[Viewpoint]We have evolved with the cow

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[Viewpoint]We have evolved with the cow

A hot bowl of beef soup comes to mind in weather like this. And at times of economic upheaval, the bitter chill of winter feels more acute and painful. A cup of fish ball broth brings a measure of comfort for the cold wintry streets but just the thought of a chunky beef soup warms the body.

Calf prices have tumbled according to the news. Farmers can be compensated if the price of Korean beef cattle fall below the standard 1.65 million won per head, but they get no more than 50,000 won for a dairy calf. That doesn’t even pay for a barbecue beef meal for two and cannot even buy a puppy. Higher feed costs and imports of American beef have eaten away at the price competitiveness of cattle, leading to the plunge in dairy cattle prices.

I once visited a countryside cattle auction for a story. At the crack of dawn, cows young and old with eyes deep with history shared with their owners were brought together from all corners of the country.

Beside them were farmers saying reluctant goodbyes to young calves with soft whispers of hope that they will find a better home.

There were also those caressing their ill-fated friend’s heads, hoping their mixed feelings of appreciation and sorrow would be conveyed through the stroke. Farmers had been out there since daybreak, haggling for deals. They must be hungry, exhausted. But their faces were surprisingly filled with excitement because - with sales of their precious cows - they were taking home cash that could pay college tuition fees for their children for at least a year.

After a long day, farmers would go for a hot bowl of seolleongtang soup, with almost all parts of a cow simmered all day, to warm their bodies. Some had vegetables left unsold, others return home with the calves they had come to sell. But they said as they gulped down their bowls of hot soup that they felt like the cold, hunger and worries have been washed away.

That’s what a generous bowl of hot beef soup can do for a hard-working man.

Beef has evolved with mankind. In days when humans had to compete with other beasts to survive, nature was a perilous place. Humans were able to fight off the fear of wild animals by becoming hunters. Through hunting, they gained food and protection from beasts. Their desire for survival became one with their desire for meat. They hunted to survive, made tools for better hunting. In the process of carrying home the slaughtered animals, men may have discovered that meat become tender after the muscles relax. They came to discover that cooking helps digesting the meat easier. Mankind’s transition to civilization may well be in parallel with its meat-eating.

To Koreans, cows are precious creatures. They were a part of the family. Their pen stood next to the kitchen. The shed was covered with sacks and straw to keep the cows warm. Because they were so valuable, nothing got wasted. Koreans used every part of a cow: its meat, bones, skin and even blood. Therefore, eating a cow means more than just the intake of nutrients. The cow stirs inside us. We absorb the composure and comfort of a cow. That’s the true meaning of digestion.

But when did we start treating the precious creature so harshly? College tuition costs 10 million won a year today. A calf’s price tag is 50,000 won. The way of life today abides by the rules of the economy.

But something feels wrong.

Anyone who has gazed into the brown eyes of a cow would know. In the deep, sad but kindly eyes, you read the wisdom and poise of Pan, the Greek god of the pasture.

As you stand mesmerized in the depths in those eyes, a blink from the cow would send warmth and you suddenly feel every inch of your body soften and relax. In my dreamland, there always lives a bull letting out a lazy bellow, the ringing of its cowbell carried by a soft breeze that sends a farm boy to sleep under a tree.

Today as I put a spoonful of a hot beef soup in my mouth, I think I hear a cow’s bellow.

*The writer is a novelist.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chun Woon-young
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