By Sylvia Hamilton
I was twelve the summer Mother decided to buy a cow. I overheard her and my stepfather, Earl, discussing the purchase one evening. He grumbled about the expense, but since I knew he thought all pets were worthless, I interpreted these statements as more of the same from him.
We always had a menagerie at our mountaintop home, most of them I knew Earl considered a waste of space, time and money. His opinion was seldom taken into account. Mother’s was the final word.
I loved animals. I kept a small collection of rodents and reptiles in cages in my bedroom. We also had lots of family pets. Mother had a horse, while my half-sister, Bee, and I both had ponies. We had dogs, cats, chickens and ducks. The thought of a new creature was exciting to me.
As the stepchild, I was expected to stay out of the way, be quiet, not cause trouble. So, in my own private way, I prepared for the arrival of our new cow. I spent several of my summer afternoons assuring the horse and ponies that just because we were going to have another animal in the corral, didn’t mean that we would love any of them less.
The day came. Mother announced she was going to go pick out our cow. Since Earl seldom took any sort of responsibility for my care, I was going with her. This time, Bee, my half sister, was coming too. Bee was a quiet, unsmiling child, six years younger than me. She was always dressed in Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls, because she wanted to be a builder, like her father, Earl. She would have preferred to stay on the mountaintop with my stepfather, but he was getting a big delivery of sand and gravel that day and did not want her under foot.
The three of us climbed into our VW double cab pick-up and started down the hill to Chino to pick out our cow. Chino was on the other side of Los Angeles. Far from the sagebrush scented, rarefied air of our ridge-top home overlooking the Gulch. Our home was a retreat from city living. We looked down on the smog-line of Los Angeles, and we always dreaded venturing down into the brown sludge that passed as air in the city.
Bee, never a cheerful child, was sullen and complained when she didn’t get her way. She, of course, griped of the heat, the stink of the car exhaust, leaving the mountains, having to sit in city traffic.
I, on the other hand, was bouncing up and down on my seat in the back, barely containing my excitement, peppering the air with questions, “Are we there yet? How are we bringing the cow home? Are we bringing the cow back in the VW like we move the ponies? Maybe they will deliver our cow? When are we going to be there?”
Mother just absent-mindedly nodded or shrugged to my queries, concentrating more on driving the freeway than to what I was saying. Finally, we chugged over a hill and started down an incline. Chino spread out before us. It was a sea of cattle. The stench was overwhelming, making all of us in the car yearn for the clean smell of L.A. smog. It seemed the only residents of the town were of the bovine persuasion. Cow paddocks spread out as far as I could see, and it reeked to high heaven. Bee gagged, wrinkled her nose in disgust, voiced her disgust several times.
Mother pointed out the Chino State Prison as we drove past. “More penned up doomed creatures.” I began to realize that all these cattle we were driving by were slated to die. These were holding pens for them, before being butchered. This was not a huge pet store where people went to choose the cows they wanted to take home. As I pondered, even I could see there were probably more cows in Chino than could be placed in the entire L.A. basin. It looked like there could be two cows in every driveway and there would still be cattle left over. I had just finished the book *Anne Frank* and so the thought popped into my head, these were bovine concentration camps. As an idealistic child, even I could figure out there was no way we could save all the cattle. I consoled myself that we could save at least some from their awful fate. I asked if we could take home more than one cow. Mother looked at me quizzically in the rearview mirror. She finally just said, “We don’t have the space.”
That confused me. Our corral was huge. There was room for plenty of cattle. We could lose a small herd in it. But I didn’t have time to ask clarifying questions because just then we turned into the driveway of a stockyard parking lot.
Mother turned to us before opening the VW car door, “I don’t want to hear a peep out of you girls. I am doing business here and you both need to be quiet. Do I make myself clear?”
As Mother unloaded us from the car, the proprietor of the yard stepped out of the office trailer. He was dressed in blue jeans with a huge belt buckle, a denim shirt and a straw cowboy hat. Taking off his hat, he wiped his bald head with a red bandana, resettled the hat, then addressed Mother, “Howdy ma’am. I’m Mike. How can I help you?”
