SANF December 08 : 96

Chapter 5: Farmaid As a boutique organic beef company fends off scandal, food writer David Tuckwall and his friends race through the Central Valley in search of a kidnapped chef. BY ROBERT BERINGELA | ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN FOX T he sun was high and in fine fighting spirits, and heat waves shimmered over the Central Valley. But inside Bo Mercer’s air-conditioned office, it was cool enough to hang a side of meat. The offi ce sat in a converted ranch house on a low-slung hill overlooking a pasture. In the distance, herds of Herefords and Shorthorns lazed about the grasslands—calm, peaceful, and clueless, like lambs awaiting slaughter, except that they were cows. “Easy now, Marvin. Calm down!” Bo said. Perched at his desk, with his phone pressed to his ear, he wore the leather hat and boots of a cattleman, and the worried look of a Fannie Mae accountant. His pale complexion and protruding belly added to the bearing of a gentleman rancher, which was pretty much what he’d become. “You’re the one who got us into this mess.” Bo swiveled in his chair, gazing out the window at his herds. For generations, the animals had been his family’s lifeblood, stretching back to his great-great- grandfather Heinrich Mercer, a failed ’49er who fell short of a fortune in the Sierra foothills but found a happy fate in the valley instead. The survival of the ranch—throughWorldWars, the ColdWar, droughts, the Depression—was a story of endurance and adap- tation. It had outlived fads, defied suburban sprawl, and persisted in the face of threats from tofu burg- ers, beef-borne illnesses, and fearmongering over bad cholesterol. But now they had this crisis. Disarming it would be a delicate task, better left to Bo than to his hot- tempered older brother, Marvin, who could stagger a steer with his bare knuckles but lacked the slightest measure of common sense “Don’t yell at me, Marvin,” Bo said. “Wasn’t me who told you to use that crap.” Synovex: the steroid flowing through their cattle’s bloodstreams, threatening the brothers’ green name. Using such chemicals was standard practice at the big beef operations, but a deathblow for a business whose success rested on its earth-friendly reputation. Grass-fed and organic. Bo had introduced those buzzwords to his family in the 1990s, when he reluc- tantly returned to the ranch after college. His father 96 SAN FRANCISCO DECEMBER 2008 FOODNOIR

Food Noir

- Robert Beringela

Chapter 5: Farm aid<br /> <br /> As a boutique organic beef company fends off scandal, food writer David Tuckwall and his friends race through the Central Valley in search of a kidnapped chef.<br /> <br /> The sun was high and in fi ne fi ghting spirits, and heat waves shimmered over the Central Valley. But inside Bo Mercer’s air-conditioned offi ce, it was cool enough to hang a side of meat.<br /> <br /> The offi ce sat in a converted ranch house on a low-slung hill overlooking a pasture. In the distance, herds of Herefords and Shorthorns lazed about the grasslands—calm, peaceful, and clueless, like lambs awaiting slaughter, except that they were cows.<br /> <br /> “Easy now, Marvin. Calm down!” Bo said.<br /> <br /> Perched at his desk, with his phone pressed to his ear, he wore the leather hat and boots of a cattleman, and the worried look of a Fannie Mae accountant. His pale complexion and protruding belly added to the bearing of a gentleman rancher, which was pretty much what he’d become.<br /> <br /> “You’re the one who got us into this mess.” <br /> <br /> Bo swiveled in his chair, gazing out the window at his herds. For generations, the animals had been his family’s lifeblood, stretching back to his great-greatgrandfather Heinrich Mercer, a failed ’49er who fell short of a fortune in the Sierra foothills but found a happy fate in the valley instead. The survival of the ranch—through World Wars, the Cold War, droughts, the Depression—was a story of endurance and adaptation. It had outlived fads, defi ed suburban sprawl, and persisted in the face of threats from tofu burgers, beef-borne illnesses, and fearmongering over bad cholesterol.<br /> <br /> But now they had this crisis. Disarming it would be a delicate task, better left to Bo than to his hottempered older brother, Marvin, who could stagger a steer with his bare knuckles but lacked the slightest measure of common sense <br /> <br /> “Don’t yell at me, Marvin,” Bo said. “Wasn’t me who told you to use that crap.” <br /> <br /> Synovex: the steroid fl owing through their cattle’s bloodstreams, threatening the brothers’ green name. Using such chemicals was standard practice at the big beef operations, but a deathblow for a business whose success rested on its earth-friendly reputation.