A day with ERV

June 23, 2011 • 5:54 am

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:

  1. Restaurants that serve meat
  2. The Cowboy Museum
  3. 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:

Et voilà: the finished product. You can see the meat balls to the left, ready to be mixed with the onions:

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!

100 thoughts on “A day with ERV

  1. Sounds like a great time.

    I’m not surprised that the onionburgers were good. I always chop up some onions to add to our burgers — it’s a bit tricky to keep them from falling apart when grilling them, but if they make it to the first turning, they’ll generally survive.

    1. Throw an egg in with the mix, too – it helps hold them together. (That’s the way my mother always made them, anyway.)

  2. I love these posts; it is much like a postcard to your readers!

    Many years ago, I visited Oklahoma City; the memorial was pretty good (in a sad way) and the Oklahoma State Museum had a Woodie Guthrie exhibit up.

  3. James Earle Fraser also designed the buffalo nickel! Much as I admire Jefferson, I’d rather those were still in production.

    1. Ha! Yes, she does, but only to the extent that we all do – I’d really like to hear someone pronounce an apostrophe…actually, I think Victor Borge did a bit about pronouncing punctuation marks, let’s see if I can find it. Oh yes, here it is. No apostrophes, though.


      1. Hawaiians pronounce the apostrophes in their native words (such as Hawai’i), where the apostrophe has roughly the same value as the double T in kitten as most Americans pronounce it (kih’n).

  4. Looks as though a good time was had by all. Welcome home.

    There is a barbed wire museum out in DeKalb, as Joseph Glidden is credited with the patent. I wouldn’t make the trip just for that, though.

      1. That’s 32kJ/d for a 4.48g hummingbird. Assuming Jerry’s mass is 65 kilos, and scaling isometrically (which is probably wrong, but close enough for our purposes), his metabolic rate would be roughly 460,000 kJ/d, or enough to consume 58 kilos of steak per day.

        1. That’s a perfect illustration of exactly why isometric scaling is never ‘close enough’. And it’s not ‘probably wrong’, it’s dead wrong.

          If metabolic rate scales at M0.7, for example, then I get 26199.6 kJ/d for a 65-kg Coyne, ‘only’ about double the probable real value (source): male scientist (or banker): 11700-12000 kJ/d (cf. Tour de France cyclist @ 28400-38400 kJ/d).

          Isometric scaling was assumed in the original comment as well. What was meant was something like ‘if Coyne’s cells had the same metabolic rate as hummingbird cells’.

          yeah, professional pet peeve, why do you ask?

  5. I notice that my dog, when he starts panting heavily, looks to have lines on his tongue as well. Upon closer examination these lines (at least in the case of my dog) are actually made of saliva. I am not entirely certain why the saliva seems to sort of “congeal” in stripes like that. In a not too distant time frame the stripes disappear as they start to pool at the tip of the tongue before they start to drip.

  6. You slipped up once and referred to Abbie’s “blog.” But for the rest it was “website” all the way – PZ, Jason and Russell all run “websites.” This hang-up is getting seriously misleading. They don’t run websites, they run blogs. Calling a blog a website is like calling a class a university. A website can include a blog, but it’s a much bigger and more general category.

    It is an unattractive word though, I can’t deny that…

      1. Let me guess — you’d expect them to land on “twigs,” right?

        So, in the end, we have a bunch of twits bleating on twigs surrounded by angry birds…yeah, that sounds about right….



    1. A Web site isn’t necessarily the set of all pages hosted from a single (virtual) server.

      For example, back in the day, when I was teaching at Mesa Community College, I’d give each of my students a Web site of their very own hosted on my server. So, Sue’s Web site would have been at http://trumpetpower.com/~Sue and George’s Web site would have been at http://trumpetpower.com/~George.

      Jerry’s use of the term is perfectly consistent with this particular long-standing usage.



      1. As I recall, even in the earliest days of the Web individuals did not have ‘web sites’. Individual vanity sites were universally referred to as ‘home pages’, which were understaood to be a subcategory of web sites.

    2. Hey Jerry, what about the phrase “web log” which is, of couse, where “blog” came from? Just be sure to enunciate.

      I suppose Jerry can remain “ludditian” (can I make that a word?) about semantics. I think it’s kind of cute.

