Tag Archives: cattle

The Land of Pharaohs and Omaha Beef Liver

August 6, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

CAIRO, Egypt—Sometime around 2012, I started going to a sausage and liver cart in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki where I then lived. I was still new to Egypt, having recently moved from the U.S.

The cart, however, was a longstanding neighborhood fixture. Since 1976, from dusk until dawn, Ezz al-Monofy has been serving spicy sausage and liver meats in vino bread (which is like a less-airy hotdog bun).

On any given night, there are 30 to 40 men of all ages, standing and downing sandwiches for late-night snacks. Steam rises from three frying basins, illuminated by bright fluorescent lights. On the otherwise dark street, the glowing cart becomes a beacon for the nocturnal community of Giza, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Downtown Cairo.

For my friends and I, a visit to Ezz al-Monofy is part of our healing process. The spicy and greasy meat, washed down with some of the saltiest pickles in the Cairo metro, enables our bodies to retain more water. Consequently, the food cart helps our minds to function properly the next day. A long night of drinking Stella—the Egyptian beer, not to be confused with the Belgian brand of the same name—can result in an incapacitating hangover.

I didn’t realize the significance of these late-night food runs until Abou Malak, the cart’s mustachioed cook, who I came to know, asked me where I was from.

“Omaha,” I said.

He stared at me for a second, as if deciding whether I was being honest, or if he should be.

“By the way, this liver is from Omaha,” he replied.

I thought it was some sort of joke.

“Swear on it,” I said.

A bigger man at the cart, with a bigger mustache, gestured at me as if to say, “one second.”

I was afraid I had offended the two men, since I used a more Muslim religious phrase to exclaim my disbelief. For all I knew, they could be Christians, who have had a second-class status in Egypt, and whose security has been threatened (especially recently). He came back with a cardboard box with some blood smudges on it.

The box read:

“GREATER OMAHA

PROVIDING THE HIGHEST

QUALITY BEEF

Produced for Hanzada Company-Cairo, Egypt”

In general, Egyptians love beef liver, and Americans don’t. So by the osmosis of the world economy, Americans tend to sell Egypt liver, and a lot of it.

Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of liver. In fact, Egyptians eat so much American beef liver that there’s a market for American liver near Ramses Square in central Cairo. Meanwhile, American beef producers are actually afraid that they are too dependent on Egypt buying livers, and they have been looking to new markets. But I doubt South Africa, a rising consumer, is up to the challenge. In 2016, 76 percent of all U.S. beef liver exports (68,474 tons) ended up in Egypt.

I’ve been a journalist in Cairo for six years, and it makes sense that the first time I’ve come across a story that really resonates with my American family history—or one that could be written for a hometown publication—has to do with beef.

My grandmother, Frances “Jean” Wheeler, has never seen the mountains or the ocean. My maternal family’s story is one of migration across the Great Plains for various slaughter and meatpacking jobs.

Her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather Emil Peklo from Prague, loaded the family onto a boat and took them to the U.S. According to Grandma, most of the boat’s passengers were sent back, but Emil’s wife gave birth to a son in the harbor, so they were allowed to stay.

When an immigration officer found out Emil was a butcher, he connected him with his brother, who had a meatpacking house in Chicago. The family went west to work there. With the savings from that job, he moved to Lynch, Nebraska, to open a butcher shop.

“Peklo in English is hell. H-E-L-L,” she said. “And he had on his window, “Go to hell for your meat.’”

“Uncle Vic could put on a Sunday dress shirt, roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, and take apart a whole cow without getting a drop of blood on his suit,” Grandma said.

I love my grandmother very much, but she has a tendency toward hyperbole, and the anatomy of a cow makes me doubt this claim. A cow liver can be between 10 and 15 pounds, and anybody who has cut one up knows they’re more slippery than muscle meat.

In the prep area of Ezz al-Monofy, the sous chefs do not have the mind, nor the time, to worry about getting blood on their shirts with a bunch of hangry men around. They cut the liver into pencil thin pieces, which are thrown into 2-gallon pots before being mixed with fried garlic.

After tossing the liver around with a spatula in the oil, Abou Malak adds coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, and more garlic. Another cook slices the vino bread with a box-cutter, slathers them with sesame paste that’s thinned out with lemon juice, and sprinkles that with fresh parsley before passing them to Abou Malak to fill with a serving of liver.