<br /> <br /> Grass-fed and organic. Bo had introduced those buzzwords to his family in the 1990s, when he reluctantly returned to the ranch after college. His father had grown ill, and brutish Marvin couldn’t be trusted to run things on his own. Bo came on as a number cruncher but soon doubled up as a marketer, dragging the old ranch into the modern age.<br /> <br /> To a wizened cattleman like his father, the words grass-fed and organic were empty slogans from the lunatic fringe. But to young, enlightened Bo, they pointed toward a sweet spot in the beef business, the growing sector where progressive politics fattened profi ts. What better combination? A rancher could do right by the earth and pretty darn well for himself.<br /> <br /> Marvin, of course, had resisted. “Why fi x it if it ain’t broken?” he’d protested.<br /> <br /> “Don’t sweat it,” Bo told him. “I’ll deal with the paperwork. You handle the herds.” <br /> <br /> It took three years to make the transition, and another two to reap the rewards. The herds looked much the same—slightly leaner, maybe—but the branding was worlds better: Mercy Beef, a name Bo dreamed up himself.<br /> <br /> The business was green in more ways than one. Profi ts tripled, then quadrupled. Mercy Beef emerged as an industry icon, a pioneering purveyor of feel-good meat. Weekends soon found Bo as a special guest at farmers’ markets and as a headline panelist at organo-conferences up and down the coast, alongside Michael Pollan.<br /> <br /> It all seemed too good to be true—and it was. Hard times hit. Competitors caught on, glutting the market with conscientious meat, and rising fuel costs and skyrocketing fees at the slaughterhouse cut even further into the brothers’ bottom line.<br /> <br /> They could have weathered it, but Marvin panicked. He started taking shortcuts behind Bo’s back, injecting their cattle with Synovex, a cheap and easy method of plumping up the herds.<br /> <br /> It was Marvin’s ugly little secret—and it might have stayed that way, if Jock Rapini hadn’t found out. The brothers had known the chef for years, enjoying symbiotic dealings with him. They sold meat to Rapini’s tricked-out restaurants—Trough, Truth, Tribe, and Trafe—and he trumpeted their name on his menus. When the chef required a backdrop for rough-and-tumble episodes of Meal of Fortune, the reality show he hosted on the Food Network, he turned to the Mercers. It was good publicity for them and good street cred for Rapini, getting down and dirty on a working ranch—the chef who knew just where his food came from.<br /> <br /> Only now he knew too much. While fi lming his own B-roll with a handheld camera, the do-ityourself chef picked up some incriminating footage: cases of Synovex stacked in an old feed barn; steroid implants wedged inside the animals’ fl oppy ears. He turned to blackmailing the Mercer brothers: his silence in exchange for inexpensive meat.<br /> <br /> “Right. Sure. Great idea, Marvin,” Bo said now into the phone. “Let’s go ahead and kill Jock Rapini.” <br /> <br /> He slapped his forehead, dislodging his Stetson, and held the phone away as Marvin bellowed more inanities.<br /> <br /> “Tell you what, Marvin. How about you leave the thinking to me?” Bo boomed back. “And when Jock Rapini turns up, you let me deal with that son of a bitch.” <br /> <br /> “ORGANIC POP-TARTS?” David Tuckwall frowned.<br /> <br /> As a seasoned food writer for the San Francisco Courier, Tuckwall had been subjected to all manner of fl uffy marketing, but these took the cake. Like Madonna and Joe Lieberman, the junk food of his youth had reinvented itself, shape-shifting with the latest trends.<br /> <br /> “Correction,” said Edie Brandt, the charming owner of the Teeny Panini and Tuckwall’s sometime girlfriend. “Organic toaster pastries.” <br /> <br /> She grinned and bit the corner off her sugarcoated snack, purchased that morning at Rainbow Grocery.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall rolled his eyes and scanned the cardboard packaging. It showed a picture of a squaw standing in a fi eld of wheat and berries, beneath the barf-inducing brand name Nature’s Hug.<br /> <br /> “‘Organic dextrose,’” he said, reading the fi ne print.<br /> <br /> “Don’t hate me for making healthy choices,” Edie replied.<br /> <br /> “Organic caramel color. Organic rice bran extract. Organic honey. Isn’t all honey organic? It’s made by bees.” <br /> <br /> “Most of them have sold out, too.” <br /> <br /> It was a sun-splashed morning, the kind of weather that makes autumn the season of the gods in San Francisco. Edie tugged Tuckwall across Larkin Street.