Mother put Bee down, responded, “Yes. We spoke on the phone last week. We’re here to purchase a cow. Sorry we’re late. Traffic was horrendous.”
Bee and I stood there, holding hands, reeling from the heat and the smell.
We must have been quite a spectacle. Me, ankles showing in too short jeans, I was tall for my age, and in the middle of yet another growth spurt. Mother, beautiful, as always, in a huge floppy hat, ripped jeans and stained button-down shirt, she could make a gunny sack look good, Bee in her overalls. Mike said, “Nice looking kids.” He leaned over, patted Bee’s head. “Handsome young man here.”
Bee scowled at him, “I’m a girl.” She ran over and hid behind Mother’s legs, tugged at her hand. “Mommy, I don’t like it here. I wanna go home.”
Mike’s ruddy complexion grew redder in embarrassment, horrified at his gaffe.
Mother scowled at her youngest, “Cut that out.” She turned to Mike, “You aren’t the first to think she’s a boy. It’s the overalls.”
“Which one is ours?” I asked excitedly, forgetting Mother’s instructions to be quiet.
Mike laughed, recovering quickly. “I guess you can have any one you want, young lady.”
I skipped over to the closest pen, skidded to a stop, awed at the enormity of my selection, dismayed at the sheer numbers I could not save. The cows were crammed into the pen with little room to move, lowing as they jostled for position. There was no way I could see all of them, the ones in the middle were hidden by those closer to the fence. Mike and Mother came up behind me, Bee hanging on her hand, trying unsuccessfully to drag Mother back to the car. “Which one do you want?” Mother asked.
A brindle cow by the fence with white markings reached its head through the fence poles, sniffed at me. It had large, liquid eyes and a star on its forehead, she seemed sweet. She tried to lick me with an enormous tongue. “How about this one?”
Mike nodded, noted the ear tag number down on a notepad he took out of his back pocket. “Let’s go into my office and finalize the paperwork.” I was giddy with excitement, my new pet cow. I jabbered suggestions for what to call it, lit on Daisy as our new pet’s name.
Bee whined for the umpteenth time, ” I wanna go home.”
Mother turned to her in exasperation. “Shush! Remember what I said in the car? Now be quiet.” She glared at Bee, who pouted at being chastised, but knew better than to say anything more. Mother looked at me with the same stern expression, “Take care of your sister, Shelby.” I piped down and took Bee’s hand again. As the child of Mother’s former marriage, any outbursts from me in particular were not be tolerated.
We walked into the chill of the air-conditioned trailer. It stank of stale cigarettes and sweat. Mike sat down behind the desk, started keying the adding machine and writing up an invoice.
Mother took off her hat, handed it to me, then gestured for us to sit on a moth-eaten couch against the wall, again admonished us to remain silent, then sat down primly on the chair across the desk from Mike. Even dressed in beat up clothes, Mother could look and act quite prim and proper.
Mike was punching at the keys, “So, the cow you selected is about a thousand pounds on the hoof. Hanging weight, it will be about four hundred thirty pounds. What cuts do you want?” He handed Mother a chart of beef cuts.
As I sat on that decrepit sofa, fiddling with Mother’s hat, a sinking feeling grew in the pit of my stomach. It dawned upon me that I had just consigned a cow, my cow Daisy, to die. I wanted to scream, “No! Not that cow, not Daisy! Let me go choose another, uglier, one!” But I knew I had to be quiet, Mother would not be happy if I made a scene. So I sat there, silently mourning the death of my cow, and my role in that killing as the adults continued their negotiations, oblivious to my distress.
Mother, looking at the picture, asked, “Why so little meat? I sort of expected seven or eight hundred pounds.”
Mike shrugged, “Well, we bleed the carcass. And then there’s a lot that you’re not gonna want. The hide, hooves, viscera, head, stomach, tail.”