If liver is not for you, the cart also sells home-style sausage and Alexandrian sausage. I’m not aware of the beef sausages’ country—or anatomical region—of origin.

Liver sandwiches are the Egyptian equivalent of the hot dog. They are cheap and probably the nation’s most famous street food. But prices are going up. Recently, a food-ordering service, Otlob, released an infographic warning that the price of a liver sandwich had quadrupled since 2013, and was expected to keep rising.

Rising food prices are a major concern for the Egyptian public. In fall 2016, the government floated the exchange rate, which meant that the price of the Egyptian pound plummeted in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Although Egyptian food prices may seem extraordinarily cheap to American readers back home, the pound’s declining value means it’s increasingly expensive for regular Egyptians to buy anything.

The changing currency dynamics also means American beef has become more expensive to purchase. As a result, the share of liver exports to Egypt from America went down from 82 percent to 76 percent between 2015 and 2016. In 2014, the North African country was the largest importer of liver in the entire world.

The American beef industry uses the term “variety meat” for liver, kidneys, brains, stomach, and such. It’s a beautiful example of an American industrial euphemism. The phrasing implies “choice,” a cornerstone principle in American free-market philosophy. Egyptians use a term that translates to “sweets,” or “fruits of meat,” which sounds more poetic and folksy.

Liver, though, is ultimately a category unto itself, a comfort food of both the rich and poor. When I first encountered liver in Nebraska, I viewed it as leftovers cooked for/by those who couldn’t afford “regular” meat. But a look back into history shows its place in American fine dining, too.

In the heyday of Omaha’s stockyards, liver sometimes enjoyed luxury status. In 1946, Caniglia’s steakhouse had liver and spaghetti on the menu for $3.25. In 2017 dollars, that’s about $42. Macarona Reda in Downtown Cairo’s Bab al-Louq neighborhood has “macarona bil kebda” (spaghetti and liver) for 7 Egyptian pounds (less than 42 cents).

I assumed my grandmother would have eaten liver growing up, being the daughter and granddaughter of butchers and growing up poor.

“Are you kidding? I didn’t like liver,” she said. “When I was pregnant with your uncle John, I had iron deficiency. I had to eat liver three times a week. I fixed liver one time for your grandpa, mom, and uncle Monte. And he said, ‘What’s this? I won’t eat it, and my kids won’t eat it!’”

My grandparents met each other, in part, because of the meat industry. When my great-great-grandfather Emil’s son, Emil Jr. (my great-grandfather), attempted to borrow money to continue his studies at the seminary, his mother said no, according to Grandma.

So, great-grandpa Emil Jr. moved across the state line to Winner, South Dakota, to work at a different butcher. Then, he moved to a meatpacking house in Pampa, Texas, during World War II. Finally, he moved to South Omaha after the Pampa factory burnt down.

My grandmother was a child during the family relocations. Her roots would take hold in Omaha.  She was working at a hide processing company in South Omaha when she met my grandfather. He was working at a truck wash that also serviced the stockyards.

In 1947, when the Peklos moved to Omaha, 2,016,768 cows moved through the Omaha stockyards. By 1955 the stockyards were the biggest meat producer in the world. That superlative lingered over my hometown until 1971.

My mother grew up in Papillion. My father came from Lebanon; he was studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when my parents met.

By the time I was born, peak beef production had passed in Omaha. Even so, the remaining Omaha-area meatpacking plants still process huge amounts of cattle today, with slaughter and butchering having become heavily industrialized.

The Nebraska business responsible for supplying my favorite beef liver cart in Egypt—Greater Omaha Packing Co.—processes 14,000 head of cattle a week, almost 728,000 a year, at its South Omaha factory off 32nd and L streets.

When it comes to eating red meat, my time living overseas has brought one major epiphany: Growing up in Nebraska has spoiled me.

I’ve tried hard to replicate some of my favorite Omaha dishes in Egypt—for example, Big Fred’s prime rib sandwich. But I can’t do it.

