Ground-Beef Zero

In Mabton, Mad Cow capital of America, the world's journalists want to know: Is beef still what's for dinner?

When in Japan, I make it a point not to eat that poisonous delicacy, the puffer fish. The kind of puffer approved by the Japanese government merely numbs a diner's lips. Another kind can paralyze or kill you. But hamburgers in Mabton, Mad Cow capital of America? Would I order one? a Japanese reporter asked. And if not, how could I resist? The hamburger at the Silver Dollar Tavern looked juicy and delicious and came with a huge order of crispy french fries. I could wash it down with a Budweiser or a Corona, or something more numbing from the full bar. Mabton used to be a quiet town, but the local and the global are fusing there these days. Like cattle to the trough, foreign reporters are stampeding to the sleepy hamlet in Yakima County, eager to feast on the juiciest details of Mabton's mad cow. Many a maddening question confronts them, but none more immediate than whether or not to order that hamburger. The Silver Dollar, after all, is only minutes from the dairy farm where the first U.S. case of Mad Cow disease was found. The tavern's decor consists of an old bar, plain tables and chairs, a lone pool table, and, taped to the bare wall behind it, old posters of bikini-clad beer models. Above the bar is a smudgy projectionist's window, a remnant of the 1960s, when the building was Mabton's movie theater. IN ADDITION TO hamburgers and fries at the Silver Dollar, you'll find a small town's tryst with foreign media and a lingering international debate over how to write the epitaph of a fallen and famous bovine. The United States government insists Mabton's mad cow is an isolated case. Many other governments say we'll see about that. Mabton is ground zero, and $2.5 billion in U.S. beef exports hang in the balance. I joined the Mabton media stampede at the Silver Dollar on Christmas Eve. "I'm gonna go blow up my Toyota truck!" a cowboy bellowed in the street as I drove up. "Gonna blow it up right now! The Japanese ban on U.S. beef is wrong!" The local and the global were coming to blows, it seemed. Luckily, the fisticuffs were just verbal. Inside, the Silver Dollar was packed with foreign media, but unlike the angry man outside, most Mabton residents weren't cowed by the poking and prodding from reporters. Japan's NHK network was there, along with Tokyo's Fuji news service and several American reporters. Japan's Kyodo News had set up shop in the back of the bar, laptops and Corona longnecks at the ready. Reporters Takami Hanzawa and Takaki Tominaga were on the story. "This is big news in Tokyo," Tominaga said. "Japan's the world's largest importer of U.S. beef, and we want to be here on the ground as this breaks." "I've never seen anything like this in all 28 years I've owned the place," owner Mike Chester yelled from the kitchen, where he was preparing Christmas Eve dinner for visiting family and friends. "Good Morning America's been on the phone with the night bartender. It's been ringing off the hook." He came out and sat at a table. "I've sold more hamburgers since last night when we heard the news than I usually do," the tavern keeper said with a wist- ful smile. CHESTER HAS owned the small bar and grill since 1975. He's fearful that if Mabton's dairy herds are destroyed, the local economy won't be able to stand it. On Christmas Eve he seemed like a tragic hero, a thoughtful, middle-aged man caught in the middle of something he wanted no part of. "Folks are hurting," he said of the local economy, his voice lowering to a whisper. "It's not good." The Chesters are longtime residents of the area and, like others in Mabton, they cannot imagine any other life. "My dad was a cowboy who came out from Texas in 1943 to work in Hanford," he said proudly, referring to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. "Dad had an eighth-grade education, but he did well as a contractor, and we've all worked really hard for what we've got." Chester gestured to the little bar. As he did, another group of reporters came through the door. Chester buys his hamburger meat at the supermarket, just like you and I, and cooks the burgers himself. To him, eating beef, and serving it, is more than a meal. It's a way of life. Did I order a hamburger? No, I stuck with beer and french fries, as I would in Seattle or anywhere else that night. If the point in eating is enjoying a meal, it seemed the logical choiceuntil we know more about Mabton's mad cow. About all that is certain is that the gloom in Mabton is overpowering, and the people are upset. Of course, if you're a puffer fish aficionado, as I told my Japanese counterpart at the bar, the thrill of eating is as much in a meal's taste as its danger. And in that case, there might be no better place than Mabton.

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