    3. http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/ is the URL for a web site. Any and all content at that and derivative URL’s are part of the web site.

      The term “blog” is social, not technical.

      Jerry need feel no compunction about eschewing the word.

      That’s my considered opinion as an expert in the field.

      1. Expert in what field? Blogs? Information technology? The web (which is such a huge field that I can’t really accept that anyone can be an “expert” in all of it)? Linguistics? Your post touched on all of those.

      2. Right, it’s social – that’s why it’s misleading to talk about websites when you mean blogs. Social meaning isn’t nothing, after all.

        I think web log would be a lovely compromise. It has that nice nautical ring, and it uses two real words instead of one rather disgusting fake one, and it’s not misleading.

    4. Jerry’s fastidiousness about the word “blog” always brings to mind the scene in which Nero Wolfe tears a page out of the dictionary while muttering “In this house, ‘contact’ is not a verb!”

      Language evolves. Adapt, or be left behind.

  7. My wife was in Oklahoma City last week for a meeting. She spoke highly of the Cowboy Museum.

    1. That is amazing. These dogs know how to post videos on youtube!

      So behind LOLcats, who’ve learned that long ago and have cornered entire markets and been deified.

  8. I always thought it was amazing that a word like ‘cowboy’ which in its original usage was an offensive term, indentifing cattle rustlers,outlaws,highwaymen and brigands has been transformed into a beloved word connoting the quintessential American character in myth and substance. Isn’t Oklahoma the state where a state legislator wanted the states leading university investigated for hosting a talk by Richard Dawkins? Hmm… cowboys indeed.

    1. “Cowboy” retains its negative connotation in the UK. You would refer to ‘cowboy builders’, say, for a company you paid to fix your roof but they did it poorly, ripped you off and then disappeared leaving you worse off than before.

  9. Well I never thought we’d see the day when the Professor would be seen cuddling a D_O_G!

    Clearly we live in End Times.

    Well done, Abbie, for achieving the impossible.

  10. On the side were dinner rolls and a so-so salad (absolutely characteristic of the midwest),…

    Wow, no kidding. I would have mistaken that for a garnish.

    1. Oh, you mean that was the salad, I thought Jerry must have eaten it already or left it out of the photo!

  11. The shakes are served the old-fashioned way, in a tall glass with the remainder in a silver cup that contains a second helping.

    That’s just how they serve them in the OK Diners in The UK!

    They don’t, iirc, serve onion burgers, though. Shame…


  12. As one of Abbie’s friends noted, his coat has the color and texture of a coffeecake.

    Important information missing: Does he also have the flavor of coffeecake? (Presumably you found out during the French kisses.)

  13. Proteins coagulate. Starches geltatinze. Sugars caramelize.

    The onions do notcaramelizeze into the meat.’ Seriouslyly, carmelization is the process of cooking the sugars to change their flavor.

    The proteins coagulated around the onions. Though, frankly, most of it was brute force mixing.

    1. Onions have a lot of sugar in them which caramelizes. Caramelizing onions is a standard cooking technique.

      1. Yep, the Knox gelatin is partly hydrolyzed collagen. Back when their boxes looked like this (be patient, it takes awhile to load and goes to another page first) I expect that a lot more people knew that than they do now.

  14. Yeah, Abbie’s

    Actually, I didnt call Judy Mikovits a cunt. I said if she was publicly accusing other scientists of fraud/bribery/conspiracy, without any evidence to back up her claims, then yes, she would be a GIGANTIC cunt.

    just swell.


    1. Aaaaand once again, someone *professing* to be a feminist talks *over* the woman who supposedly said something sooooooo offensive to take it up with the *man* *over* the woman.

      Yes, SC, take it up with Jerry when I said something uppity you personally didnt like.

      Dont say anything to me, ‘feminist’.

      1. Yes, SC, take it up with Jerry when I said something uppity you personally didnt like.

        It’s Jerry’s blog, you idiot. I only looked at yours because he was talking about you. I had lost hope for yours prior to that, and my recent visit reminded me (not that I needed it) of why.

        By the way, being a feminist does not mean I have to like all women, including misogynists who try to ingratiate themselves with men by making a show of how allegedly different they are from other women.

