GREENVILLE, S.C.—When Jeff Bannister, owner of a process-serving company here, decided four months ago to grill a whole steer, he was prepared for challenges.
It was expensive—the steer alone, skinned and butterflied, cost about $2,000—and at 863 pounds, it took six men to heave it out of the slaughterhouse and onto a truck. The grill, which Mr. Bannister and friends designed, required a 14-foot-long rack, a three-ton chain hoist and tube steel buried five feet in 3,000 pounds of concrete. The weather report for the all-night, April cookout predicted torrential rain and possible tornados.
Then the steer caught on fire.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” yelled Mr. Bannister, 46 years old, who grabbed a hose and began putting out the flames, then spritzed the steer with a solution of wine, water and salt. His friend Randall Knight, owner of Nard’s Backyard BBQ catering company, covered his eyes, muttering something about how spraying alcohol over a fire wasn’t a good idea. Tension rippled through the crowd of 30 onlookers.
Whole-animal cookery has grown trendy in recent years, as celebrity chefs including Mario Batali and Britain’s Fergus Henderson, have promoted “nose-to- tail” eating. But while whole pigs, lambs or goats have hitherto represented the apex of carnivorous grilling, few in modern-day America have attempted whole-cattle roasts. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says it has never heard of such a thing.
In recent months, however, there’s been a smattering of interest in roasting whole bovines. In December, Jerry Wallach, an attorney and Marine, and his girlfriend, Alanna Kellogg, who writes food blogs, gathered 150 friends in the Missouri Ozarks where they roasted an “875-pound on the hoof” buffalo. In Austin, Texas, last September, John Bullington, executive chef of the Alamo Drafthouse, a chain of cinemas that serve meals, grilled a head of cattle for a company event.
These roasters, and Mr. Bannister, say they were inspired by a cookbook published two years ago by chef Francis Mallmann, who has restaurants in Argentina and Uruguay. In his book, “Seven Fires,” he describes a method for grilling a cow in the style of South American gauchos. The recipe calls for “1 medium cow, about 1,400 pounds, butterflied, skin removed” and “1 heavy block-and-tackle attached to a steel stanchion set in concrete.”
Mr. Bannister saw Mr. Mallmann demonstrate a cattle roast in Uruguay on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” TV show last year. He instantly began dreaming about doing it.
“He said, ‘It’s never been done here before,'” recalled his wife, Olga Bannister. “And I said, ‘Ok, but why would you want to do it?'”
Mr. Bannister says he’s gone through other food obsessions, including perfecting paella. But he says a steer roast represented both “a bucket-list type of thing” and a way to gather friends, clients and employees.
Grilling a steer presents problems that cooking smaller animals doesn’t. Cuts of beef, more than pork or lamb, differ in terms of tenderness and flavor, and require distinct cooking temperatures and methods, says Mark Elia, a lecturer on meat fabrication at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. A cattle carcass has a thick layer of fat that liquefies over heat and causes flare ups.
Even the author has qualms.
“It’s not the most delicious thing, I must confess,” says Mr. Mallmann. “You’re cooking a huge beast: Some parts will be nice, and some will be overcooked,” he says. In Argentina and Uruguay, whole-cow cookery is largely ceremonial, he says, for events such as fairs celebrating rural culture. He never thought U.S. readers would try it.
Some object. When Catie Coyle, a 23-year-old social worker in Greenville, was told by her boyfriend that they were invited to Mr. Bannister’s roast, she was “completely and utterly appalled,” she says. Thankfully, she says, the event was “not quite as horrific and graphic as I expected.”
A big roadblock to cattle grilling is that neither the equipment nor a local knowledge base are readily available. Each U.S. group had to engineer and build its own grill. There wasn’t always such a vacuum: A newspaper report from 1878 tells of a political gathering in Shoemakersville, Pa., where the public was served a whole roasted ox. It describes how the event descended into a stampede as crowds rushed the ox meat.
Vestiges of this tradition can be observed in community “Ox Roasts,” though most feature cuts of butchered beef rather than whole oxen.
In spite of drawbacks, some describe being inexorably drawn to cattle-roasting.
“I was drinking a nice French wine with a bunch of hairy-chested Marines,” during an elk-hunting trip last fall when friends talked him into grilling a buffalo, Mr. Wallach, 72, recalls. Two months later, he was driving a tractor carrying a 419-pound cleaned carcass towards a modified spit roast. The meat emerged “a bit crispy” in places, “a bit rare” in others, but still tasty, he says.
A group of local businessmen shared the costs and labor of Mr. Bannister’s roast—christened “Bovinova 2011″—and a 69-member Facebook group shared tips, such as how to make three gallons of horseradish sauce. The event was streamed via a webcam, drawing 350 viewers.
No amount of camaraderie, however, could spare Mr. Bannister, who served in Desert Storm, “the worst night of my life,” as a storm raged across the Carolinas all night during his roast. The crowd thinned to 10 exhausted helpers and the steer was consumed by flames multiple times. After 18 hours on the grill, the meat emerged thoroughly carbonized, looking like a tree trunk after a forest fire. But once the black exterior was cut away, the skies cleared, a band played, and about 300 people sat down and ate juicy beef, beans and coleslaw. Mr. Bannister and his team began planning the next Bovinova. Mrs. Bannister marveled that they pulled it off.
“I just think, given enough bourbon, these guys could solve all the problems of the world,” she said.
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