Cuts of meat just aren’t really the same in Egypt, and the pricing is much closer than one might expect. It’s a double-edged sword: You can get a filet for 80 Egyptian pounds (equal to $4.41 in U.S. dollars) per pound in Cairo, but stew meat can cost 60 Egyptian pounds (or $3.25) per pound. 

The lack of common vocabulary once meant I went home from an Egyptian market feeling pretty excited about an extremely cheap rib-eye, but when I unwrapped it, that feeling turned into confusion. It turned out to be spleen, and I failed miserably at cooking it.

On return trips to Omaha, I relish the city’s renown for beef.

For days leading up to my homecoming, my father and I will message back and forth on the topic of meat cuts that I’d like to eat. He then purchases the beef in bulk from the meat market down the street from our house and freezes the rest.

My first meal after arriving at home is usually a steak, if it’s warm enough to fire up the grill. In the wintertime, it’s usually corned beef (on a Reuben sandwich), since I have yet to come across high-quality deli meat in Cairo.

The absence or presence of food in a particular place can tell you a lot about how local people are connected (or disconnected) to other parts of the world.

Recently, China reopened its country to American beef products, which might be a good plan-B for Nebraskan liver merchants in the event that Egypt becomes a less lucrative market. 

On the face of the global beef trade, the tradespeople (the butchers) are increasingly mobile globally. In fact, many butchers in the United States have come from the Arab world, and they are exporting Nebraska meat back to their countries of origin.

The trend is evident even on the rural outskirts of Omaha. In Lexington, Nebraska, the meatpacking industry employs hundreds of resettled Sudanese and Somalian refugees. The immigrants take apart thousands of cows every day.

With Cairo, Egypt, as a major transit point for refugees, it’s possible that tomorrow’s Sudanese-American butcher is right now eating a liver sandwich from a Nebraskan plant where he might work in the next year.

Then again, with mounting anti-immigration rhetoric in American politics, maybe not.

Visit greateromaha.com for more information about the Omaha-based company that supplied the author’s favorite beef liver cart in Egypt.

Egyptian Beef Liver Recipe

Ingredients:

1 quarter pound beef liver, cut into inch long, pencil thin strips

2 tablespoons cooking oil

4 tablespoons freshly minced garlic, divided

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 spicy green peppers, chopped

¼ cup tahina (sesame paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Chopped parsley for garnish

Hot dog buns, for serving

Instructions:

Heat the cooking oil, then fry 2 tablespoons garlic until just
beginning to brown.

Add the sliced beef liver, and toss until cooked through. The meat should turn a grayish-brown.

Add the remaining seasoning, vinegar, and peppers. Toss.

Taste and adjust seasoning and salt.

Mix the tahina and lemon juice in a bowl, then spread on the hot dog buns, and sprinkle with parsley.

Fill each bun with the liver mix.

Serve with pickled carrots, turnips, peppers, onions, and/or pickled tomatoes.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.

Living with 
Livestock in Omaha

June 19, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hungry for a taste of the simple life? You don’t have to sacrifice the convenient luxuries of living in the Omaha metro.

Nick Batter, a lawyer who raises livestock in the Ponca Hills area, knows how to get the best of both worlds.

From left: Nick Batter and Jill Stigge

Batter owns five acres near Hummel Park, just outside of the city limits. He says he can’t imagine any other place where a young professional can raise a pig or shoot a shotgun in his or her front yard, and then drive 10 minutes to have sushi or see a Broadway show.

Urban Logistical Hassles

After first determining whether barnyard animals are allowed in your neighborhood, Batter says there are some challenges to raising livestock in the Omaha metro.

“There’s not many people to buy livestock from,” he says. He has to go on road trips to get animals. He must be selective about breeds due to space limitations: He raises a more docile breed of pig and a shorter-legged sheep (it runs slower). He doesn’t have space to overwinter animals either.

Batter’s livestock selection changes throughout the year to accommodate his space. He gets baby animals in spring and slaughters them after the first frost. By the end of April, he already had sheep, lambs, goats, rabbits, laying hens, and was expecting four pigs to arrive soon.

Limited access to feed stores presents another logistical challenge in the Omaha metro,  he says. For a variety of reasons (including his professional schedule), he has to buy feed on Sundays, and only one store is open when he’s available—and it’s in Irvington.

