Sometimes this whole harebrained Madroño Ranch scheme of ours seems to manifest a distinctly split personality. Last week, for example, we experienced, vividly and in close conjunction, two contradictory extremes, one exhilarating, the other sobering. The resulting psychic whiplash has left our heads spinning, or at least wobbling.
At the annual conference of the Alliance of Artists Communities in Chicago, which I mentioned in my previous post, we listened to and learned from and socialized with some of the brightest and most creative people we’ve met in years and, incidentally, enjoyed for the first time some of the charms of that great American city. We also got to spend some quality time with our youngest, Thea, who flew up from Kenyon College for a couple of days. Finally, as a bonus, Heather, that notorious insomniac, slept better than she had in months. Our stay in the City of the Big Shoulders left us feeling upbeat and energized, determined to come back to Texas and implement a whole new bunch of exciting ideas—some of them shamelessly stolen from others, a few of them original.
Yeah, all that was great and all, but who am I kidding? The true highlight of our Chicago experience boils down to two magical words: pork and belly. We managed to have pork belly for dinner three nights in a row. First, on Thursday night, Heather and I had dinner at Mercat a la Planxa, a glitzy tapas place right across the street from our hotel. The restaurant was glitzy, crowded, and noisy—three qualities that normally would send us screaming back out onto the street—but we got the last two seats at the bar, crowded up against the vast mirrored wall, and a sympathetic and well-informed bartender took great and gentle care of us. We ordered, and enjoyed, a number of different plates, but our favorite was definitely the tocino con cidra: pork belly in apple cider glaze with a Granny Smith and black truffle slaw on the side. Wow!
Thea arrived on Friday, and that night we went with our friend Meredith, who lives in Chicago, and five other out-of-towners to Big Star, a very hip (and very crowded) taco joint in Wicker Park. We were told there would be a 45-minute wait for a booth big enough to accommodate our group, so we adjourned to an outside picnic table at their carry-out operation next door. After a few minutes of sitting in the chilly Chicago fall air, we decided to order a taco apiece, just to, you know, tide ourselves over. Naturally, several of us opted for the taco de panza, with braised pork belly, guajillo sauce, queso fresco, onion, and cilantro. Wow!
After the first round of tacos, we waited a while longer, until we started getting cold again, and then we ordered another round of tacos. After 45 minutes, our table still wasn’t ready, and we three Texans had had enough of the cold, so Heather, Thea, and I got a cab back to the hotel. (Apparently we made the right choice: Meredith reported the next day that once they finally got a booth, it turned out to be the noisiest, rowdiest night she’d ever experienced at Big Star.)
And then on Saturday night we played hooky from the conference and opted for a family dinner, so Heather and I decided to take Thea to Mercat, where we once again had the tocino con cidra, among other dishes, thus completing our Pork Belly Tour of Chicago.
On Sunday morning, while Thea headed out to meet a couple of Kenyon friends, Heather and I had brunch at Eleven City Diner, a massive operation on South Wabash that a friend had assured us would offer an authentic Jewish deli experience. After a half hour wait for a table, we chowed down on massive sandwiches (a Reuben for Heather, brisket for me), followed by the shared indulgence of a thick slab of apple pie à la mode. Wow!
With all this meat on our minds and in our bellies, then, we flew back to Austin on Sunday night, only to haul ourselves out of bed at 4 a.m. Monday morning to drive to the ranch in time for our second bison “harvest.” This time we took three animals, under the watchful eyes of the state inspector and an observer from Animal Welfare Approved, from which we’re seeking certification. This harvest wasn’t quite as shocking as our first one, in January, but it was still a stark reminder that the meat we sell (and eat) is, at bottom, inextricably bound up with death.
Robert was the man with the rifle, but his daughter Ashlie, his friend Other Robert, and Other Robert’s son Travis were also there to assist. It was a beautiful morning, and the bison had thoughtfully assembled just where we needed and wanted them. Robert lined up all the necessary vehicles: the big new ranch truck, the refrigerated trailer, and the bulldozer with which he would hoist the carcasses off the ground to be bled and then into the trailer.
Robert’s an expert shot, and we’d been through this before, but it’s still a pretty nerve-wracking experience just to watch, let alone be the one pulling the trigger. The responsibility is immense; no one wants these magnificent animals to suffer, so each shot (one per animal) must be precisely aimed. On top of that, Robert had the pressure of having the state inspector and the AWA observer watching carefully—not to mention us, his employers. But he was, as always, up to the task: three times the rifle cracked, and three times one of the great creatures toppled instantly into the dust. It’s a sight that still disconcerts us, and I pray it always will.
Loading the dead bison for the trip to the processing plant is always a challenge, but after some sweating and cursing (mostly by Travis, who had to stand inside the freezing trailer and wrestle them into position) we succeeded. Robert, Other Robert, Ashlie, and Travis piled into the truck, and Heather and I followed them the thirty-odd miles into Utopia.
After our first harvest, the old ranch truck overheated while pulling the trailer up the hill on Highway 337 between Medina and Utopia; Robert poured water from a nearby creek into the leaking radiator with an empty whiskey bottle that someone had thoughtfully tossed onto the roadside, then nursed the truck the rest of the way into Utopia. This time, thank goodness, the new, considerably más macho truck handled the even heavier load (three animals instead of two) without even breaking a sweat.
Once in Utopia, however, Robert, Other Robert, Travis, and I, along with a couple of the Mercantile workers, were perspiring heavily by the time we literally wrestled the enormous carcasses off the truck, onto the small loading dock, and then through the tiny door (a regular door, not a garage door) into the plant. It was bloody, dirty, nauseating work, but after several hours we had all three bison inside, and Robert had their three pelts loaded into the trailer for the return trip to the ranch.
This is a busy time for us: we’ve got several hundred pounds of frozen packaged meat to sell; we’re looking forward to the arrival of two more residents on Sunday; and our next “hunting school,” this one for women only, begins a week from today. But I expect the events of last week—the optimistic inspiration of the conference in Chicago and the bloody reality of the bison harvest at the ranch—will stay with us for a while.
What we’re reading
Heather: Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God
Martin: Denise Markonish (ed.), Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape