SANF April 2009 : Page 62

Conclusion: Just desserts As a food writer digests a tainted-beef scandal, our story runs its fi nal, bloody course. BY ROBERT BERINGELA | ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN FOX T wo bodies lay bleeding at Mercer Brothers Pastures, but neither belonged to a grass-fed steer. One was the motionless form of Marty Copeland, retired detective, culi- nary snob, and unlucky victim of a shotgun blast. “Hang in there, Marty!” said David Tuckwall, kneeling on the cold floor of the weathered barn. He peeled back Copeland’s sport jacket. A red stain bloomed over the right side of his chest. Tuckwall’s stomach swan-dived, and his head swam with regret. If only. If only. If only he’d behaved like a food writer and just posed airy questions over the phone. Instead, he’d been ambi- tious, following a primal journalistic impulse and enlisting his buddy in an undercover stunt. And for what? It wasn’t as if his editors were looking for a scoop. The wine and dining section of the San Francisco Courier had survived for years on cheese-puff stories. It could have lived another day (or even another month, with an injection of angel funding) without his unearthing seedy truths about California’s largest organic-cattle ranch. But no. Tuckwall couldn’t let things lie. He’d lit out for the Central Valley and tried to land the big one, only to land Copeland in a pool of blood. In the distance rose the wail of sirens. “They’ll be here in a minute,” called Edie Brandt. Tuckwall’s sometime girlfriend was standing by the barn door, flailing her arms like a castaway sig- naling to passing aircraft. At the sound of Edie’s voice, Copeland wheezed softly. He looked up at Tuckwall from behind half-lidded eyes. “Does she do mouth-to-mouth?” he whispered. Tuckwall grinned. “You don’t look so hot, Marty.” 62 SAN FRANCISCO APRIL 2009 FOODNOIR

Food Noir

Robert Beringela

T wo bodies lay bleeding at Mercer Brothers Pastures, but neither belonged to a grass-fed steer. One was the motionless form of Marty Copeland, retired detective, culinary snob, and unlucky victim of a shotgun blast.<br /> <br /> “Hang in there, Marty!” said David Tuckwall, kneeling on the cold fl oor of the weathered barn.<br /> <br /> He peeled back Copeland’s sport jacket. A red stain bloomed over the right side of his chest.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall’s stomach swan-dived, and his head swam with regret. If only. If only. If only he’d behaved like a food writer and just posed airy questions over the phone. Instead, he’d been ambitious, following a primal journalistic impulse and enlisting his buddy in an undercover stunt.<br /> <br /> And for what? It wasn’t as if his editors were looking for a scoop. The wine and dining section of the San Francisco Courier had survived for years on cheese-puff stories. It could have lived another day (or even another month, with an injection of angel funding) without his unearthing seedy truths about California’s largest organic-cattle ranch.<br /> <br /> But no. Tuckwall couldn’t let things lie. He’d lit out for the Central Valley and tried to land the big one, only to land Copeland in a pool of blood.<br /> <br /> In the distance rose the wail of sirens. “They’ll be here in a minute,” called Edie Brandt.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall’s sometime girlfriend was standing by the barn door, fl ailing her arms like a castaway signaling to passing aircraft. At the sound of Edie’s voice, Copeland wheezed softly. He looked up at Tuckwall from behind half-lidded eyes.<br /> <br /> “Does she do mouth-to-mouth?” he whispered.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall grinned. “You don’t look so hot, Marty.”<br /> Copeland tried to lift his head. “You should see the other guy.” Tuckwall had. It wasn’t pretty. In his armed exchange with Copeland, Marvin Mercer had fi red fi rst, getting off a round of buckshot. But he’d taken a bullet between the eyes. He lay where he’d fallen, in a corner of the barn. His brother, Bo, crouched beside him, grim-faced and repeating, “Jesus Christ, Marvin! Oh, Jesus. Jesus Christ.” The ambulance arrived, followed by two cop cars.<br /> <br /> “Please step aside, sir!” Tuckwall stood. Two medics slid Copeland onto a stretcher while another worked on Mercer, searching futilely for vital signs.<br /> <br /> Strapped to the gurney, Copeland raised a hand, beckoning Tuckwall with a feeble motion. Tuckwall leaned over.<br /> <br /> “You gotta help me,” the ex-cop said weakly.<br /> <br /> “I’ll die if they make me eat hospital food.” TO SEE HIM NOW—preening for a squadron of Food Network cameras, his fauxhawk freshly gelled and his face creased in a cocksure smile—made it easy to forget that only days before, Jock Rapini had sat captive in a cage in the Central Valley, plastered in goose feathers, with a crude gavage crammed down his throat.