Loyal to His 4-Legged Constituents

New York Times

by Jennifer Steinhauer

The space between Senator Jon Tester’s 1,800-acre ranch outside Big Sandy, Mont., and the nation’s capital is metaphysically and culturally large. But mostly, it’s just plain large.

Traveling from his ranch to the airport in Great Falls, Mont., takes 90 minutes by truck. Then Senator Tester takes two commercial flights to reach Reagan National Airport here.

Such a trip calls for light packing, yet the senator, a first-term Democrat, can often be found lugging an extra 40-pound roller bag, which he gingerly stuffs into the overhead bin. His precious cargo is neither briefing books nor an extra raincoat, but roasts, ribs, round steak and (his favorite) rib steak.

“Taking meat with us is just something that we do,” Senator Tester, 55, said over a meal of beef stroganoff cooked by his wife, Sharla, in their Capitol Hill town house. “We like our own meat.”

Just as some lawmakers cannot part with their pillow from home, the Testers do not like to leave their state without its meat, which they have been schlepping around the country for years, including to a family reunion in Hawaii.

They are also known to take purple barley, grown organically on their land along with lentils, winter wheat and peas, among other crops. On a recent trip, Mrs. Tester tucked a Ziploc bag of barley into her purse.

The senator’s loyalty to his state’s beef, in particular, stems not from the hyper food-sourcing that has become a near parody of itself on American menus, but from his own taste preferences, honed from a lifetime of raising, slaughtering and butchering Black Angus cattle.

And, of course, there’s a healthy dose of state chauvinism.

As with Texans who cling to their Blue Bell ice cream, and Michiganders who love to drag around two-liter bottles of Vernors ginger ale, food products from home remain an American fetish even when all manner of food is available on the Web. It is why mayors and senators use local foods as stakes in bets over big games.

Quality is not always the point: it’s about what one grew up eating and the associations with it.

Even though Montana is not one of the top five meat-producing states, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, its beef is known for its tenderness.

“Montana is a state that focuses on cattle genetics,” said John Paterson, a professor of animal science at Montana State University in Bozeman (the ring tone of his cellphone emulates mooing). He was referring to the selection of bulls known to sire offspring whose meat is especially valued for its taste. ”If you raise something here, you know everything about that animal,” he said. “You know how it is going to taste.”

Montana meat loyalty, the Testers say, is a family and state tradition.

“Montana has been known for its wheat and beef forever,” Mrs. Tester said, “and everybody just eats their own.” Senator Tester, a man of some girth, said he enjoyed all meat but found beef the best.

He bragged about Montana meat in a news release last year after Taco Bell faced a lawsuit, later dropped, claiming that the chain’s “taco meat filling” was only about one-third beef.

“Montana’s ranchers raise the best cattle in the world,” he boasted in the release. “If Taco Bell needs to beef up, they can give their customers the highest quality meat around by using Montana beef, and in the process, supporting agriculture jobs in Montana.”

He gave his 99 fellow senators packs of Montana Hi-Country beef jerky as a holiday gift.

Senator Tester was heavily involved in the food safety act passed by Congress in 2010; his main claim was an amendment that shielded small farms and food processers from new regulations.

But for all his commitment to organic farming and food safety, he does not exactly comport with the image of the modern urbane foodie.

The Testers prefer their grain-fed beef smothered in canned cream-of-mushroom soup and a squirt of ketchup, cooked down in a slow cooker. They like their purple barley, a staple of specialty food stores, boiled up as a side dish and then set into a bath of Cool Whip and served with a nice bottle of pinot noir.

As it turns out, lugging meat from Montana is not much harder than taking some extra suits, and is a lot easier than, say, carrying contraband raw-milk cheeses from France. Their neighbors in Big Sandy raise and feed the only Black Angus cow the Testers currently own, plus two hogs. Though the Testers are not raising livestock themselves now, they still slaughter their own animals and cut the meat, sometimes in 20-below temperatures in the processing facility on their property.

“Jon shoots it and guts it, and we both bone it, and I do all the wrapping,” Mrs. Tester explained.

Senator Tester (or sometimes Mrs. Tester, depending on their travel schedules) then gathers 40 pounds for the trip to Washington. There, it stays in their home freezer until Mrs. Tester comes to visit. (The senator does not cook.)

While the Testers dine in Washington seafood restaurants, which they say trump those back home, they tend to stay in just as often, having people like Senator Al Franken or Senator Amy Klobuchar, both of Minnesota, over for dinner.

“Look, at the end of the long day,” Senator Tester said one night, digging into a plate of beef between votes, “I am happier not going out.”

An evening around their table is informal (dinner is served family style and everyone clears his or her own plate) and amusing, with the conversation veering from President Obama’s jobs bill to the benefits of local honey to the type of gun best used to eliminate pigeons or deer.

While many Washington wives like to make the dinner party scene and attend spouse lunches on Capitol Hill, Mrs. Tester spends most of her time tending the farm back home. There is harvesting and plowing in the spring and beating back the snow in the winter. In the summer she cans tomatoes and puts up pickles (“Jon eats them like candy”) and choke cherries, though last year those flooded out.

She travels back and forth with her husband most of the year, keeping him company in their town house, which they share with their son, Shon, 26, a waiter at a local hotel. Their daughter, Christine, lives with her husband and three children in Helena, Mont.

“I was scared spitless when we first got here,” Mrs. Tester said. “But now D.C. is my down time, because back home is work. I can be back home at a drop, and that’s for his peace of mind and mine.”

The family farm, which was homesteaded 100 years ago by Mr. Tester’s grandparents, was converted to organic 25 years ago; the family decided to improve the health of the soil and add value to their crops.

“I think there is some real therapy in getting your hands in the dirt and working with food,” the senator said.

Then he ate a giant piece of Mrs. Tester’s pecan pie, and headed back to the Hill for a late-night vote.