Nevertheless, he says the perks of animal husbandry outweigh any hassle.

Perks of Residential Livestock

Batter says his animals mostly “live off the land,” and their diet is only supplemented by feed. His rabbits and sheep eat grass. “Goats eat everything green,” he says.

He pens the pigs under mulberry, walnut, and oak trees. So, the pigs eat plenty of berries, nuts, and acorns. Batter finishes fattening them on black walnuts, a “very American walnut,” he says.

Batter doesn’t need to mow the lawn. The sheep do it. His two border collies make sure the sheep don’t leave the property.

He says the animal pens are near his home due to space limitations. His window faces the pens, so if predators are in the area—and his animals are distressed—he knows quickly.

Batter eats fresh eggs and chicken. “Keep them warm, keep them watered, keep them fed,” he says of the chickens. “They really do the rest.” He gets two to three dozen eggs a day. “They’re producing eggs like crazy,” Batter says. “I’m not even feeding them.”

The chickens eat bugs and grass, which they prefer. Batter enjoys sharing eggs. “Sharing eggs is expressive,” he says. “Time goes into it. It’s a way to share your personal time with somebody.”

Batter practices ethical husbandry and reaps the rewards, both in food and in spirit. “I’m not divorcing myself from the process [of processing animals],” Batter says. He knows his animals have a good life. “Every day of their lives is terrific except for the last day,” Batter says, adding that it pains him to waste meat: “You realize it came from a life.” And in the case of his backyard farm, a life that he nurtured and raised.”

Do It Yourself

Before investing in urban livestock, would-be farmers must research the zoning of their neighborhood. Circumstances are different all across the Omaha metro. To be safe, the University of Nebraska’s Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office encourages homeowners to check with neighborhood associations or county planning and zoning offices.

“There are so many different situations, SIDs, acreages, in city limits, out of city limits,” says Monte Stauffer, an educator with the county extension office. “The person who can make that decision is at the county courthouse; you just have to give them an address.”

For advice on raising chickens, Stauffer suggests reaching out to Brett Kreifels, an extension assistant with a master’s degree in poultry production. Meanwhile, Stauffer (an animal sciences and animal husbandry expert) can answer any questions about pigs, calves, horses, sheep, and goats.

Kreifels and Stauffer are available by phone at 402-444-7804. A receptionist at the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office directs queries to the relevant experts on staff.

“You can do it for several reasons: to try to generate additional income, to produce your own food, or provide an educational opportunity to young people—giving them some chores to do, some responsibility that they may not get them in trouble,” Stauffer says.

Visit extension.unl.edu/statewide/douglas-sarpy for more information.

Eggs, sausages, and bacon harvested from the farm.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Life in the Nebraska Sandhills

July 8, 2015 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

This article appears in Omaha Magazine July/August 2015.

Nebraska’s pioneering spirit shines brightly along the I-80 corridor, which follows the vast open spaces of the Great Plains. If travelers hurriedly passing through the state thinking, “Yep, this is Nebraska,” took the time to veer off the well-beaten path and steer the car northwest, they would discover a landscape unlike any other and a lifestyle steeped in the tradition of the frontier.

Heading up Nebraska Highway 97 just above North Platte, the topography changes dramatically. The flat farmland graduates into clusters of enormous sand dunes—miles of them. Anchored by a variety of prairie grasses and etched by relentless winds over thousands of years, the all but treeless Sandhills rise up like waves of an ocean—a phenomenon not seen anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

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Blue sky, dotted with puffy cotton balls of clouds, stretches as far as the eye can see before dipping down and hugging hills on the distant horizon. Under this protective dome lies nature at its purest, virtually untouched by civilization. This, too, is Nebraska—western Nebraska, where life mirrors the land: simple, unaffected, and humble.

The bloodlines of the Sandhills run deep in Joel Jacobs, going back five generations. The 34-year old Omaha investment manager grew up where Route 97 meets Highway 2 in Mullen, the only town in Hooker County (named after a Civil War general), and, by default, the county seat. It also serves as a center of commerce.

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The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, known as “Mr. Buffett’s train” by the locals, roars past the house Joel grew up in every 10 minutes or so, 24 hours a day, carrying car after car of coal eastward from Wyoming. In a town of less than 500 people in a county with a population density of one person per square mile, the sharp blast of a train whistle represents employment, not a nuisance.

