To reach Coalinga from the south, you drive up from Los Angeles through hills as gently rumpled as last night’s clothes on the bedroom floor and drop through the Tejon Pass, where Interstate 5 (“the 5”) spills onto the scooped-out plane of the Central Valley, a 450-mile stretch of land bordered by mountain ranges on its east and west.
On this route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, fast-food restaurants, motels, and gas stations dot one of the most productive agricultural regions of the world, with acres of perfumed almond trees, peppers, and tomato crops alternating with dusty fields with signs that protest the Valley’s insufficient water allotment. Admit that you’re driving this highway for the first time and someone will warn you of its most memorable sight: Cowschwitz.
Cowschwitz is the nickname bestowed on a massive feedlot on the 5, the last stop for hundreds of thousands of cattle that fatten on grains before being turned into steaks, patties, and microwavable dinners by the Harris Ranch Beef Company. Founded by Jack Harris in 1937, the company initially focused on cotton and grain before turning to their real cash crop: beef. It’s now the largest ranch on the West Coast, with up to 100,000 cattle at a time in an 800-acre feedlot of dust or mud — depending on the season — and a smell that announces the animals miles before you see them.
Dish of the day
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, credits driving by the Harris feedlot with sparking his interest in America’s industrial food system.1 Harris says that its animal care practices meet humane standards; it holds up animal behaviorist (and renowned autism advocate) Temple Grandin as proof: she helped design their cattle-handling facilities and has said that Harris treats animals well. “Harris needs to give more tours and explain its practices to the public,” Grandin said at a talk about evolving agriculture practices sponsored by the Young Cattlemen’s Association. Presumably the tour would not have persuaded the animal rights activists who burned 14 of the ranch’s cattle trucks in 2012.
Perhaps what’s surprising about the feedlot isn’t that it exists but rather that it is so visible on this heavily trafficked stretch of highway, and that the connection from feedlot to plate was emphasized by opening a nearby inn and restaurant complex with menus that feature the company’s beef. In 1977, Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant opened four miles south of the feedlot.
“It was an eating experience,” says Debby O’Brien, who first visited the restaurant when it opened. “You would have starved between San Francisco and L.A. back then. Ask anyone who commuted up and down the 5 frequently; we were all Harris Ranch junkies. Everyone scheduled their drives up and down the coast to stop at Harris.”
Three restaurants in the complex now serve over 2,000 diners a day, and as of 2010 it was the 74th highest-grossing independent restaurant in the United States. The hacienda-style inn offers 153 guest rooms, an Olympic-sized pool, and pretty excellent chocolate-chip cookies at check-in.
The first stop through the sliding doors of the restaurant complex is a gift shop that sells “I ❤ Harris” t-shirts, magnets, and bags, as well as bibs that transform a baby into a cowgirl with a fringed Harris Ranch skirt or a cowboy atop a bronco. Meat is always the main attraction: at the gift shop’s butcher counter, two refrigerated cases of pink steaks and microwavable beef dinners greet visitors. According to the butcher shop clerk, fans fly in to the Harris Ranch airstrip on private planes, fill their coolers, then fly home. You can call ahead to place your order at 1-800-942-BEEF.
There are three dining options at the Ranch: the high-end, reservations-only Jockey Club; the adults-only Horseshoe Bar; and the family-friendly Harris Ranch Restaurant. I picked the Jockey Club to meet the meat, and made an 8:30 p.m. reservation.
Each place at the Jockey Club is set with an enormous steak knife that looks adequate for carving a triceratops. Gas lanterns set into the wall illuminate sketches of horses, wooden washtubs, and other “olde” time ranch ephemera while diners peruse the menus and bus boys balance trays heavy with meat.
Our server’s nametag announces both her name and her hometown: Coalinga. The chirpy nametags and sparkle-eyed friendliness of every server, hostess, and clerk amplify the Disney atmosphere of the place, projecting a total, annihilating earnestness in service to your steak experience.
It turns out that 8:30 p.m. is a late seating, and the restaurant is almost cleared out. According to the hostess, about 90% of diners are just stopping in, but 10% are locals or repeat visitors who love the Ranch, including those who fly in. Tonight’s diners include one of the Ranch owners, who sits in a cushy, dimly lit booth near the hostess station.