          1. I’m tired of people judging me by my name and communication medium. Did you even read my opinion? It’s hella sweet.

  15. Amid all the good-natured banter, the one thing I miss in these comments so far is any discussion of the cruelty of branding. As Jeremy Bentham famously said,’The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?”‘ Of course we don’t know whether cows suffer as much as we would from being branded, but I can see no reason for confidence that natural selection would have failed to build into their nervous systems the same capacity to feel pain as we have. Indeed, since the role of pain is presumably to persuade the animal not to repeat the action that led up to it, one could make a case for an INVERSE correlation between ability to reason and ability to suffer. An animal that can reason its way out of repeating self-harm might have less need of painful reinforcement. Humans might actually have less need than cows for the neuronal apparatus of pain. Natural selection might have equipped cows with nervous systems that feel even more pain than we do.

    1. There’s little doubt that the practice is cruel and painful. If you’ve ever watched a calf being branded, it lets out a huge bellow at the moment the smoking brand sears its skin. I suppose the practice began when there was little consideration of any sort for animal welfare. There are now less painful alternatives, like freeze branding (liquid nitrogen), tagging, and microchipping, but they’re not mandatory, and hot branding is still common.

      1. I didn’t realise that “hot” branding was still common. Poor calves!

        Here in the UK, ear tags seem to be mandatory for keeping track of cattle.

        1. This link reports that some corperations are trying to persuade the US government to move towards a more sophisticated method of animal tracing. The suggestion in the story is that this might bring about the end of hot iron branding.


        2. I assumed it was an EU thing. Eartags have been common in Denmark since before I was a kid, but I seem to recall that we moved to putting tags in both ears some years back to comply with EU standards.

    2. Prof. Dawkins, with much respect, please don’t assume that because there is no mention of the branding irons and branding in the comments that this necessarily means that there was no notice.

      Even among those of us who still eat red meat, there is a collective wince and a growing conscientiousness about the way our food comes to our table.

      A non-trivial number of us here aren’t meat eaters; however, the commercial enterprise of treating animals as commodities (and our own food politics) are subjects we can discuss in another blog post, the subject of which is not how to pass an otherwise miserable day in Oklahoma.

  16. Jerry, this post of yours has made my day. All the better for now knowing what Abbie looks like!!!

    What a delight. I am so glad you had a good time and passed it on for us to savour!

    Many thanks

  17. That olive oil place is incredible. I wish I had a place like that around here. When it come to tea: Matcha for the green and Lapsang Souchong for the black.

    1. Sorry, this was meant to go under the previous post “Sweet Home Chicago”.

      Nevertheless, how did Jerry come by his love of cowboy boots? I’ve got a couple of pairs of the lace up variety myself by Chippewa.

  18. Lived in OK for a couple of years before it got quite as crazy as it now is. Never got to El Reno, but “White-Castle” burgers (the original “sliders”) seem to have the same philosophy in a mass-production sort of way.

    (1) square, bun-sized patties with nine holes in ’em to let the steam through. (2) first thing on the grill is diced onions, which start steaming. After that, frozen patties on top of the onions. Then (3) bun halves on top of the patties, which are still on top of the onions. (4) cheese and (just one) pickle round offered optionally. “Cheese” was actually some messy faux-orange concoction that is probably required by FDA to be labeled “cheese food” or “filled cheese food” or worse, meaning that it is whey, whey beyond any natural moo-cow product. My local White Castle also used to sell (for $1) empty and fairly clean 5-gallon plastic pails that once contained the pickle rounds.

    After OK, me and my SO used to drive home after long trips and stop at the White Castle just down the street from our home. There, we’d order ten or a dozen sliders. At home, we couldn’t resist the “improvement” of toasting the non-steamed bun half to golden brown.

    El Reno must be tens or hundreds of times better, but both El Reno’s “onion burgers” and White Castle “sliders” seem to have had their origins in the Great Depression, with onions extending the meat.


  19. Since Abbie’s linked to this again today, I don’t feel bad about posting in a thread this old:

    Jerry, most men do their experimentation with the same half when they’re students not professors. I mean, it’s healthy you’ve finally tried the ‘other side’ (same side?) to know where you stand on the issue. And I understand there’s a certain market for this kind of thing.

    Still, I didn’t think this was that kind of bl. . . website!

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