

Because I took this photo in a remote hamlet, I assume it wasn’t intentional that “Pfisters Handworks” is located right above “Pooh’s Corner.” But I could be mistaken.

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Ever had the urge to eat a sea creature that resembles a giant, uncircumcised penis? No? You have no idea what you’re missing out on.

Read all about my day digging for geoduck clams on Seattle’s Olympic Peninsula right here.

[Photo love: Langdon Cook]

Got geodick…er, duck?

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My mom and I were reminiscing the other day when I mentioned Cocoa, a Shetland pony we briefly had when I was four.

“You remember Cocoa?” she asked.

“Sure. We sold her to the Olafssen’s.”

This was my best friend Ingrid’s family down the street. Her dad Leif was a jolly, strapping fellow and Swedish immigrant; they had about a million kids.

Mom: Yes, well, we gave her to them. She was permanently lame, so that’s why we had to get rid of her. And then, of course, Leif was going to eat her.”

Me (incredulous): Say what?

Mom: He was planning to feed her to the family. Dad didn’t know that when they took her. He just thought they wanted a pet.

Me: Mr. Olafssen was going to cook Cocoa?

Mom: Well, he asked Dad how long it would take to fatten her up enough to feed the family.

Me: Oh, come on. Leif was always kidding around. I’m sure he was joking.

Mom: Nooo…he grew up eating horse meat, and he had a lot of kids, so he was just being practical. Dad told him, “I think you’d better talk to your family about that idea, first.”

This, of course, led me to wonder what would have happened if Mr. Olafssen had actually carried out his unholy plan. I’d burst in their front door, as I did every afternoon. “Hey Ingrid! Let’s go visit Cocoa!”

“Um…..how ’bout a ‘roast beef’ sandwich?”

The first time I realized that horses may be something other than beloved family pets/forms of transportation occurred when I was ten. My dad—equine vet, breeder of Quarter horses and mules—had taken a sabbatical and my mom, brother, and I were spending the summer in Europe, traveling around in a borrowed, pea-green VW camper van.

We had just arrived in Paris, and were wandering the Left Bank in search of a suitable place for dinner (meaning, an establishment that served french fries, because that’s one of the few foods I deemed acceptable at the time).

I was dawdling behind my family, taking in the strange Parisian sights, sounds, and smells. I heard a racket coming from a brightly-lit shop with a wide glass window and open doorway. And that’s when I saw it. I was looking straight into the back room of a boucherie chevaline, where a freshly-dispatched bay horse–hide, mane, tail, and all–dangled by its right hind leg from a hook on the ceiling. It was so big, its velvety nose nearly scraped the ground. A portly man in a white apron and rubber boots stood next to the carcass with a large knife, ready to do unspeakable things.

I stood, frozen, on the sidewalk; I probably resembled a midget version of “The Scream.” Then my parents yelled at me to hurry up, and I ran after them, too traumatized to mention what I’d seen. It didn’t help when, while they perused a menu minutes later, I alone noticed a gentleman emerging from yet another boucherie (was Paris nothing but dead animals?). The furry, comically large feet and hind legs of a hare protrouded from a paper bag in his hand (I also raised champion show rabbits–not for the table–at the time, so this added yet another session to my metaphorical therapist’s couch).

Photo love: Flickr user triplexpresso

Allow me to explain: I wasn’t in the least bit disturbed by the concept of eating horse, and I’d actually had rabbit before. What bothered me was seeing these creatures in such a raw, primal (aka dead) state. While a whole lamb carcass wouldn’t have caused me to bat an eye, there’s something very disturbing about seeing a 1,200 pound horse on a hook. Ditto the intact hare; as an American, even one who lived on a ranch, I had a hard time identifying with the purchase of something resembling road kill for dinner.

I’ve always been very matter-of-fact about meat; I think it comes not just from traveling as a child, but from assisting my dad with necropsies of his former patients from the age of about eight on. A good time was Dad and I, dissecting one of my rabbits, trying to figure out what mysterious circumstances had caused her to keel over and die in the night. Boast-worthy was overseeing the necropsy of Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter’s pet pony (for some reason, my classmates didn’t think it as cool as I did).

