Cuisine: Beef and crackers— not a dish, an occupation

The first cattle known in North America were brought ashore — in what is now Sarasota — by the Spaniards in 1521. The scene can only be imagined!

It made Florida the first place to have a beef industry of any kind on the continent. Large Spanish land grants in Alachua County and near Tallahassee were devoted to raising cattle for many years. Mature animals were herded to Punta Rassa and shipped to Cuba, where they could be traded for gold. Several fortunes were founded on this early commerce.

After the departure of the Spanish, cattle roamed freely over the peninsula and some of the Indians who arrived later captured and slaughtered them for tribal consumption only. They referred to them as “woods cows” because the herds tended to congregate in interior areas with abundant trees, where they were discovered by the Native Americans.

British settlers in the 18 century added to the mix by crossing strains of these Spanish cattle with their own herds which they introduced to Florida. Some of the cattle here today are descended from these original ones, but the majority now are a Brahman-Angus crossbreed.

In later years, the term Florida Cracker came from the practice of local cattlemen (never cowboys) cracking braided leather whips when herding.

People think of Florida as a world of citrus and tourists and Disney, but cattle-raising is one of our most important endeavors.

Calves are raised here to the immature stage called feeders, typically 8 months of age and weighing 500 pounds. They are then shipped to other states (primarily Oklahoma and Texas) for the “finishing” process of fattening on open range and in feeder pens, and are then prepared for market. The steak you buy at a local butcher shop or meat counter may well have been raised in Florida originally.

Our state ranks 10th in national beef production. In one recent year, 15,000 Florida ranchers shipped almost a million head of beef cows and calves, and their herds still number near a million. The value of this current inventory is in the billions, not a bad figure for a very old profession.

In our own county, the largest beef operation is the Immokalee Ranch owned jointly by the Collier Company and Collier Enterprises, two outgrowths of Barron Collier’s early interests in this area. There are many other beef producers in the county, with some ranches operating under multiple ownership. Such a business is the Roberts Ranch in the Immokalee area, which is now run by several ranchers. The old homestead and four acres of property there have been deeded over to Collier County, and this generous gift has become a “living history” museum.

The Florida Cattlemen’s Association published a book by Joe Akerman called Florida Cowman in the 1970’s. If you can locate a copy, it’s full of information on this subject and well worth reading.

Americans are crazy about beef, especially for outdoor cooking. Traditionally, it was our number one choice for dinner, surpassed by chicken in 1993 only due to warnings about cholesterol. Medical opinion has now revised our thinking about diets somewhat, and lean beef consumption is on the rise again.

Beef prices fluctuate according to the weather. If American farmers harvest good crops of grain, more cattle can be raised, and the larger production means lower meat cost for consumers. However, the diversion of corn to Ethanol and other uses can raise the cost of all our foods, including meat. US beef remains the world standard, and many investors make their living betting on grain and beef production.

In 1974, the first National Beef Cook-off was sponsored by American cattlewomen, and it takes place every two years — 2009 will be next. Steak is a popular ingredient in this competition, and grilling is often the preferred method of cooking.

Miraton of Beef

One of my favorite food writers was Morrison Wood who used to publish a column called For Men Only in a Chicago newspaper. This recipe was his idea of an excellent way to treat leftover roast beef, and my family agreed.

2 medium onions, chopped fine

2 Tablespoons butter, divided

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon flour

Chopped thyme

6 ounces beef stock or bouillon

4 ounces dry red wine

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon snipped fresh parsley

½ cup sliced fresh mushrooms

8 ounces sliced rare roast beef

Salt and pepper

Mashed potatoes

Cook onions in 1 Tablespoon of the butter in a skillet over medium heat until they just begin to turn golden. Sprinkle with vinegar and flour, stirring well, then add a pinch of fresh or dried thyme. Pour over this the beef stock or bouillon. Stir and simmer for a few minutes, then add dry red wine, tomato paste and chopped parsley. Simmer a few more minutes.

In another skillet, briefly sauté the sliced fresh mushrooms in the remaining tablespoon of butter, then add them to the wine sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. When all is blended, place slices of rare roast beef in skillet and heat through; do not cook! Serve immediately with mashed potatoes and garden salad, with a good dry red wine. This serves 4 people.

No leftover beef? You can go to the deli counter and ask the lady to slice some of her roast beef about half an inch thick — you want 8 ounces. This works very well, and I have done it many times.

ABOUT RECALLS: Most of these involve ground beef sent to institutions and fast food outlets, and the ground beef you buy at local markets is seldom affected. You can also do what Julia Child recommended: buy chuck steak and remove bones and cartilage, then grind it yourself. She found that it contained just about the right amount of fat this way.

This article was compiled with assistance from Ron at Immokalee Ranch.

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If any local organizations are thinking of publishing a special cookbook, consider one in large print. As our population ages, this is more and more appreciated by senior citizens. Such books can be compiled and printed by Fundcraft Publishing in Collierville, TN. Call them for information at 1-901-850-7200.

© 2008 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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