By 9 p.m., three tables are finishing their meals: a triple date of young couples; elderly friends in matching ice-blue golf shirts; and a group of sexagenarian men, one of whom tells a joke to which the punch line is “The A.T.F.” The table roars with laughter.
Cal-Tex Riders, a California-Texas alliance of retired motorcycle police officers, made Harris a stop on their motorcycle tour of the area; early the next morning, they’re buffing insect splatter off their bikes before the 9 a.m. Poker Run — they visit five locations by motorcycle, pick up a card at each, and compare hands back at the ranch before drinks at the Horseshoe followed by a steak dinner.
At Harris, it seems obvious that what you get for dinner is steak, but the number of options makes the choice dizzying. Select among brown sugar-rubbed rib eye, top sirloin with orange shrimp, a New York strip loin topped with crab cake, steak Diane, beef Wellington, surf-n-turf, or, if you please, one of the straightforward options, which include prime rib, t-bone, porterhouse, filet mignon, rib eye, and strip loin.
My dining companion, a vegetarian, scans the menu. “They couldn’t throw me a pasta? Nothing?” She systematically unlocks an order of deep-fried asparagus from a batter cocoon, the remains of which lay broken on a giant white plate.
The asparagus comes from Harris Ranch, as do the almonds in the next morning’s pancakes. Harris is an integrated ranch, producing vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and also finishing, slaughtering, packaging, and distributing its beef, which is rare. Unlike the pork and chicken industries, the beef industry is still fragmented, with production phases managed by different companies. Also included in their portfolio is Harris Farms, a thoroughbred stable started by the family in 1966.
The décor in the restaurant complex is haute ranch, with hammered metal chandeliers paired with hide-covered sofas. Looking at the cowhide chairs and coverings with a vocabulary influenced by style blogs, it’s hard to decide if the hides have been repurposed or just purposed.
None of the windows in the restaurant complex or inn are open. The direction of the wind makes the feedlot seem closer than its four-mile distance, and a walk to the pool or car means smelling manure. We haven’t seen the feedlot yet and won’t until the morning: the strip of burn scrub, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and cows clear to the horizon. The smell up-close: earthy and sweet, elemental and revolting.
Making a killing
For a documentary photography class in graduate school, I took pictures at an independent abattoir that marketed its services to pasture-based small farms. On the first visit I saw pigs resting on sun-drenched wood shavings in the holding pens, then I toured the empty, immaculate kill floor with its silver hooks and hoses. Weeks later I shot a slaughter.
One pig was led to the kill floor as the next waited in a metal cage at the back of the room. The first pig had a black face and whiskery snout; the one in the metal cage was smaller and pink with a freckled rump. The men were fast and professional; they shot the first pig, slit down the skin of its belly, and hoisted the carcass over a drain to bleed out. The freckled pig made terrible noises.
Later, in the car, as I removed my blood-soaked shoes, I realized that I had seen the best-case scenario, yet there was nothing comfortable about killing. I thought about not eating meat for a while. That lasted a day.
The steak at Harris Ranch is full-flavored and tender the way that corn finishing is supposed to guarantee. I drink half of a fishbowl-sized martini, take a spin around the lounge where middle-aged couples chew burgers and pick at their beer labels, and walk back to the inn through the manure-scented air.
In our room, the Harris Ranch channel broadcasts three clips on a loop. The persuading messages and wide shots of cows grazing on green hills seem targeted to guests who arrived by driving past the feedlot. “We source from partners who utilize superior genetics in cow herds,” a drowsy voice says. On-screen, ranch workers on horseback lead steer over a stream, then two children in black cowboy hats fish from a small pond edged with grass. A voiceover mentions Temple Grandin, genuine Western heritage, and natural beef.
“Produced,” the announcer intones, “the slow, old-fashioned way.”
Cow photo by Bloomberg via Getty Images. Feedlot and gift shop photos by the author.
Colleen Hubbard lives in England, where she writes fiction and nonfiction.