<br /> <br /> If the chef bore psychological scars, they lay hidden behind bluster as he sauntered down the sidewalk on Mission Street, a TV crew trailing close behind. His nightmare had receded. All was well.<br /> <br /> Far from being a liability, his ordeal had proved to be a boon for the Rapini brand. The 48 hours since his release had brought about a blizzard of publicity, a chance for the chef to spin his suffering in a manner that enhanced his rough-and-tumble reputation: He was a man who’d walked through fi re and emerged unscathed. It made for compelling copy, the story of his torture and triumphant comeback, not to mention gripping footage for his Food Network reality show.<br /> <br /> At 18th Street, Rapini turned the corner and hopped behind the wheel of his convertible Ford Falcon.<br /> <br /> He drove downtown, a small motorcade riding in his wake. It was a bright afternoon, the blue sky perfectly clear, but the streets were badly congested.<br /> <br /> At Van Ness and Market, the chef remembered why. His return to Trough, his farm-themed restaurant, and the launch of his ballyhooed Guts and Glands menu coincided with International Animal Liberation Day, a date marked in San Francisco by solemn protests. Police had interrupted traffi c to allow for the safe passage of a “herd” of activists dressed as livestock. They were marching up Market Street toward city hall, while cohorts across town streamed past Crissy Field toward the Golden Gate Bridge.<br /> <br /> Rapini honked his horn in sarcastic support. “I love animals,” he said, turning to a camera mounted on the backseat. “Especially spit roasted and bacon wrapped.” More protesters awaited Rapini at his South of Market restaurant. They shuffl ed in a circle in front of Trough, toting signs with color photographs of penned-in veal calves, spindly legged creatures with the big, moist eyes of baby seals. When the crowd spied the chef, they began a chant.<br /> <br /> “Meat is murder! Murderers eat meat!” “Do you folks have reservations?” Rapini shouted, smiling broadly. “Because dinner won’t be ready for a while.” Someone threw a turnip. Rapini dodged it, then ducked through the entrance, followed by his camerawielding entourage. He hoped they’d captured snippets of the hubbub. The bigger the ruckus, the greater the chance he’d make the evening news.<br /> <br /> Inside Trough, Rapini donned an apron in the open kitchen and got to work on the evening’s fatty fare, a seven-course menu intended for the usual freeloading fooderati—a cast of fl acks, wine brokers, and bottom-feeding bloggers who scavenged on the margins of the culinary scene.<br /> <br /> Dinner would kick off with beef-heart tartare, proceed to lamb-tongue salad with veal brain–aisse, and close with a timbale of sauternes-braised turkey lung. Along the way, there would be goose-intestine stew, pickled rabbit kidneys, and a signature dish that Rapini had dubbed “caducken”: capon stuffed with foie gras and chicken mousseline, and then fried in duck fat. “It’s like turducken, only gourmet,” he explained, holding up his odd creation for the cameras.<br /> <br /> He had just taken a bite, demonstrating its deliciousness, when the kitchen phone rang.<br /> <br /> “Kitchen, Rapini here,” the chef mumbled while chewing.<br /> <br /> He motioned for the cameras to keep rolling— every honest bit of action was fair game.<br /> <br /> “Am I getting you at a bad time?” asked a familiar voice. “It’s David Tuckwall of the San Francisco Courier.” “David!” said Rapini, the words garbled by his mouthful. “I hope you’re dropping by tonight.” “I was thinking about it,” the reporter replied drily. “But word is, you’re serving steroids with your meat.” The chef might have refuted the charge, but a chunk of caducken had wedged itself in his windpipe.<br /> <br /> His face went blue, his eyes rolled toward the ceiling, and his duck fat–slickened hands went to his throat.<br /> <br /> LIKE A THANKSGIVING TURKEY with a presidential pardon, Alfi e Falfa had escaped within a feather of his life.<br /> <br /> One minute, he’d been facing execution, staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun. The next, he’d found himself ducking crossfi re between a<br /> Rough-hewn rancher and a rumpled-looking geezer with a Glock.<br /> <br /> When the fi ring ceased, both gunmen lay wounded: Alfi e’s would-be assassin and his surprise savior.<br /> <br /> Alfi e repaid the latter by rifl ing through the pockets of his bloodstained sport jacket. Finding nothing, he turned to the fallen rancher, Marvin Mercer, and snatched a set of car keys from his jeans.