<br /> <br /> “Sudden burst of energy,” Tuckwall said. “Sure sign of an artifi cial-sugar rush.” <br /> <br /> A good night’s sleep had cleared the cobwebs, but his head was still badly bruised from his butternutsquash beating, delivered by a rabid vegan, and the feel-good pastry only added to the pain.<br /> <br /> As much as he supported the organic movement, its language had become so broad and debased that it was tough for Tuckwall to accept it all. Fluff food writer though he was, it still rubbed his journalistic instincts the wrong way.<br /> <br /> A cynic, Edie called him. But cynics were the CEOs of megacorporations who had seized the market from small farmers, snatching the wholesome soil from beneath their feet. The system was diseased, and the transformed Pop-Tart was just one symptom. How healthy were “organics” in a world where Philip Morris held a major interest in the company that canned Muir Glen tomatoes? Who could you really trust when Monsanto, the shrewd maker of mutant corn, pulled the strings of the puppets who sold Edie her herbal tea?<br /> <br /> The more he knew, the more it pushed his wariness toward paranoia. Just last week, buying “pesticide-free” peaches from a small purveyor, Tuckwall had inspected the fruit’s skin, as perfect as a Cézanne painting, and decided that the claim was just another fairy tale.<br /> <br /> “Look,” Edie said. “This ought to cheer you up.” <br /> <br /> She pointed up the block toward the Civic Center. On the public plaza, white tents had sprung up over artisan-food stands, which extended side by side around a young organic garden. An impressive crowd had gathered. It was a busy, snazzy scene, as if a giant army led by Alice Waters were laying siege to city hall. In one sense, the attendees were well-heeled guardsmen, gathered in defense of a simpler lifestyle and marshaled by the leader of their global movement.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall had interviewed Luis Albariño, so it wasn’t hard to pick him out, even at a distance. Bespectacled and bald, he was standing on a platform, microphone in hand, looking like a cross between Larry David and a tenured comp-lit professor.<br /> <br /> Albariño fi rst gained fame in the 1990s for picketing a Burger King a few blocks from his home in Barcelona. Broadcast around the world, the boycott tapped a reservoir of sentiment. People were mad as hell, or at least disgusted, and they weren’t going to eat it anymore.<br /> <br /> Within a decade, they had formalized the fight. The organization spawned a cookbook, a guidebook, and an annual conference marked by seminars, outdoor markets, and chefs’ tasting dinners—Happy Meals for champagne liberals. In the preceding weeks, fl yers for the event had rained down like manna across the city, all of them emblazoned with an image of the group’s grinning mascot: a brighteyed, leaf-munching three-toed sloth.<br /> <br /> At the Asian Art Museum, Edie and Tuckwall passed a wisecracking panhandler.<br /> <br /> “Spare change for farmhouse cheddar?” <br /> <br /> “On one side, slow food,” Tuckwall muttered. “On the other, no food.” <br /> <br /> Edie shot him daggers. “Keep up the attitude,” she said, “and I’m going home.” <br /> <br /> It was Tuckwall’s fatal fl aw: thoughts spilling from his mouth without pausing for approval from his brain.<br /> <br /> They strolled into the plaza, where Albariño was speaking to an effervescent audience and whipping up antipathy toward chicken cutlets. “So I ask you,” he said, “do we want to live in a world where our children have never seen a real live chicken, where a chicken to them is a fried brown thing that comes in a box?” <br /> <br /> “No!” cried the onlookers.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall wasn’t going to argue. He took Edie’s hand and led her through the crowd. At the far end of the plaza, past the heirloom beets and the hand-churned butter, stood a row of picnic tables. Marty Copeland was sitting at one, washing down a handmade pork tamale with a watermelon agua fresca.<br /> <br /> “Bite?” asked the retired detective. He held out a fork. Compostable and made of cornstarch, its prongs were melting from the tamale’s heat.<br /> <br /> “No, thanks,” Tuckwall said. “I’m craving something a bit more endangered.” <br /> Copeland glanced at Edie. “I still have no idea how you put up with this guy.” <br /> <br /> “Please, Marty. If you hear of any nice single men.” <br /> <br /> Copeland grinned. “I can think of one bachelor, a tall redhead,” he said, referring to Alfi e Falfa, the violent vegan who’d assaulted Tuckwall and kidnapped hotshot chef Jock Rapini. “But from what I hear, he’s the testy sort. <br /> <br /> ” He reached into the pocket of his rumpled sport coat and pulled out an equally rumpled map of the highways and byways of California. He spread it on the table and jabbed his fi nger at the brown swath representing the Central Valley.