But small town doesn’t mean small time. Like many young people in Mullen, Jacobs excelled in sports, quarterbacking his high school’s eight-man football team (the salvation of deep rural areas) to a state championship in 1998. He continued to make a name for himself as a tight end at the University of Nebraska-Kearney—a Division II school—resulting in a free agent contract with the NFL. He spent the bulk of his pro career with the New England Patriots and NFL Europe.

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When injuries cut his football dreams short, he and his wife, Megan, moved to Omaha, a city big enough to launch a successful financial career, yet only five hours, 334 miles, and one time zone away from the land he loves—and a town that still thinks of him primarily as
Jodi and Kirk Jacobs’s son.

“I grew up with the feeling that no matter how bad things can get, everything’s going to be okay,” says Joel, finishing the thought with the flip side, “But no matter how good things are, you’re no better than anyone else.” Humility ranks high on a wish list for his three young children. “That’s why I like to bring them here as often as I can. I want them to know this kind of stability.”

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For Jacobs, stability includes spending time with his grandparents, Jake and Bunny Jacobs. The couple, celebrating 70 years of marriage in August, still live independently on the 3,000-acre ranch just south of town where Bunny, born Berneice (e before i) Taylor, grew up.

“My father bought this land in the early 1930s during the Sand Bowl,” says Bunny, sharp as a tack at 91 and, with a rollicking sense of humor, referring to the Sandhills’ version of the Dust Bowl. Like most settlers in the valley, her father quickly realized crops don’t grow in sand. Raising her index finger a couple of inches above her thumb, Bunny says, “The corn only grew this high.”

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But cattle could thrive on the prairie grasses, providing Bunny, who inherited the ranch, and Jake a means to support a family. Until the family grew.

“By the time they had four kids, my dad went to work for Consolidated Telephone to bring in some more money,” explains Kirk Jacobs, referring to another big employer in Mullen. Kirk also holds a customer service job with Consolidated while maintaining the day-to-day operations on the ranch. Work never ends in the Sandhills.

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On a wickedly gusty Friday, two cattle haulers drive onto the ranch, each carrying 50 head of Angus cows and their new calves. “They’ll graze here for the next five months before going back to a feed lot in Kearney,” says Kirk in his understated way.

With the bovine visitors safely grazing in their new digs, Kirk and Joel head out to the east pasture, checking miles and miles of barbed wire for gaps. Stopping at a well on the property, Kirk fills a water bottle. “Freshest water you’ll ever taste,” he says. “We’re right on top of the Ogallala Aquifer.”

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For people who exhibit no pretensions, life flows in a natural rhythm, like the waters of the Middle Loup River where the Jacobs family gathers for a twilight “tanking” adventure. Floating down the river in a large, round, metal water tank normally found in pastures to water the livestock provides family fun at a reasonable cost—nothing. Joel’s wife, two older children, mother, sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids sit side-by-side in the tank as he and his father navigate the swift current with oars, dodging tree limbs and driftwood obstructing their path.

Amid the gales of laughter as the tank bounces off canyons of sand that form the riverbank, Joel’s mother and sister, Kelly Marsh, pass around homemade, individually-wrapped ham and chicken paninis, miniature quiches, and pickle bites wrapped in salami and cheese. Taking care of her family brings Jodi Jacobs joy.

“I always wanted a big family and Kirk and I have four of our own,” she says softly, cradling a grandchild in her arms. “I love to cook. I love to entertain. And I love it when the kids come home.”

RanchPhoto10That passion recently led to the fulfillment of a dream: Jodi opened a restaurant, The Nebraska Pantry, conveniently located next to the town’s only grocery store along Mullen’s main street. She rises at 4:30 every morning to make bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and daily lunch specials for her many regulars, adding credence to the belief that hard work and low stress can trump cholesterol any time.

Jodi’s culinary talents extend beyond Mullen. She makes a line of Nebraska Pantry gourmet dip mixes, sold in Omaha at Scheel’s Sporting Goods and Sugar Bakers gourmet store. In addition, Jodi somehow finds the time to work in the pro shop of the Sand Hills Golf Club, one of two top-rated, private golf courses located in Mullen (the second being Dismal River).