<br /> <br /> By early afternoon, he was rolling west on Interstate 580 in a stolen white pickup emblazoned with the image of a smiling steer. He had given no conscious thought to his destination, but soon he realized where his instincts were leading him: toward San Francisco and the commemoration of International Animal Liberation Day. Though mainstream forms of protest weren’t really his style, the day’s organized mass outrage would have to do. He had nowhere else to go. If the cops were going to catch him, at least they’d have to nab him in an act of rebellion—springing from the bushes in Golden Gate Park to hose down motorists with fake pig’s blood.<br /> <br /> At the Bay Bridge maze, a truckload of apples, transported from cold storage in Walla Walla in strict violation of the Slow Food ethos, had spilled across the freeway. Alfi e made a detour around the stalled traffi c. Driving slowly to avoid suspicion, he slid through Berkeley, Albany, and Richmond, then into Marin County, on a lazy loop around the bay.<br /> <br /> He had just crossed into Sausalito when his effort to stay underground came undone.<br /> <br /> The fi rst trooper to spy Alfi e might never have noticed the red-haired giant if he hadn’t been distracted by his drive-through lunch. Sergeant Lenny McFadden had just purchased a triple-decker Righteous Burger, its patties made of Mercy Beef. He was multitasking—steering with one hand and stuffi ng his face with the other—when he swerved, nearly sideswiping a pickup in the next lane. When the pickup’s driver honked and impulsively fl ashed McFadden the fi nger, the trooper did a double take.<br /> <br /> There, in his sights, was none other than America’s most notorious vegan: a violent activist wanted for the kidnapping of Jock Rapini, and a “person of interest” sought in connection with that day’s bloodshed at Mercer Brother’s Pastures. McFadden fl ipped on his siren, and the chase was on.<br /> <br /> By the standards of the state’s freeway system, it wasn’t exactly a marquee event. Rush hour was approaching, and in the fast-thickening traffi c, Alfi e managed a mere 70 miles per hour as he breezed past the fi rst Sausalito exit. Only when they reached the rainbow-painted tunnel in the Marin Headlands did the chase become a spectacle worthy of a snippet on network TV. By then, a fl ock of helicopters had joined the action, a dozen squad cars had fallen in behind McFadden, and the fl eeing vegan had begun to pick up speed, snaking around slowpokes like a NASCAR star. Nearing the Golden Gate Bridge, Alfi e worked his brake, squealed around a dawdling VW Bug, then burst onto the lip of the famous span.<br /> <br /> “We’ve got a live one,” McFadden barked into his radio. He was sipping a diet soda, but he had fi nished his burger and was ready to put a swift end to the pursuit. Meanwhile, on the far side of the bridge, costumed protesters were ready to amble into action. Laying down orange cones to slow oncoming traffi c, they established a makeshift northbound footpath and set off on their symbolic march. Observed from above by a hang-glider pilot, the scene would have resembled a bizarre game of chicken. Approaching from the east, at alarming speed, a white Ford pickup followed by a phalanx of patrol cars. Proceeding from the west, a “herd” of activists, moving at the pace of outsize herbivores.<br /> <br /> In the instant before impact, Alfi e had no time to absorb the minor details. Lost on him were the telltale signs of bovine imposture: the glued-on udders, rubber horns, nylon hides, and cotton ears.<br /> <br /> As he blurred across the midpoint of the bridge, what Alfi e saw were cows—docile creatures whose unspeakable suffering stoked the fi re within him and gave him purpose in a godless world.<br /> <br /> He swerved to avoid them and spun out of control.<br /> <br /> The pickup grazed the curb, careened onto its side, and skidded into one of the bridge’s golden towers.<br /> <br /> In the aerial footage captured by the cops and soon viralized online, the collision had the appearance of a stuntman’s blooper. With no seatbelt to hold him in, the red-haired vegan was launched through the windshield like a Raggedy Andy shot from a cannon. He soared over the guardrail, clipped a metal cable, and plunged down into the bay.<br /> <br /> Removing their fake cow heads, the protestors rushed to the railing, joined by a growing number of state troopers. Dozens of eyes watched as Alfi e Falfa bobbed like a crash-test dummy, then sank out of sight.<br /> <br /> “YOU SURE THAT’S HOW YOU SPELL CRICOTHYROTOMY?” asked Rupert Hunt. He leaned back at his desk, his round belly up like a beached beluga’s.<br /> <br /> “I’m sure,” said David Tuckwall.<br /> <br /> “Doesn’t look right,” Hunt insisted.<br /> <br /> The big editor scratched his head, squinting at his computer, as Tuckwall breathed a quiet sigh of despair.