Before the United States temporarily banned Canadian beef imports last week after the discovery of an Alberta cow infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as Mad Cow disease, the U.S. imported 373,000 tons—or $2.5 billion worth—of Canadian beef products annually, making us Canada’s biggest bovine export market. Montana ranchers send their cattle to Canadian feedlots as well. And we sell beef to Canada too, but nobody cares about that right now.
Instead, people are concerned about the possib- ility of Mad Cow Disease infecting our barbecues this summer. Meanwhile, cattle growers on both sides of the border are publicly displaying confidence in their product.
“I went to Wendy’s today for lunch and ordered a hamburger,” boasted a representative from the Alberta cattle industry recently. He went on to remind us that the agents responsible for Mad Cow Disease, shadowy self-replicating proteins called prions, have never been found in muscle meat.
The prion is found in the central nervous tissue—the brains and spinal columns—of infected cows. To play it safe in these days of Mad Cow Paranoia, one might want to avoid eating this material.
But while the rest of the world hides in fear, there remains an outpost here in Western Montana where people still get off living on the edge. I speak of the Oxford, a century-plus-old Missoula fixture that has seen plenty of action during its tenure at the corner of Higgins and Pine. For some reason, a meal of cow brains and eggs at the Ox —“He needs ’em” is the inexplicable directive to the cook—has become a local institution, and a rite-of-passage for many rookie Missoulians.
So I stopped by the Oxford to find out how they’re hanging these days. I caught up to Les at the grill, and I asked him what he thought of Mad Cow Disease.
“I don’t know,” he said, “does it affect the brain? Maybe that’s why everyone around here is acting so strange.”
Les told me that, ironically, just weeks ago the Ox finally found a new supplier—IBP Fresh Meats, a Tyson subsidiary based in South Dakota—ending a long dry spell after their old supplier quit carrying brains. “The new supplier has pig brains too,” he said. “In our first order we didn’t specify, we just ordered 60 pounds of brains. We got 60 pounds of pig brains. They taste good—sweeter than cow brains. But we sent them back anyway.
“People are eating lots of brains since we got ’em back,” said Les. He paused, scratched his chin, and added: “You know, most people have eaten brains before, and they don’t even know it. Bologna, hot dogs…you’d be surprised at what goes into all that stuff.”