“Tough Outlaws”

August 12, 2007

We enjoyed the first hamburgers of 2007’s harvest last night. Lean and tasty as well-finished, grassfed beef always is. Paired with sweet corn-on-the-cob from Swank Farms in Hollister, and an heirloom tomato salad made with with Phil Foster’s (Pinnacle Farms of San Juan Bautista) yellow, orange, and red tomatoes, it was a classic late summer meal in San Benito County.

 As we return from vacation, there is always the adjustment of getting back into the routine of work, chores and life’s daily obligations. On the ranch, Joe is planning our branding, set for later this month. This ritual marks the end of summer for us and is a cultural celebration of the California Vaquero traditions. Utilitarian and celebratory all at the same time, we invite friends and family to help out and then join us for a leisurely lunch, which often turns into an early dinner. Akin to the barn raisings in Amish country, a branding represents community, labor to get a job done, and – of course – food.  Not the most pleasant day for the cows and calves, but done properly, it’s a short discomfort soon forgotten by the animals. I compare it to taking small children in for their shots.

 We follow the old world tradition of keeping the cows and calves together. We do not use a chute, but rather brand in an open field or large corral. The brand is used as an ID mark and serves the same purpose today as it did 250 years ago. Cattle rustlers still exist . When the animals are brought to market, a brand inspector still must verify that the seller owns the cattle, identified by the brand that each rancher has registered with the state. Our brand, a capital “T” on top of an “O” comes from the late 1870s when Joe’s great-great-grandfather, Richard O’Neill, went into business with James Flood on the Santa Margarita ranch in Southern California, now known as Camp Pendleton, and bought their first herd of cattle marked with the T.O. brand. We’re not sure what the T.O. stands for, but as children Joe and his siblings told themselves it meant “Tough Outlaws.” Long live the tough outlaws. 

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