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“I’d say about 75 percent of the current PGA has played here at Sand Hills,” says Joel, as he surveys the wind-swept, Ben Crenshaw-designed course nestled deep in the sand dunes. “It’s ranked number one in the country and number 11 in the world. Players come here to enjoy their game in privacy.”

Standing on the portico of the starter’s cabin nicknamed Ben’s Porch, Joel takes in the magnificent scenery so familiar to him. “Life here? It’s a beautiful gift,” he says, almost to himself, as he anticipates the return trip to Omaha.

The land and the serenity it brings will lure Joel back again and again. And his children will someday discover what their dad already knows: some of the richest lives on earth are lived in tiny Mullen, Nebraska.

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Our Livestock Legacy

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nothing screams “feed me!” like the smell of a thick, juicy steak sizzling on an outdoor grill. The aroma draws friends and neighbors to an informal, laid-back rite of summer: the backyard barbecue, now in its peak season. But before you throw a T-bone, cowboy ribeye, New York strip, or sirloin on the “barbie,” give a tip of your chef’s hat to that hunk of meat.

After all, beef put Omaha on the map. The cattle industry became the brick and mortar used by pioneering families like the Roths, Buschers, and Simons to build solid businesses; it created hundreds of enterprises related to the meat industry, like the great steakhouses of Little Italy. The packinghouses paid “the best wages in the city,” so young adults like Terry Moore could prosper and start a family. The demand for workers brought diverse cultures to Omaha that enriched life here.

For more than 80 years, livestock drove Omaha’s economy. “Omaha was the largest livestock center in the world; we’re talking the 1950s and ‘60s,” says Bob Buscher, Sr., whose great-grandfather, John Roth, a German immigrant, started a small beef-packing outfit, John Roth & Son, in 1885. “Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week. We even beat Chicago.”

Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son’s.

Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son.

Chicago first gained Omaha as a spirited rival for livestock supremacy way back in 1883 when a group of prominent Omaha businessmen decided they wanted to corral some of the wealth Chicago had amassed from its stockyards. And why not? they reasoned. Omaha had the lush pastures and the Union Pacific Railroad. Equally important, Omaha provided a more central location for cattle barons and ranchers of the Plains and the West to bring in their steers, hogs, and sheep.

According to newspaper clippings of the era, the business syndicate—which included John Creighton, one of the founders of the university that bears his family’s name— bought “2,000 acres of land about four miles due south of the Omaha post office.” They set aside 200 acres for the animal pens and “split up the rest into building lots.”

“Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week.” – Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son

The Omaha Union Stockyards opened in August 1884 with a shipment of longhorn cattle from Wyoming as the first tenants. By early 1885, a slaughterhouse began operating in the shadow of the yards. Almost overnight, Omaha went from a sleepy frontier town to a hub of agriculture and commerce, thanks to its upstart namesake: South Omaha. As the stockyards expanded throughout the 1890s, the packinghouses and the burgeoning meat industry drew thousands of immigrants with the promise of jobs. Poles, Czechs, Bohemians, Greeks, and Lithuanians joined the Irish and Germans in carving out a better life.

The Simon family, the name behind Omaha Steaks, traces its proud heritage to a Latvian immigrant and his young son.

“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers,” says Todd Simon, a fifth-generation owner. In 1898, Todd’s great-great-grandfather, J.J. Simon, got off the train in Omaha with his son, B.A., because the landscape reminded J.J. of the Riga farmland he had left behind. “They bought sides of beef from the packinghouses, cut them up into smaller pieces, and sold them to hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores. They basically replicated what they knew in Latvia.”

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

Their new butcher shop, Table Supply Meat Company, began in 1917. The business moved to 12th and Howard streets in Omaha in 1924. No one could have imagined then what fortunes lay ahead for that modest enterprise.

By the time the Simons arrived here, South Omaha—a separate jurisdiction— had become the fastest-growing city in the nation. Census records show 8,000 residents by 1889, leading one local journalist to dub it “The Magic City.”

“It even had its own newspaper, the Magic City Hoof and Horn,” says Gary Rosenberg, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, which houses a treasure trove of information on the Union Stockyards.

