The ribeye steak was called the MosCowBoy. When I cut into it, juice squished out onto the ceramic plate. Each tender bite made my taste buds light up with all six of the essential flavors (sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and especially umami and fat).
This was five years ago, in June 2011, when I’d just finished working as a cowboy on a ranch in Russia. Our team of cowboys had transplanted 1,450 breeding cattle from the Montana prairies to the Russian steppes. We saw the cattle through their first winter and spring, while training a group of villagers in the cowboy trade. With the job complete, we packed up our boots and chaps, then bid our villager comrades “adios.” The cattle were in their hands, now.
Bloomberg news anchor Ryan Chilcote made this TV segment about Stevenson Sputnik Ranch. I’m the cowboy in the brown vest and straw hat. VIDEO COURTESY BLOOMBERG
With a few days to kill in Moscow before flying home, I went in search of a steak, which I found at Goodman Steakhouse. (See: Russians Raise the Steaks By Demanding Blood.) I’d been warned that buying a steak would be expensive in Russia. I didn’t care. I was flush with summer wages. The menu listed a dozen options, two of which were ribeyes, my favorite cut. One steak weighed 14 ounces and cost $50. The other, the MosCowBoy, weighed 22 ounces and cost $75. I knew which one to order.
As I devoured the steak, I thought about the MosCowBoy as a symbol. The name suggested that beef could be a cultural bridge between Russia and America. Cattle-based agriculture originated on the Eurasian steppes, 10,000 years ago. Western ranching was a modern-day incarnation of nomadic pastoralists. Cowboy saddlery — stirrups, saddle seats, even the bit — were invented by Eurasian horsemen, and then passed along between peoples on a westward drift across Europe, Africa, and eventually the Americas.
Perhaps more importantly, the MosCowBoy was a poster child for Russia’s enormous food security problem. The menu said that all of Goodman’s steaks were imported from either the United States or Australia. That made the MosCowBoy part of the US$4 billion spent that year importing nearly half of all the red meat eaten by the Russian people.
Today, I have come back to Russia to explore its nascent beef cattle industry. As events in the Ukrainian, Crimea, and Syria have shown, Russia’s food policy has become a matter of international relations. Multiple self-imposed food bans — against the West and Turkey — have clamped down on imported foods, including steaks imported from the U.S. and Australia. Combined with a drop in oil prices, Russia’s economy has been hit hard. The ruble has inflated nearly by triple, pushing food costs up by 20 percent, while wages are stagnant.
After a half-decade of fast growth, Russia’s cattle importing bonanza has tapered off. (See: A First-Generation Russian Bull Comes of Age.) The Food Security Doctrine, signed in 2010, had envisioned steady growth through 2020. Now, Russia’s beef industry is having to fledge sooner than the government had planned. Will it fly or plummet?
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.