The U.S. has beef with its history

Cattle Country Livestock in the Cultural Imagination

A new study by a Missouri University of Science and Technology researcher shows U.S. food culture has paralleled the country’s broader changes in colonization, environmentalism, ethnicity and race, and even industrialization. 

In her new book, Cattle Country: Livestock in the Cultural Imagination, Dr. Kathryn Dolan examines beef and cattle production in 19th-century America. Her research shows the cow emerging as the nation’s representative food animal, earning it a role in many works of literature of the day. The book is published by the University of Nebraska Press.

“Cattle work corresponded directly with westward expansion throughout the 19th century in the U.S.,” says Dolan, an associate professor of English and technical communication at Missouri S&T. “Often, the interests of cattle ranchers and others in the cattle industry became the motivating factors in policy decisions -- usually to do with land and almost always to the detriment of Native American communities.”

Dolan examined texts from Native American, African American, Mexican American and Caucasian authors, which she says showed anxiety around the U.S. identity as cattle gradually became an industrialized food source. This in turn altered the country’s culture and exacted “a high cost to humans, animals, and the land,” she says.

“The ways we as a U.S. society view cattle and beef is not a fluke or happenstance,” says Dolan. “There is a lot of cultural and historical work that occurred to make beef such an important part of the national – and increasingly the world’s – culture.”

Dolan’s book highlights literary references such as writer Henry David Thoreau’s descriptions of indigenous cuisines as a challenge to the increased practice of growing or raising a single crop and livestock, and Northern Paiutes tribe author Sarah Winnemucca’s parallels of American Indians being treated like cattle when forced into fenced reservations. She says that past authors’ preoccupations with cattle underscored their concern for resource depletion, habitat destruction and the wasteful overproduction of a single breed of animals.

“I don't think the interest in cattle and beef have lessened at all since the 19th century,” says Dolan. “If anything, it keeps growing. If cattle were key for U.S. expansion in the nineteenth century, there is a similar element now with globalization. The growth of interest in cattle and beef in nations like China and India is particularly striking to me.”

Dolan earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of California-Santa Barbara in 2010. Her research interests include U.S. literature, food studies, global studies and environmental criticism. Dolan’s first book, Beyond the Fruited Plain: Food and Agriculture in U.S. Literature, 1850–1905, was published in 2014.