My last day as guest blogger. Enough looking back at beer. Time to look to the future — and to my next book: A history of meat in America, from the pork factories along the Ohio River in the 1830s to the Prather and Niman ranches in the 1970s.
Book ideas are mysterious creatures. My brain dishes them up, but I never know when they'll appear or why. The beer book, for example, arrived in my head, more or less fully formed, when I driving down the street and spotted a Budweiser truck.
So, too, the meat idea, which landed in my lap via a route I don't pretend to understand.
This past summer the beer book went into production and I started thinking seriously about my next project.
"Thinking" consisted of me flopping onto the sofa, staring at the ceiling, willing my brain to feed me ideas. Something. Anything.
I puttered around the house. I swam laps at the pool and took long walks around a nearby lake. Nothing.
Well, okay, not "nothing." My brain kept shoving an image of the King Ranch in front of my mind's eye.
The King Ranch? I'd heard of it — vaguely.
I knew — vaguely — that it was a huge property in Texas whose owners produced something. Oil? Cattle? I wasn't sure.
I ignored the image. Irrelevant.
Next day, the King Ranch re-appeared. The perspective was one I'd see from the air: a vast sprawl of dry scrub, cattle, and barb-wire fence that stretched to the horizon.
Huh? Again I ignored it.
Third day, the King Ranch returned. Same image.
Okay, so I'm a weeeee slow on the uptake. I realized that my brain was telling me something important. I let the image take a seat and settle in.
The next day, however, the King Ranch vanished, replaced by a new image: Cattle plodding across a scrubby landscape.
My mind's eye ranged (no pun intended) across the view: Cattle. Miles and miles of cattle. Off in the distance, a guy on horseback. A small sign along the trail bearing one word: "Abilene."
Now I was paying attention. The brain doesn't concoct stuff like this unless it's got a good reason to do so.
My mind's eye scanned the scene again. The King Ranch reappeared.
Meat. I'd write a book about meat! Americans and meat. How have we produced it? How has our relationship to it changed over the decades?
I fell immediately and thoroughly in love with the idea and its possibilities.
And realized that my brain was prodding me to embark on yet another tour of the American character, in this case the dark side of our inherent optimism.
As I said a few days ago, if any one thing defines us as Americans, it's our optimism. Our belief that we can shape the world around us. That we can change what we don't like. That the future will be better than the past.
But that optimism also fosters the belief that we can have it all.
In the case of meat, for example, we believe that we can have clean air and water, four-bedroom houses, and ground beef that only costs $2.50 a pound.
Don't see the connection among those things? I do, but that's because I live in Iowa. Every day I am witness to a tri-sided battle among three powerful forces, each of which exemplifies the desire to have it all.
When the wind is right, I can smell the hog and cattle confinments lots that are less than ten miles from my house. These are vast enclosures where farmers raise thousands of animals that end up in our grocery stores as meat that is affordable to nearly everyone.
But every year, homeowners inch closer to these meat factories, thanks to developers and the people who buy the houses that they build. Indeed, twelve years ago, the land where I'm sitting belonged to a farmer.
But once the new homeowners settle in, they complain about the stench that emanates from their neighbors' properties.