No, my issues with meat have and always will lie with the treatment of said animal in life and handling before what should be a quick, merciful death. But that’s a whole other topic altogether.

What I really want to address is horse meat. Viande chevalinebasashi (think horse sashimi ), or lo’i ho’osi (Tongans apparently do have an appetite for meat other than SPAM); whatever you call it in your country of origin, the fact remains that much of the EU, Central Asia, Latin America, and Japan have the good sense to eat horse. It’s delicious, with a slightly sweet flavor and bright red color, lean and low in cholesterol. Why the hell can’t Americans get on-board with the other red meat?

Blame anthropomorphism and our fervent equestrian culture. Horse meat had a brief domestic moment in World War II, when beef prices rose and supply dwindled. By the eighties, however, it was no longer okay, even if purchased for “pet food,” and in 1998, California Proposition 6 outlawed horse meat and slaughter for human consumption.

When I was growing up, however, there was a well-known horse abbatoir in Chino, in Orange County. As with many countries that don’t consume horse meat, the U.S. still slaughtered them (the old and sick, as well as retired racehorses and wild horses and burros) for export to countries that do, although the meat was also used to feed zoo animals. In 2007, the last horse slaugtherhouse in the U.S., in DeKalb, Illinois, was shut down by court order, and that was that–but new legislation suggests that horse slaughter could soon become legal again Stateside.

But hold your horses (sorry). Is this a good thing? The result of these closures means that there’s no outlet–humane or otherwise–for horses that can no longer be used for work or pleasure. Few people can afford to keep horses as pets due to age, illness, or injury, and horse rescues are at capacity or struggling to find funding. It’s also necessary to thin wild horse and burro populations to keep them sustainable (as well as protect their habitat from overgrazing and erosion); starvation and predation are cruel deaths. Fortunately, these animals are protected species and legally can’t be sent to slaughter, so they’re put up for adoption. The downside? What happens to aging and unsound animals, now that rescues and sanctuaries are at capacity and struggling for funding?

I’m not disputing the lack of humanity previously displayed by auctions and transport companies taking horses to slaughter. Fortunately, the 1996 federal Farm Bill mandated more humane conditions. Unfortunately, it didn’t go into effect until 2001.

Humane treatment aside, the loss of horse abbatoirs is a divisive issue. I’m of the opinion that it’s unbeneficial and inhumane to not have an outlet for surplus horses. This, of course, assuming the transport and facility abide by regulations; I’m also not a fan of large abbatoirs, which cause undue stress to the animals.

Isn’t it ultimately more kind to put an end to their suffering, and make good use of the meat? Proponents frequently make the comparison to the millions of dogs and cats that are euthanized daily in the U.S., because their owners were too irresponsible or lazy to spay or neuter. Where do these sad creatures end up? Cremated. What a waste, in all regards.

“Right,” I hear you saying. “As if you would eat dog or cat [assuming it hadn’t been euthanized and was fit for human consumption]!”

Actually, I have eaten dog, and it’s really not a big deal…with the glaring exception of how those animals are raised and treated. But as a food and travel journalist, I also have a job to do, and at times, that means your personal ethics need to keep their big fucking mouth shut.

It never fails to amaze me when “food writers” refuse to eat what’s put in front of them simply because they find it personally distasteful. Allergies are one thing, but a refusal to at least taste is a. rude, and b. lacking in journalistic integrity. Have religious limitations? Then you probably shouldn’t be food writing for the general public.

The incident that led me to this opinion occurred on the final night of a very high-end press junket to Parma, Italy. One of the city’s finest restaurants had organized a special dinner for our group, to commemorate the anniversary of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. The chef had prepared a set menu: ten courses of Parmigiano-enhanced regional foods, specifically chosen to impress and show us what Emilia-Romagna was all about.

The seventh course was fileto di giovani cavallo, a rosy filet of young horse. As our trip organizer translated what was being served, an uneasy silence fell over the table.  “My Friend Flicka is on the menu?” asked an editor, her voice trembling. Within minutes, eleven of my twelve tablemates had requested beef as a substitute. I was mortified.

Believe it or not, Seabiscuit tasted pretty damn good.

