In the span of modern human history, a celebrity cow (in the generic sense of a member of the cattle family) is a rare item. Mrs. O'Leary's cow, blamed for the great Chicago, Illinois, fire of October 9, 1871, qualified for a time. Of bulls, only two come to mind, one real, one fictional. They were both famous for being nonfighting Spanish bulls, the real Civilon of Barcelona fame, and for the elementary school set, the marvelously bee-stung Ferdinand the Bull. The Texas longhorn might qualify for celebrity, or notoriety, but only because of western movies and for being the mascot of the University of Texas football team. Both the oaters and the Texas football team are in decline as of this writing. The only other candidate, and it is a winner, is the Aberdeen-Angus breed of cattle.

Across the breadth of North America, only the Aberdeen-Angus have produced a beefsteak that has truly achieved celebrity. Not only is Certified Angus Beef(r) advertised on the restaurant menu and the supermarket shelf, a picture of an Aberdeen-Angus steer--a silhouette of a solid black hornless animal--adorns menus and package labels in more than five thousand markets and on menus of over fifty-five hundred restaurants.

The simple statistics of this elite piece of meat are boggling. Chosen from just the top 18 percent of all Angus cattle (Americans shortened the hyphenated name for marketing purposes), the certified animals produced in the last year something on the order of 225 million servings of the most desirable cuts of steak, from the gargantuan porterhouse to the relatively effete tenderloin. The rest of these superior carcasses went into a billion and a half servings of labeled roasts and joints and even certified hot dogs. Just to give an idea of how this one particular breed of cow has come to be synonymous with quality, it outsells its only brand-named breed competitor, Certified Hereford Beef, by twenty-five to one.

The success of Angus is not just clever marketing. Smoke and mirrors are of no use with a product that requires only a knife and a fork to easily and rewardingly compare it to a run-of-the-ranch piece of beef. Aberdeen-Angus is remarkable for quality in great quantity and for consistency over centuries. It is one of the few items of food, if not the only one, that can be mass-produced in the twenty-first century and taste as good as it ever did. In an age when gourmets search out tender wild greens and heirloom tomatoes and free-range chickens and artisanal bread and other relics of a less-industrialized era of foodstuffs, there is no need to look for an heirloom steak. Today's Aberdeen-Angus sirloin strip tastes just as good as the famed one eaten by Queen Victoria in 1866. The only difference is that Victoria got hers for free, after having been introduced to the steer by name, before dining upon him.

On the cave wall at Lascaux, France, ancient man painted the animals he hunted, including the now-extinct wild animal that was the source of all of the cattle living today. As varied as our cattle are--from the alert Aberdeen-Angus to the oblivious black-and-white Holstein dairy cow, from huge draft oxen to diminutive Alderney dairy cows--not one remotely resembles that ancestor captured for eternity in the darkness of Lascaux. The bull of the cave paintings survived into the sixteenth century and is the same animal that Julius Caesar described as "a little smaller than an elephant," an animal so different that it is a species separate from the ones we see today. The beast at Lascaux is the largest animal portrayed there, a full 18 feet (5.5 meters) long. The size was an exaggeration, but the artist was conveying the awesome fearfulness of the animal. All the hundreds of breeds of modern cattle have evolved within the last several thousand years, long after Lascaux was abandoned. In Charles Darwin's elegantly phrased book title, they are each a result of "The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication." The horse, it should be noted, unlike the cow, was found in nature of a size and temperament to be ridden or driven and has not changed enough in captivity to be judged a new species.

The cow is arguably the most important animal ever domesticated. It was easily the first, for the bones of cattle, distinguishable by paleontologists from those of its wild ancestor, appear in the garbage heaps of the earliest settlements in the Old World. Cows benefited from and assisted in a revolution in agriculture: people saving seed, planting and harvesting crops, raising animals for meat instead of chasing them through the wilds. When, as one example, cattle reached the British Isles some ten thousand years before the present, the folk, with a more assured food supply, acquired the excess energy to build the great henges--the stone circles--and the barrows and even, in the vicinity of Avebury, to build an entire mountain, apparently for signal fires. British archaeologists once accustomed to thinking of all the ancient monuments as religious sites are beginning to speculate that many of the great circles such as the one at Avebury, with their interior moats and roads, may have also been places to buy and sell cows, "trysts," as the Scots called their gatherings for marketing cattle. The pattern is repeated in many ways in many places, but there is evidence that as a result of the inhabitants raising cattle, a more complex culture was able to emerge, when mankind was nourished and stabilized by the milk and meat of the cow, and assisted in the hard work of farming by the yoked oxen.

Across Europe, hundreds of distinct breeds of cattle developed in isolation, and villagers kept the types they most admired and ate the rest, thus a dizzying array of cattle of all possible sizes and colors and purposes--meat, milk, traction--dotted the landscape. So inseparable were the cattle and the land and the culture of the locals that the breeds came to be called by their native district or hometown: Limousin and Charolais in France; Jersey, Guernsey, and Alderney from the Channel Islands; Herefords from England; and what once were taken as two breeds, Aberdeen and Angus, from those districts of northeastern Scotland. Many breeds of dogs also developed under domestication, but they more often received mundane names from their line of usefulness: pointer (of game birds), shepherd (of sheep), and dachshund (a dog that will go down a badger hole and worry the beast). Geographical dog names tend to be national rather than local--French poodle, German pointer, English setter, Labrador retriever--and very few have the intimate flavor of a cow's prideful town-by-town and district-by-district nomenclature.

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A Cow's Life
 The Surprising History of Cattle and How the Black Angus Came to Be Home on the Range

by M. R. Montgomery

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Copyright © 2004
by M. R. Montgomery
Published by
Walker & Company

From the
Book Jacket

A bovine tour de force

Millions of people, from nature lovers to collectors of cow memorabilia, are enamored of cows, yet few have any inkling of the fascinating history of, arguably, the animal most crucial to the survival and advancement of human civilization. Our close relationship with cows goes back eight thousand years, to the revolutionary advent of domestication in Mesopotamia and the Indus River valley. Since then, humans have relied on cows for milk, meat, and muscle.

M. R. Montgomery’s own keen interest in cows began on his cousin’s Montana cattle ranch. He traces their history from the formidable, long-extinct Auroch—the 6,000-pound ancestor of all cattle on Earth—to the ancient cattle roads and drives in England, to the selective mixing practiced by British cattlemen well before Charles Darwin or Gregor Mendel. He charts the origin of breeds and relates the path by which the Aberdeen-Angus has today become the “king of cows.” With a sympathetic eye for detail, born of his own experience, he chronicles the day-to-day life of cattle and their keepers— from encouraging good mothering skills to rooting out genetic disease in a herd. After experiencing Montgomery’s bovine fascination, even cow lovers will have new appreciation for the objects of their affection.