There was an article in the New York Times this past Sunday entitled, “Where Cows Are Happy and Food is Healthy” by Nicholas D. Kristof. While I was reading, I was smiling. After I read it, I was smiling and kind of shaking my head a little.
I found it strange that this story that I could relate to so much was in one of the most-renown newspapers in the world. And, I found it oddly comforting as well. It was about a fifty-something, third-generation dairyman that was raising “happy cows” in Oregon. He had hundreds that grazed out in large pastures. He had names for all of them and could tell each one apart from the other.
He spends everyday with his “girls,” making sure they’re happy and give good milk. He switched to organic production eight years ago which meant not giving them antibiotics that pharmaceutical salespeople had told him all along was necessary in order to keep them healthy. He found the opposite was true, they thrived once going au naturel.
I grew up in wide open spaces. My grandfather was a farmer and a carpenter. He had cows — all kinds — and they were happy. Not hundreds like the big dairy farmer, but some. And he’d go out everyday and walk in the fields with some little Jack-Russell-looking pooch that was black/white or tan/white. I don’t know where he got these dogs but I guess when one passed, he’d get another one. They were named Pete or Joe or Sam or something simple like that. He’s whistle through his teeth and his dog would trot along side him as he walked amongst his happy cows. He named his cows too. They’d graze all day, eating grass. He’d milk some and at some point, some would go to slaughter. I don’t know who or how he did that, but I’m certain he made sure it was humane.
I’d hear him talk quietly to them. These are fuzzy, little-girl memories but I do remember he named one Brigitte. She was clumsy, a black and white calf. I remember her little spindly legs, her little maaw-www and how the fur on her head, the space between her eyes, felt thick, kind of curly and coarse. I was scared of the cows (not Brigitte, mind you) but the big ones. They’d turn their heads at me drunkenly, blinking slowly with their big doe-eyed, brown-eyed blankness. They kept quiet mostly but when I’d hear a loud moo, it would always startle me, scare me a little.
Grandaddy always dressed in khaki. Khaki pants and a long-sleeved khaki shirt with these hard-toed, lace-up boots, no matter what the temperature. He had dark-hair, almost black and an olive-toned complexion. He wore those glasses that you’d see news reporters wear — the big black frames with a little silver on them. I don’t remember his hair ever turning gray and he lived until he was in his 80s.
When he wasn’t walking in the fields, he and his pooch would get in his little Datsun-like truck and head “downtown” where he’d go to the small grocery/gas station owned by a lady, Mrs. F, with a wooden leg (I don’t know what happened but she always seemed elderly to me). I think her husband was killed in one of those freak accidents that happen in the country sometimes, usually to do with big farm equipment.
Anyway, he and his buddies would play dominos inside that little store. Mrs. F lived in the back of that small store and she’d slice bologna or ham or cheese that was wrapped in bright red wax on one of those huge silver, dangerous-looking slicing machines. There was one of those big freezer-type chests filled with coke and an opener on the front of it. People had “accounts” there. Sometimes I’d go in and tell her to put something on my Daddy’s account. It was the country and people paid sometimes, when they could, and when they couldn’t, well they couldn’t. But they would always eventually pay.
Yes, I Ate the Wrong Things
My Grandfather was a simple man — his needs were simple. He ate and exercised as books and programs tell us how to do now. He’d eat several small meals a day. He’d walk miles everyday, out in nature. My grandparents always had sweet sorghum molasses in their pantry. I’m sure it’s not good for you, but it was good.
Grandmother would make biscuits from scratch and Grandaddy taught me how to best enjoy sorghum. You poured a little pool of it on a plate, swirled butter (not fake, olive-oil good for you stuff in a tub), but butter. Then you’d dip that warm biscuit in. I remember them once even churning their own butter. My Grandmother made fried chicken in a cast-iron skillet using lard, yes white bad-for-you lard. It’s still the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. She made chili sauce that’d we pour over peas. Mom could never get the recipe from her because Grandmother would always say, “Well, you put a little of this, a little of that.” She lived until her mid-90s.
They had a wooden table on their covered back porch where they glued vinyl atop it and they put green tomatoes there to ripen. I snatched that table, used a blow dryer to get the vinyl off the top and re-stained it. I have it now in my home. I have my Grandmother’s Ethan Allen buffet that she got from saving S&H green stamps. It’s gorgeous, heavy, well-made.
They had a grape-vine in their backyard. The kind that covered a rectangular wooden thing — one you could walk under — it was full of plump, juicy, sweet purple grapes. Beside that was a smokehouse where they cured meat. A clothesline was in the backyard. Beyond that was the fields where Grandaddy would walk and me and my sisters or cousins would sometimes venture out to.
There was a garden with vegetables. My sisters and I would have to pick veggies from that garden (we hated doing that, I remember it being hot). We’d sit on the porch with a big silver tub filled with purple-hull peas and have to shell them, our fingers would stain purple from them. My Mom and Grandmother would “can” the veggies, putting them in mason jars, then a pressure-cooker and sealing the tops with paraffin and screw on lids.
My grandparents would sit on their front porch in rocking chairs at the end of the day, watching the few cars that would pass by and knowing who was in every one of those cars that did. I have a pinkish-white scar on my thigh from mowing that yard. They’d pay the grandkids to mow the yard and I once when I was trying to mow under a barb-wired fence one of those points dug into my leg and bit me.
I couldn’t wait to get away from that small town stuff, but I remember those happy cows.