Mother had been raised in New York City and had therefore been exposed to many varied cuisines. She retorted, “I love brain, tongue, tripe and oxtail soup.”
“No problem, I’ll include the brain, tail, tongue and stomach free of charge.” Mike answered.
“Very well, here’s the address to the meat locker I have secured.” Mother handed Mike a business card from her wallet, and after a little more wrangling, Mother wrote a check for the meat.
Then we got into the VW and drove home. I was subdued, silent tears streaming down my cheeks as I grieved my part in killing Daisy. Mother, if she noticed, did not comment on my saddened state. Bee brightened considerably the closer we got to the mountains of the Gulch.
Mother wasn’t much of a cook. She only had one cookbook, *The Joy of Cooking*. She knew that she might be in over her head with preparing the tongue, brain and stomach. So she dug out and dusted off her only resource for research. She learned tripe must be soaked for several days in fresh water to remove the gastric juices before it can be prepared. Stomach acids make the organ inedible.
The day she was notified the meat was delivered, she pulled out the largest pot in the kitchen with a lid and put it beside the sink in preparation for the soaking process.
Mother and I drove into town. When we pulled up to the meat locker, Mother turned to me and said, “Now, I need your help here, I don’t know what you have been so upset about for the last couple of weeks, but it stops now. Do you understand?”
I nodded mutely.
We got out of the car, entered the meat locker. There, in a conglomeration of pink, paper-wrapped parcels, was Daisy.
Mother, ever the carnivore, excitedly started going over the mound of meat, turning over the individual packages to read the meat cut types scribbled in grease pencil on them. She organized the wrapped cuts of meat into stacks; steak, brisket, ribs, loin, ground chuck, tail, tongue. I was assigned to load the piles into the locker as she continued to gloatingly review and organize the remaining parcels. At the bottom of the pile was a huge package. It must’ve been two feet across, eighteen inches wide and a foot thick. When she turned this package over, the scrawl read “stomach.”
Now Mother, being raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with hired help to prepare the food, had been served all her meals cooked. Her only experience with tripe was as a serving on a plate. She had not thought about, or maybe didn’t know, that cows don’t have one stomach, they have four. She had only seen a single serving portion of tripe at any one time. This reality was thirty pounds of stomachs, not the couple of pounds of meat she had envisioned.
Not to be deterred, Mother and I muscled the huge package into the truck bed of the VW pickup and drove home. My stepfather walked out to greet us when we got home, looked at the package of tripe in the back of the VW and said, “That’s not gonna fit in the pot you got out.” Earl was a man of few words. He turned and went to get the wheelbarrow.
Mother cast about for something that would hold the tripe with room for it to swish around in for rinsing off digestive juices. She lit upon the galvanized tub that was used to wash the dogs and on a hot day earlier that week, we kids had dunked in as a makeshift pool. Mother lugged the container over by the back door, started running a hose to fill it while Earl wheeled the stomachs around.
They unwrapped the tripe, put it into the vessel while it was filling. Immediately, they discovered that the dogs were very interested in this meat. Its being on the ground, meant that even the dachshunds could reach it. Earl suggested they put the tub up on the outside table.
“Okay.” She bent over to grab a handle. “You take the other side and lift.”
“Lisa, that is way too heavy. Dump the water, then we move it. Work smarter, not harder.”
“You’re right, you lift the meat and I’ll dump the tub.” Mother responded.
Earl looked at the contents of the tub askance, “I’m not touching that thing.” Bee and I, looking at the tripe had to agree with Earl, it was appalling; grey and slimy.
“Fine. I’ll lift, you dump.” Mother reached in, grabbed the gelatinous mass lifted it dripping out of the tub. Squeamish she was not. Earl emptied the basin and took it over to the table. Mother lugged the stomachs over, dumped them into the tub in the new location. Earl brought over the hose.