“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers.” – Todd Simon of Omaha Steaks

With its unprecedented growth—and wealth—South O became a much-coveted acquisition by its neighbor to the north. The city fiercely fended off many annexation attempts before finally conceding to a merger with Greater Omaha in 1915.

But the beef industry never conceded its importance to the region’s economy and kept nipping at the heels of Chicago. By the early 1950s, the stockyards stretched from 27th Street on the east to 36th Street on the west between L and Q streets. The majestic, 10-story Livestock Exchange Building, where buyers and sellers completed transactions, rose from the middle of the stockyards on South 30th Street. Tens of thousands of animals came into Omaha every week for processing. When the markets opened in New York on Monday mornings, the buying and selling frenzy began.

“You didn’t want to be caught on L Street on a Sunday evening,” remembers Terry Moore, long-time president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and a graduate of Omaha South High School. “The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.”

Terry Moore, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

Terry Moore, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

“The stockyards had to be the most interesting place on earth,” recalls Buscher, who, as a teenager in the ’50s, often accompanied his father, Clarence, when he went to buy cattle for Roth & Son. “My dad would go down the alley with all the pens of cattle, 25 cattle per pen. He’d bid so many cents per pound on this pen and that pen, and he never wrote it down. Never. He remembered everything.”

Nor were any contracts involved. After haggling over prices and often cursing at each other, the buyer and commission firm agent would come to an agreement and use a handshake to seal the deal.

“A cattleman’s word was his bond,” says Buscher with a hint of reverence. “In all the years I paid the bills, I don’t remember a discrepancy in the number of cattle we bid on or the price.”

“The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.” – Terry Moore, president of Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO

Anyone who grew up in South O after World War II remembers close-knit ethnic neighborhoods where life revolved around a variety of Catholic and Orthodox churches, and social clubs. They also remember a vibrant city with a bustling commercial strip.

“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street,” recalls South District Councilman Garry Gernandt, who grew up at 20th and Vinton. “We had Phillips Department Store, Buck’s Shoes, TV repair shops, dime stores, restaurants, and lots of ‘mom and pops.’”

On November 21, 1955, the Omaha World-Herald trumpeted the news Omaha had waited decades to hear: It had overtaken Chicago. Bragging rights as the center of the world’s meat industry had finally come to the Midlands. According to the Omaha Daily Journal-Stockman, “Fully one-half of the Omaha labor force is employed in some facet of the livestock industry.”


The demand for meat products kept 13 independent packing plants humming alongside the “Big Four” meatpacking companies: Armour, Swift, Wilson, and Cudahy. Each of the large plants employed more than 2,000 people. The Armour plant alone could process 1,360 head of cattle, 4,800 hogs, and 3,600 sheep in an eight-hour period.

“I went to work for Swift and Company right out of high school in 1961,” says Terry Moore, following in his father’s footsteps. “I worked in all areas of the packinghouse: the kill floors, the coolers, the hide cellar where we cured hides, the engine room, the sausage room, the specialty-cut room—that’s where we’d fill the restaurant orders for the day when they wanted the extra-thick cuts of beef or pork.”

From the hide to the hooves, no part of the animal went unused. A pinched-off hoof, for example, could stabilize gunpowder. The rest of the foot, when boiled, yielded oil for waterproofing.

“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street.” – Garry Gernandt, South District Councilman

Generations of families who worked in the stockyards or the packing plants found themselves constantly surrounded by mud, manure, or blood. And that was fine with them.

“On a summer evening when it would rain, my father and I would take a deep breath,” says Moore. “My father would ask, ‘What is that, Son?’ I’d say, ‘It smells, Dad.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s the smell of money, son, the smell of money.’”

That’s the same line Sally Kawa’s (KAH-vah) father, Jack, fed her when they had to hose down the floors of their restaurant, the iconic Johnny’s Café.

Johnny’s Café sisters Sally Kawa and Kari Kawa Harding.

Johnny’s Café sisters Sally Kawa and Kari Kawa Harding.

“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots,” says Sally, who now co-owns Johnny’s with her sister, Kari Kawa Harding. “We had washable linoleum floors then. I’d say, ‘Daddy, this smells,’” at which time Jack would give her the stock reply.

