Where's the beef? At the Stampede, of course

One thing you'll never run short of at the Calgary Stampede is food choices, but beef is still the No. 1 choice among cowboys and fans alike.

Alberta beef and anything deep fried a hit at Stampede park

One thing you’ll never run short of at the Calgary Stampede is food choices. Granted, they’re not always the healthiest ones, but some are definitely creative. Wandering the midway, I’ve spotted deep fried Oreos, pizza on a stick, and Dippin' Dots freeze-dried ice cream.

This one is hard to imagine, but I saw the sign — deep fried Coke! You’ve really got to want deep fried to go for that, but the vendors claim they’re a hot item! Funnel cakes, cinnamon buns, and Spolumbo’s sausage are just a few of the other colorful food booths around Stampede Park.

I must admit, I did try the deep fried mac and cheese, and it wasn’t half bad. Sweet potato fries are another big seller in the province, much to the potato industry’s surprise. And of course, en route to the Stampede, I see people each and every day enjoying the famous Stampede pancake breakfasts.

But when you come to Alberta, you expect to find a little beef. And at Stampede Park you really do! (Remember the famous slogan "if it ain’t Alberta, it ain’t beef?")

In fact, according to the Alberta Beef Producers organization, the Stampede’s executive chef Derek Dale is proud to buy and serve Alberta Beef. There are nearly 30,000 beef producers in the province, and they’ve been going through an economic squeeze over the last few years, with rising feed costs, a high Canadian dollar and low returns. For many, that’s made ranching more of a lifestyle choice than a profit-based one. So it’s very important to the industry to have the support of a major organization like the Stampede.

Beef is king among cowboys

Whether it’s at the grandstand concession or the fine dining choices, beef is a popular choice. Chef Dale says during this year’s Stampede, they’ll serve over 50,000 pounds of Alberta beef to local and international visitors. The Stampede’s year-round catering operation is one of the biggest buyers of Alberta beef in the province.

Burgers abound, but believe me, you can get a real steak in various forms. There’s a midway booth called the Steak Pit, where you can get a full steak meal. At the Hitchin’ Post food booth near the infield entrance to the rodeo, you can get a steak on a bun that’s a pretty decent piece of meat. But you can also support the bison industry, by tasting a buffalo burger or even some bison ribs or jerky. So it’s a meaty world at the Stampede.

Not surprisingly, among rodeo cowboys themselves, beef is the No. 1 choice for keeping them fueled, on the road or at home. As we prepare profiles of the cowboys for Sunday’s prime time telecast of the Stampede, we’ve been checking out their "favourite food" choices and for the vast majority of them, without hesitation, it’s "a big ol’ steak." Many of today’s competitors have ranching roots, or are raising cattle themselves. So not only are they supporting their own industry for practical reasons, they just plain like the taste!

There have been a few other interesting "fav foods" cropping up, though. Today, I had a bull rider tell me he’s a sushi fan! Another cowboy cited ‘anything pasta.'

It’s not easy for rodeo contestants to eat normal, or even at all, on the road when they’re travelling. But more and more, they are becoming aware of the importance of good nutrition to their performance in the rodeo arena.

Here at the Stampede, they’re able to enjoy a hospitality area specifically for competitors, and I hear it’s a popular way for them to get some good fuel to rev up their engines for the afternoon’s action. Chances are, there’s plenty of beef on the menu.

BEHIND THE CHUTES: Monday’s crowd at the Stampede was concerned about several big cowboy "wrecks." The worst appeared to be bull rider Tyler Pankewitz, when it appeared a bull stepped on his face when he was bucked off. Sounds like the bull’s hoof did graze his cheek, but his buddies say he will be OK. The swelling on his face had gone down a lot, and he had some other sore spots, along with a concussion, but in bull rider terms, that’s not as bad as it looked, or could have been.

Bareback rider Tom McFarland was having a shiny Stampede, and did qualify for Sunday. But a bad dismount Monday sent him to the hospital with shoulder problems. The word is he’s returned to the U.S. to have his doctor examine it. It’s uncertain what his status will be for the rest of the rodeo. Fellow rider Wes Stevenson apparently lasted eight seconds on the world’s rankest horse, Grated Coconut, not really aware he was riding. He was around the rodeo today, but also has some concussion issues.

Speaking of bad dismounts, Jason Havens had one of those today. In bareback riding if you come off the wrong side of the horse, you’re essentially wedged in by your hand, and it’s very difficult to get out. There were some frightening seconds while he was "hung up," until the pickup riders helped rescue him. It’s uncertain how badly he was hurt, but you can bet he’ll be sore.

On a more positive note, past Stampede winner Cody Wright started his 2008 adventure in Calgary with a bang. He was matched up with a famous horse called Cool Alley. They always say she’s a treat to ride, because for a large lady she’s very agile and "as honest as the day is long." Trouble is, not everyone makes it to the whistle because she’ll just flat buck them off. Wright loves riding bucking horses like that, and in his years of riding, had never been given the chance to get on her before. She was everything he hoped for, and he made it look easy. The result was a whopping 91 mark. How do you top that? On a side note, want to guess what he spent a good chunk of the $100,000 he won at the Calgary Stampede two years ago on? He bought some beef cows.

Dianne Finstad is an agricultural and rodeo broadcaster in Red Deer, Alberta. She grew up near the Montana border in southern Alberta where her family’s been ranching for a century. Her western background and 4-H experience led her to a broadcasting career, which has included more than 25 years of covering pro rodeo for television, print, radio and now through this blog, the internet!