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Fast-Food Nation Part Two: Meat and Potatoes

Page 6 of 6

The first inmates at Dachau were political prisoners: socialists, communists, religious opponents of the Nazi regime. In later years, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses – people considered abnormal and "degenerate" – were sent there. Upon arriving at Dachau, new inmates were greeted by a sign painted in huge white letters on the roof. It said, "The way to freedom is to follow one's orders...." The McDonald's at Dachau is one-third of a mile from the entrance to the camp. The day I went there, the restaurant was staging a Western Big Mac promotion. It was decorated in a Wild West theme, with paper place mats featuring a wanted poster of Butch Essidy. The McDonald's was full of mothers and small children. Teenagers in Nikes and Levi's sat in groups smoking cigarettes. Turkish immigrants worked in the kitchen, disco music played, and the red paper cups on everyone's tray said, Always Coca-Cola. The most notable thing about the place was its total and utter banality. This McDonald's was in Dachau, but it could have been anywhere – anywhere in the United States, anywhere in the world. Millions of other people at that very moment were ordering the same food from the same menu in a hundred different languages, in almost every time zone, every longitude and latitude, food that tasted everywhere the same.

In the demonology of vegetarians and environmentalists, cattle ranchers have long ranked near the top. As Dale Lasater stands in a corral full of huge bulls, feeding them treats from his hand, the stereotype doesn't quite fit. Lasater is in his early fifties, with a handlebar mustache and wire-rim glasses. He wears worn-out jeans and boots, and a well-ironed button-down shirt, looking part cowboy, part Ivy Leaguer. The bulls that crowd around him seem almost sweet, acting more like a bunch of Ferdinands than like fierce symbols of machismo. They were bred to be gentle, never dehorned and never roped. The Lasater Ranch occupies about 30,000 acres of short-grass prairie near the town of Matheson, Colorado, fifty miles northeast of Colorado Springs. It is a profitable working ranch that for half a century has not used pesticides, herbicides, poison or commercial fertilizers on the land, has not killed local predators such as coyotes, and has not administered growth hormones, anabolic steroids or antibiotics to the cattle. The Lasaters are by no means typical, but they have worked hard to change how American beef is produced. Despite years of experimentation and careful refinement, the Lasater philosophy of cattle ranching relies on a simple faith: "Nature is smart as hell."

Before taking over the family ranch, Lasater spent a year in Argentina as a Fullbright scholar, ran a feedlot company in Kansas and managed cattle ranches in Texas, Florida and New Mexico. His experiences persuaded him that the current system of agricultural production in the United States cannot be sustained. Rising grain prices will someday hit ranches and feedlots hard. More important, Lasater finds it difficult to justify feeding millions of tons of grain to American cattle, while elsewhere in the world millions of people starve. He respects a person's decision to become a vegetarian but has little patience for the air of moral superiority that often accompanies it. Growing up on the prairie gave him a view of nature that is some what different from the Disney version. Cattle that are not eaten by people, that are simply allowed to grow old and weak, still get eaten – by coyotes and turkey buzzards, and it's not a pretty sight.

Dale Lasater recently set up a company to sell free-range, organic, grass-fed beef. None of the cattle used in Lasater Grasslands Beef spend any time at a feedlot. The meat is much lower in fat than grain-fed beef and has a stronger, more distinctive flavor. Laster says that most Americans have forgotten what real beef tasts like. Argentine beef is now considered a gourment item, and almost all of the cattle in Argentina are grass-fed. The current system of beef production, relying on huge feedlots, arose during a period of low-priced, government-subsidized grain. Recent findings that E. coli O157:H7 may not survive in the intestines of grass-fed cattle have strengthened Las-ater's determination to follow a different path. Lasater doesn't think that his little company will revolutionize the American beef industry; but it's a start.

Fifty miles away, on South Nevada Avenue in Colorado Springs, Rich Conway operates a family business that's also bucking the trend. Conway's Red Top Restaurant occupies a modest brick building on a street full of funky old Western motels, the kind with animated neon Indian chiefs on their signs, the kind where the U in the 4-U Motel is a golden horseshoe. Rich Conway has been through a lot. He has had a motor-cycle accident and a bad car accident, and he later slipped on some ice and broke his back. Now in his late forties, Conway walks slowly with a cane but has a handsome, weathered face, a Zen-like calm and a tough, independent streak that keeps him going against the odds, the sort of qualities an American small-business man needs these days. He's a survivor. When I asked what made him provide health insurance to all his workers – a benefit fast-food restaurants rarely offer – Conway smiled politely, as though the answer was obvious, and said, "We want healthy employees."

Rich Conway's parent bought the restaurant in 1962 and began serving large oval hamburgers. He grew up working there alongside his nine brothers and sisters. Conway's Red Top – with a little spinning top on its yellow sign – became a local favorite, thanks to its burgers and fries. A few years ago, the food critics Jane and Michael Stern, the authors of Road Food, wrote that Conway's Red Top sold some of the best hamburgers in the U.S. The restaurant thrived during the 1970s, despite an invasion by national fast-food chains that landed up and down South Nevada Avenue. But Conway's almost shut down in the early 1980s, after the death of Rich's father. The restaurant's local suppliers helped keep it afloat until new financing could be arranged. Conway's Red Top now has three locations in Colorado Springs. Rich Conway's younger brother Dan serves as finance director, and his sister Mary Kaye is the marketing director.

In the kitchen at Conway's, the hamburger patties are still formed every day by hand, using fresh ground beef. The beef is obtained from a small, family-owned grinder in Denver; Rich Conway hopes to offer Lasater beef soon. The hamburger buns come from a family-owned bakery in nearby Pueblo. Two hundred pounds of potatoes are peeled every morning in the kitchen and then are sliced into fries with an old contraption attached to the wall. The burgers and fries are made to order by cooks who earn up to ten dollars an hour and wear baseball caps that say CONWAY'S RED TOP: ONE'S A MEAL. The kitchen is not operated by fancy computer software, there's takeout but no drive-through, and the food is only slightly more expensive than what's served at the half-empty Wendy's across the street. In a completely un-staged encounter, I met a customer at Conway's who has regularly been having lunch there for fifty years.

The last hamburger I ate was prepared at Conway's Red Top. It arrived on a plate with a pile of crisp fries. And it looked so damn good – big and oval, smothered in mushrooms and cheese – that I wanted to take a picture of it and keep the picture as proof. Not everyone has bought into this fast-food nation; there are still grounds for hope.

This story is from the November 26th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

 

 

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