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Photo love: Flickr user Pictr 30D

I was eleven when I experienced my first authentic Santa Maria barbecue. A former classmate of my dad’s had invited my family to his ranch outside of
San Luis Obispo to participate in the spring cattle gathering. Located about 30 miles outside of Santa Maria on the Central Coast, this region is the heart of California’s barbecue country (more on that in a minute).

After a cold, dirty, exhausting weekend gathering wayward cattle and calves to be vaccinated, castrated, and branded, it was fiesta time.  A massive barbecue fashioned out of old oil drums was heaped with native red oak and per tradition, the calf “fries,” (also known as Rocky Mountain oysters, prairie oysters…testiculos) were grilled up as a snack.

The charred, crispy little morsels, tender and juicy on the inside, were tucked into a flour tortilla, slathered with salsa, and rolled up, taquito-style.  As a child reknown for her picky eating habits, there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to indulge in an hors d’oeuvre of greasy calf cojones.

But when my dad proudly presented me with a testicle taco, how could I refuse?  To say no would be to disappoint the man who had given me life, himself a former wrangler. It was time to grow up, and grow a pair of my own.  I grabbed the dripping tortilla and bit down….chewed…swallowed.

It was good!  Smoky, salty, a little bit chewy, just a touch of heat and sweetness from the salsa, the tortilla a perfect foil for the savory juices now dribbling down my chin.

Yep.  Tastes just like chicken.

California’s indigenous barbecue

Way back before the Gold Rush, breast implants, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, California belonged to Mexico…until the the U.S. government took possession of the soon-to-be Golden State. Spanish and Mexican colonists and soldiers, called Californios, settled on ranchos along California’s rich, central coastal grasslands.

Spanish and Mexican heritage morphed into a true California cuisine, one that
incorporated the corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers of the New World with the beef, lamb, and olive oil of the Old World. The parilla, or grill, was the domain of the vaqueros, or cowboys, and the rancheros, or landowners. The mild, Mediterranean climate fostered a tradition of outdoor cooking still beloved by Californians today.  Rancho barbecues were a way to mark special occasions, unite family and community, and enjoy the foods of the mother land.

A traditional Santa Maria Style Barbecue (the official term used by the Santa Maria Visitors & Convention Bureau), consists of top-sirloin or tri-tip beef steak strung on steel rods and grilled over Santa Maria Valley red oak. It’s served with tiny, savory pinquito beans, grown only in the Valley, salsa cruda, tossed green salad, and toasted, buttered sweet French bread.  The meat is anointed only with salt, pepper and garlic salt, then served thinly sliced with all the fixings.

Tri-tip sammie!
Photo love: Flickr user Nubby Tongue

Where to find it

Whether you call it Santa Maria bbq/barbecue/-style barbecue, it’s easy to hunt down if you’re in the area. A handful of restaurants have gained national fame for their versions. The Hitching Post in Casmalia (there’s also a sister location in Buellton) has been a local favorite since 1952, when the Ostini family first fired up their indoor barbecue pit (866-879-4088).
The family-owned Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe (the restaurant is relocating to nearby Orcutt in Spring, 2012) is another true blue Western institution. Ask for the Cowboy Cut Sirloin, cooked over red oak. (reservations recommended, 805-343-2211).

If you want a more local experience, check out the takeaway tri-tip sandwiches from Old Town Market in Orcutt, or Dino’s Deli in Santa Maria. There are also
weekend barbecues in downtown Santa Maria, at the Filipino Community Center (1721 Broadway) and in the CVS/pharmacy parking lot (2116 S.
Broadway). To find other meaty goodness around town, contact the Santa Maria Convention & Visitors Bureau; 800-331-3779.

How to DIY 

The famed Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in Solvang is debuting its hands-on BBQ Bootcamp this fall, from October 27-30th. Frank Ostini of The Hitching Post restaurants and Alisal chef Pascal Godé will let you in on the secrets to great grilling, including Santa Maria-style barbecue. To register, go to www.alisal.com.

If If a trip to the Central Coast isn’t on your itinerary, Susie Q’s Brand has all the fixin’s, from pinquito beans to wood chips, available online. Founder Susan Righetti is the daughter of Far Western Tavern’s Minetti family.

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