<br /> <br /> “Your man, Mr. Falfa. He grew up here.” <br /> <br /> “That was fast,” Tuckwall said.<br /> <br /> Copeland shrugged. “You give me a guy’s full name, I’ll tell you where he spent every year of his life. You give me his social security number, I’ll tell you what he had for dessert last night.” <br /> <br /> “You think he’s out there now?” Tuckwall said.<br /> <br /> “Possibility,” Copeland said. “His folks’ ostrich ranch went under in the ’80s, but there’s no record of the property changing hands. A guy like him probably sticks close to home.” <br /> <br /> Tuckwall squinted at the map. “Well,” he said, “I can’t quit on this story now.” <br /> <br /> “And I could use the adventure,” Copeland said.<br /> <br /> They turned to Edie. “I’ve barely seen him since college, and I’ve got no real desire to reconnect,” she said. “But I wouldn’t mind the drive.” <br /> <br /> BY EARLY AFTERNOON, Edie had commandeered her Prius Zipcar through the gauntlet of windmills over Altamont Pass. Tuckwall sat in back, and Copeland navigated from the passenger’s seat. The cool bay breezes of the city had given way to the Central Valley’s furnace blast.<br /> <br /> They drove south on Highway 5 through a vast, unchanging landscape pockmarked by gas stations and convenience stores. The nation’s salad bowl, they called it, but not a thing to snack on. It reminded Tuckwall that the closer you got to California’s farms, the harder it became to fi nd real food. If only Albariño would bring his battle here.<br /> <br /> Just north of Patterson, Edie pinched her nose and rolled up the windows. A fetid smell fi lled the air. As they passed over a gentle crest, the stench grew stronger, and a grim, smoke-belching building came into view. Countless heads of cattle lolled on the land around it, slopping about in the muddy soil.<br /> <br /> “Cowschwitz,” Copeland said.<br /> <br /> It was Bartleby’s Ranch, the largest slaughterhouse in the state.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall watched the killing fi elds drift past his window. The dumb, blinking cattle with their gentle gazes were bloated on corn, awaiting a metal bolt between the eyes.<br /> <br /> “When we get back to the city,” Edie said, “remind me that I promised to give up meat.” <br /> <br /> Three exits later, they pulled off the freeway and headed west through the apricot orchards. Copeland directed Edie onto an unmarked road. A few miles in, rutted pavement gave way to gravel.<br /> <br /> They rattled past rows of lettuce, green beans, caulifl ower, and kale. The gravel devolved into hardpack dirt, which dead-ended at a barn. A battered VW hatchback sat out front.<br /> <br /> They parked and approached the barn. Copeland reached inside his jacket and drew a gun.<br /> <br /> “That thing real?” asked Tuckwall.<br /> <br /> Copeland gave him a pitying look. “No, it’s made of chocolate,” he said. “But stay back anyway.” <br /> <br /> He pulled open the barn door, which groaned in agony. Chickens squawked and scattered. Sunbeams fought through cracks in the ceiling.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall tried to focus in the faint light. “It stinks in here,” he said.<br /> <br /> “It’s a barn, city boy,” Edie replied.<br /> <br /> Crouched behind Copeland, they inched forward. As their eyes adjusted, a strange, disheveled scene came into view: a rusted tractor. Hay bales piled haphazardly in one corner. A metal cage with a broken pitchfork propped against it.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall recognized the backdrop from the front-page photo that had run in the Courier above his story on the kidnapping and torture of Jock Rapini: the cage where the humiliated chef had been held captive, plastered in goose feathers, and force-fed by gavage.<br /> <br /> “We came to the right place,” said Copeland. “But we didn’t get here fast enough.” <br /> <br /> His words were punctuated by the faint buzz of a hybrid car starting. Copeland sprang toward the door, with Tuckwall and Edie on his heels.<br /> <br /> They stepped outside just in time to see the Prius grind into motion on the gravel.<br /> <br /> “You left the key in the car?” asked Copeland.<br /> <br /> “It’s a freaking farm!” Edie cried.<br /> <br /> They started helplessly after the Prius, then stopped and watched it shrink into the distance. Hunkered down at the wheel was a giant, red-haired creature. Squeezed in the back, his face pressed forlornly against the window, was the slumped-shouldered fi gure of the woebegotten chef.

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