Bee and I were horrified by this thing that we were expected to be eating soon. It did not look appetizing. We could not conceive of its ever being appealing. But Mother waxed poetic about how tasty tripe was and gave the family a lecture about how we had to keep an open mind, had to try things at least once before making any judgements. Earl harrumphed, said something about becoming a vegetarian, why did she buy a whole cow anyhow? Mother, like always, ignored his grousing. She told us she planned to change the water morning and evening for three days, then were we ever in for a treat.
That evening was like most summer nights in the Gulch. We settled into bed with the dulcet sounds of crickets chirping, owls hooting and coyotes howling down in the canyon behind our house. We all slept through the night.
In the morning Mother went out to change the water in the tub with the stomachs and discovered they were gone. She found her tripe dragged halfway across the yard, lying in the dirt. Seems a coyote had tried to haul our gastronomical delicacy back to the den for the pack to feast upon, but the task had been too much for one coyote, so he had left it ignominiously lying under the sycamore tree. To the rest of the family’s horror, Mother hosed the disgusting grey organ off, got a knife and trimmed off the badly chewed parts, emptied the tub, put the tripe into it, and started filling the basin with fresh water. She asked Earl for a suitable piece of plywood for a cover.
Upon awakening the second morning, Mother once again found the tripe gone from its soaking tub. Earl, after commenting about our useless watch dogs, took Bee and followed the tripe’s drag marks in the dirt, they found the stomachs around the house in the driveway, yellow jackets swarming in the warming morning air. Again, Mother hosed down her epicurean delicacy, trimmed the super masticated bits off and put it back in the tub with fresh water. This time she weighted the plywood down with cinder blocks.
Earl questioned whether the tripe was still edible. Bee, ever her father’s daughter, started saying that she didn’t want to eat meat any more. I looked at that disgusting stew and thought there was no way in hell I was going to eat whatever came out of our dog washing tub. But Mother refused to be discouraged. She reiterated how delicious tripe was, and pooh-poohed our concerns. Bee and I were convinced it was going to be the most disagreeable meal ever. Bee even whispered surreptitiously that Mother might be trying to kill us all. Earl nodded vehemently in agreement when Bee voiced her disgust at the tripe.
Mother was not listening to us. She had dug in her heels. Now she was committed to proving we were wrong. This was going to be delicious, just as she remembered it from her childhood. Nothing would make her give up this dream. She acted like she was practically salivating in anticipation of the gourmet meal we were going to have in two days’ time.
That night, there was a ruckus in the back yard. There must have been warring packs of coyotes. The dogs cowered in the house. They only ventured out when Earl got up and stomped outside, brandishing a flashlight and a baseball bat. The coyotes dissipated. Earl took some time to come back in, he told Mother that he had patrolled the perimeter of the yards.
The stomachs were gone, this time, without a trace in the morning. We scouted around, but there were no drag marks and the organs were not lying anywhere obvious it the yards. Later that day, Bee and I found them by following the circling buzzards. The stomaches were in the corral. We discovered Mother’s tripe being picked over by vultures and ravens, swarming with carrion flies, maggots squirming.
Finally even Mother couldn’t stomach the idea of eating her tripe, now that it had been dragged through dirt and horse manure. Maybe the carrion birds, yellow jackets and flies were the last straw. Maybe the maggots did it. Maybe a third night of coyotes chewing on it sickened Mother. She capitulated and agreed to let Earl throw the disgusting gelatinous mass over the nearest cliff. The whole family heaved an enormous sigh of relief as Earl flung those stomachs into a nearby ravine. The tripe tumbled end over end, maggots and juices spewing, as it soared down the cliff to the canyon floor below. There, the carrion birds, coyotes, and insects finished off Mother’s tripe in a luxurious gourmet feast of their own over the course of several days.
A couple years later, when Earl and Mother were getting divorced, Earl divulged in one of the many escalating fights, that he had taken the tripe out to the corral that final night to get rid of it once and for all. Shortly after the cow, he became a lifelong vegetarian.
Neither Bee nor I have ever eaten tripe.