There’s not much doing, tourist-wise, in Norman, Oklahoma, so I was happy when Abbie Smith, who writes about endogenous retroviruses at the website ERV, offered to rescue me from the Evolution meetings for a day to show me the sights of Oklahoma City. These turned out to be three:
- Restaurants that serve meat
- The Cowboy Museum
- Abbie’s famous pit bull, Arnie.
Plus there was the treat of getting to meet Abbie herself. It’s always fun to meet people who run congenial websites—that is, fellow atheists who write about science or the philosophy of science. You form an image of someone from their website, just like you form a mental image about each character in a novel. And the reality frequently differs from the preconception. P.Z., as we all know, comes across as a firebrand, but when you meet him he’s a pussycat (well, a pussycat with tentacles). Ditto for Jason Rosenhouse, who is polite and soft spoken. When I first met Brother Blackford, I was surprised to find he had an Australian accent, even though I knew full well he was Australian.
With Abbie, however, if you read ERV you get a pretty good idea what she’s like in person. She’s smart, quick, self-confident, funny, and loves to talk about science and viruses in particular. She also has—as she admits herself—a “potty mouth.” The only disparity between woman and blog is that although she writes like a LOLcat, she doesn’t speak like one.
Our day started off with an early lunch at Oklahoma City’s most famous steak restaurant, Cattlemen’s Cafe, near the old stockyards
It was excellent: a cross-section of locals eating big hunks of meat. Abbie had a small steak, while I tucked into the 16-ounce porterhouse (rare), which was only $15 at lunch. On the side were dinner rolls and a so-so salad (absolutely characteristic of the midwest), and a loaded baked potato with sour cream, chives, cheese, and bacon (o my arteries!). For dessert I had a fantastic blackberry cobbler while Abbie had strawberry shortcake. Here’s my steak:
We then repaired to a venue Abbie had suggested: the cowboy museum, formally known as the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. I wasn’t expecting much, but it was actually really great. It’s housed in a big modern building on the outskirts of town (not my picture):
And it has tons of things western: old clothing and other stuff used by real cowboys (the great era of cowboys in the US was quite short, lasting from about 1870-1890), including hats, saddles, bedrolls, and, of course, boots. Here are a really ancient pair once worn by a genuine US cavalryman in the late 19th century:
They also had boots, clothes, and props worn in famous western movies. Here are the boots (and, in the background, the cavalry outfit) worn by John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
And a pair of Gene Autry‘s boots (all boot aficionados know that The Singing Cowboy liked his boots fancy):
Here are a pair of woman’s boots awarded to a female rodeo champion; note the lovely pinched rosebuds:
There are all kinds of exhibits: movie posters, a mock western town (too clean for my taste), a rodeo display, clothing worn by Plains Indians, and other western paraphernalia. Here’s a memory of the bad old days when blacks were stereotyped. If a western had an all-black cast, it of course had to be called “Harlem on the Prairie”. This rare movie, made in 1939, starred Herb Jeffries, whom you may know as a singer with the Ellington band (his famous songs are “Flamingo” and “Jump for Joy”):
Among the Westernalia was an extensive collection of barbed wire. There are hundreds of varieties, classified by how many strands of wire they used, how many points there were on each barb, how the barbs were shaped, and so on. There are actually quite a few collectors of barbed wire, and the museum had many types on display in pull-out drawers:
And what would a western museum be without branding irons? (For you non-Americans, they were heated up and applied to to the cows to sear a hairless scar into the skin, indelibly identifying the cow’s owner):
The cowboy museum, like Oklahoma, is deeply patriotic. There were flags everywhere, and the docents, dressed in cowboy clothing, also sported American flags in their lapels. On prominent display is a statue of America’s most famous “cowboy” (well, he did have a ranch). Here is RR, with Abbie mocking his pose:
One of the most attractive parts of the museum is its display of Western art. As you enter the building you confront what is perhaps the most famous piece of western art in America, End of the Trail, a giant plaster sculpture by James Fraser (1876-1953; not my picture), showing a dispirited Native American, obviously mourning the passing of his people:
There were several pieces of western kitteh art:
After the visit, we repaired chez Abbie for refreshment and, of course, to meet her famous pit bull, her “puppeh” Arnie, about whom she writes regularly. (He was found as an abandoned puppy, about to freeze to death, outside of Abbie’s gym, hence “Arnold” after America’s pumped-up governor.)
Arnie was actually a sweetheart, full of enthusiasm. Here he is on the leash; note the epic tongue. As one of Abbie’s friends noted, his coat has the color and texture of a coffeecake. I have no idea why his tongue appears to be striped. I noticed that after I sent this to Abbie, she put it up as her profile picture on Facebook:
Okay, now look closely at the next photo because this will be the first and last time you ever see me holding a dog. Arnie was so friendly that he couldn’t stay off of me, repeatedly jumping in my lap (he is strong), licking my face (and attempting French kisses), and even—much to Abbie’s embarrassment—trying to copulate with my leg:
After the Canine Interlude, we decided that we needed more meat, so we drove to the tiny town of El Reno, a suburb of Oklahoma City. El Reno is famous for one thing: onion burgers. These mutant hamburgers were invented during the Depression as a way of stretching meat. We decided to sample them at one of El Reno’s best, Sid’s:
A golf-ball sized sphere of meat is first placed on the grill and covered with slivered onions.
Then the whole mess is pressed flat with a spatula:
The whole onion-laced patty is then turned and re-turned so that the onions caramelize into the meat. After that, the buns are grilled on top of the patty to absorb the juices:
This is one of the most awesome burgers I’ve ever had. The onion-infused meat is luscious and sweet, and calls for a side of Sid’s fantastic fries and one of their famous shakes or malts. The shakes are served the old-fashioned way, in a tall glass with the remainder in a silver cup that contains a second helping. Here’s Ms. Smith about to tuck into the full Monty:
Behind Abbie is the genial Marty Hall, the owner of Sid’s and maker of onion burgers. We spent a long time talking to him: he’s actually only 56 years old but is a great-grandfather! Such is Oklahoma. He also travels around the country teaching other restaurant owners how to make a proper onion burger. Marty was very impressed that Abbie was doing medically related research, and thanked her for that; Sid’s nephew had recently had a kidney replaced and Marty was really glad that the technology existed to save his life. Marty expressed hope that Abbie would make similar medical breakthroughs.
It was a great day, and ended when Abbie drove me back to the conference venue, where I took an immediate shower to wash off dog saliva and hamburger grease. Many thanks to ERV for the trip!