While Italian immigrants, who elected to live between the river and 10th Street, started most of Omaha’s early steakhouses, a Polish immigrant named Frank Kawa invested what little money he had into a bar called Johnny’s at 4702 S. 27th St., next to the stockyards. What started in 1922 as a small, eight-table operation quickly grew into a South Omaha staple.

“We’d have a chuck wagon-style lunch, where all the workers would line up at the steamship round [of beef] counter for their sandwiches,” says Sally. “It was a quick way to serve people.”

“Back in the day, we’d open at 5:30 in the morning for breakfast and not close until 2 in the morning,” adds Jack Kawa, Frank’s son.

“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots.” – Sally Kawa of Johnny’s Cafe

Even after the stockyards closed, Johnny’s survived—outlasting once-popular steakhouses that Jack can still reel off: Angie’s, Sparetime, Mr. C’s, Caniglia’s, Johnny Hrupek’s, Ross’, Marchio’s.

“People didn’t forget us,” muses Sally. “We added chicken, fish, and salads to the menu to change with the times, but we still serve old-school favorites like braised ox joints. It’s our biggest seller.”

When “the smell of money” started to turn, it hit people in South Omaha like the thud of a fallen steer. By the late ’60s, the tall, multi-storied, brown brick packinghouses with the kill rooms on the top floor had become woefully outmoded. Built at the turn of the century, they lacked the latest technology and had succumbed to gravity. Terry Moore remembers, “You could take your pen and slide it in between the bricks, and the mortar would fall out.”

At the same time, rural areas like Glenwood and Sioux City, Iowa, and western Nebraska lured packers to relocate to be nearer the product—the cattle, sheep, and hogs. Ranchers could sell direct and avoid the middleman.

One by one, the Big Four packinghouses packed up and moved out, followed by many of the smaller ones. By 1971, Omaha lost its “greatest livestock city in the world” title. The Union Stockyards eventually closed for good in 1999, the same year the Livestock Exchange Building became a historic landmark.


Out of the stagnation that followed emerged a new era for Omaha’s beef industry.

“We still have three of the largest independent packers in South Omaha,” Councilman Gernandt points out. “Greater Omaha Packing, Nebraska Beef, and XL Four Star Beef [now JBS].”

The workforce now consists mainly of Hispanics, Sudanese, Somali, Asians, and some Hmong. “The [melting] pot’s still percolating; it just has different ingredients,” says Gernandt.

John Roth & Son, at 5425 S. 43rd St., got out of the slaughter business in 1986. A few years later, it began manufacturing edible dried animal plasma and rotary-dried blood meal. In 1995, Bob Buscher, Jr., became the fifth generation to work there.

Ironically, the Simon family business that never owned a slaughterhouse or sold retail became the nation’s largest direct marketer of premium beef and gourmet products, single-handedly making “Omaha” synonymous with “steak.”

“They would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks.’” – Todd Simon

“[Momentum] started in the late 1940s,” explains Todd Simon. That’s when his grandfather, Lester—whether by luck or design or a little of both—secured a contract with Union Pacific Railroad to supply beef products for the dining cars.

“Customers were impressed with the quality of the food, and they would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks,’ which is how Table Supply marketed them,” says Todd. “And that’s when we started getting calls from around the country for our steaks.”

The business soon began shipping products directly to restaurants and customers in wax-lined cardboard cartons filled with dry ice. In 1966, capitalizing on its best-known commodity, Table Supply Meat officially changed its name to Omaha Steaks.

Today, Todd and his first cousin, Bruce Simon, president and CEO, helm the multi-million-dollar enterprise. Their fathers, Fred and Alan, remain public ambassadors of the company’s philanthropic largesse. Omaha Steaks boasts three million active customers; ships four million coolers of its beef throughout North America each year; employs a permanent workforce of 1,800 Midlanders; uses cutting-edge technology to drive sales, just as it pioneered direct mail, telesales, and the internet as marketing tools; and remains dedicated to Omaha.

A labyrinth of alleyways, fences, and pens stretching through acres of muck and mire became the measure of success for Omaha’s beef industry in its first century. Perhaps the prosperity of Omaha Steaks, the resiliency of South Omaha, and the honesty and loyalty of our modern cattlemen will become the hallmark of the next 100 years.