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Despite their beef, Oprah is hottest ticket in Amarillo

Roadhouse waitress Gretchen Cotter's smile rivaled the glitter of the neon lights outside. Her easy drawl strained to be heard over the noise of a jukebox, a pinball machine and three television sets.

"Hamburger, cheeseburger or ribeye steak?" she asked, reciting the entire menu of the Lone Star Bar & Grill."And," she purred, "we serve only mad cows - REALLY mad cows."

While lawyers in this Panhandle beef basket haggle over whether Oprah Winfrey libeled a hamburger, everyday folks are abuzz about the talk show queen's visit to answer a cattlemen's lawsuit and tape Texas-flavored episodes for her show.

Two weeks into her trial, Winfrey remains the hottest ticket in town as reporters from all over the country fill courtroom seats to hear her defense against claims she cost the beef business millions with a 1996 show on mad cow disease.

"The only mad cow in Texas is Oprah," read inscriptions on flashy caps and T-shirts that Gretchen and her pals are peddling at the Lone Star.

But despite the undeniable fact that city residents are devoted to eating beef, far more popular souvenirs are shirts, caps and bumper stickers proclaiming "Amarillo Loves Oprah."

Believe it.

Oprah's stay in town, which stretched to include her 44th birthday last week, is "clearly the biggest media event in the city's history," said Garet von Netzer, publisher of the Amarillo newspapers.

"Amarillo's been very receptive to her," says lawyer Dee Miller. "Generally speaking, even people in the cattle industry have been very positive toward her."

That says a lot for Oprah and for local tolerance in a city of 165,000 where airport arrivals are welcomed by a sign declaring that the area supplies 25 percent of the fed beef sold in America every year.

Where could be a better place for Oprah to debate mad cow issues?