<br /> <br /> It was late afternoon the next day, and Tuckwall had submitted his roundup of events: a dead rancher, a drowned vegan, a wounded ex-detective, and a hospitalized chef. But this whirlwind of violence surrounded a larger story that his boss was getting ready to bury—deep.<br /> “As a service to our readers,” Hunt continued, “I’m thinking we should run a sidebar on how to perform the operation. We interview a surgeon, then we get the cameraman who saved Rapini. I mean, who knew you could do that with a ballpoint pen?” Tuckwall knew. He’d seen it on TV. And he knew something else: No one could underestimate his newspaper’s ability to soft-pedal the news. There before them was a breaking scandal, a tale of steroid use at California’s largest grass-fed-cattle ranch. Corralled by the cops in a pasture on his Central Valley property, Bo Mercer had confessed to how his brother, Marvin, had tainted their cattle, and how they’d sold their sullied meat at high margins under the feel-good label of Mercy Beef.<br /> <br /> At best, these crimes were sure to ruin Mercer’s business. At worst, Bo could wind up doing eight to ten. The stunning revelations were made all the more salacious by Mercer’s allegations of a chef ’s involvement. Jock Rapini, the rancher claimed, had found out about the Mercers’ shady dealings and had blackmailed the brothers into selling discount meat to his restaurants.<br /> <br /> “I can’t run with that story,” Hunt said now.<br /> <br /> “Wild accusations by a discredited rancher?<br /> <br /> Where’s the proof? It’s his word against Rapini’s.” On that front, at least, Tuckwall’s editor had a point. Through a publicist, Rapini had denied the rancher’s charges. The paper couldn’t print them without a smoking gun. Still, there was the matter of the steroid scandal, which Hunt was overlooking in favor of a how-to guide on saving a diner with a ballpoint pen.<br /> <br /> “If there’s proof,” Tuckwall said, “I’m going to fi nd it.” “You do that,” Hunt replied absently. “But be careful out there. Two food freaks are dead, and celebrities always die in threes.” Tuckwall paused in the doorway and glanced back at his boss.<br /> <br /> “Day’s not over yet,” he said. “You could still have a heart attack.” A LOW LAYER OF CLOUDS had blanketed the city by the time Tuckwall escaped the newsroom.<br /> <br /> He strolled a block to Market Street, then east toward the water. In the distance, the bay fl ickered silver in the fading light. Another day was dying over San Francisco, along with Tuckwall’s faint hopes for a real career.<br /> <br /> Maybe, he thought, he’d write a book about the promise and pitfalls of the organic movement—one of those quaint paperbound volumes that took four years to fi nish and that nobody read. Or, better yet, he’d become a food blogger, joining the ranks of the blathering classes and turning his every culinary thought and craving into the subject of a hackneyed post. Not a bad idea, if only it hadn’t occurred to him half a dozen years too late.<br /> <br /> He could always pack it up, escape the Bay Area, and make a new home in the Midwest, where the land was fl at and affordable and the forlorn produce came in plastic bags. Just not now. Not with fi gs coming into season and his relationship with Edie beginning to bear fruit.<br /> <br /> “Edie,” Tuckwall thought.<br /> <br /> It was nearing dinnertime. His stomach grumbled.<br /> <br /> All across the city, from the Inner Sunset to the Outer Mission, his fellow San Franciscans were in the same position: looking forward to a meal whose pleasures would be tempered by politics and implications.<br /> <br /> He ambled past a pizzeria selling gluten-free slices, topped with organic Calabrian peppers and cubes of pancetta carved from humanely raised pork.<br /> <br /> Such were the mixed blessings of his hometown, where so much good food came with so much guilt.<br /> <br /> At Second Street, he turned right, then left into an alleyway closed to cars. A light was on inside the Teeny Panini. There she was behind the counter, tossing a salad in a wooden bowl.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall knocked. Edie unlocked the door and let him in.<br /> <br /> He sat at a small table by the window while Edie fi nished her preparations: toasting a prosciuttoand- burrata sandwich, splashing sherry vinaigrette on the fresh greens.<br /> <br /> She placed the food on a tray and brought it to the table.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall started to speak. He had so much to ask her: Where did they stand? What was she feeling?<br /> <br /> Was the mâche biodynamic?<br /> <br /> “Edie, I…” he managed.<br /> <br /> “Shh!” Edie said, placing a fi nger on his lips.<br /> <br /> “Just shut up and eat.”

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