Portable Chef Blog: Tasty Licks

The 2009 Beef Draft, pt. 3: Thoughts of Our Cow

Delicious.

This is the type of blog entry that I set out not to write.

The problem I have with many blogs is that they tend to be more for the writer than the reader. I’ve read too many whose authors use the forum work out their own issues, to describe their day, or to do a host of other things that have nothing to do with making the reader’s valuable time worthwhile.

That’s not what I want to do here. I aspire first and foremost to make this column an enjoyable and informative read for the people who choose to invest their time here. I want to be entertaining and educational, Fat Albert-style: Coming at you with cooking and fun. And if you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done. Hey, hey, hey! But I think this blog installment may develop a distinct “get some stuff off my chest” feel – if that’s how it reads I apologize in advance.

portable_chef_beef_draft-1

The Beef Draft is all about cooking and fun. But there is one particularly not fun part of the draft, and it would be unfair to gloss over it:

Today the steer we bought was slaughtered.

At an intellectual level, I’m OK with this. I get our place in the food chain. And I don’t fall prey to the fantasy that, if humans were removed from the equation, other animals would live in a state of peaceful bliss. They wouldn’t – and here’s that unbelievable clip of lions hunting an elephant to prove it.

And I also get it that our cow (it’s been named “W,” to ease some of the sting of its death) lived a pretty damn good life, spending much of his life doing what cows love to do: be outside, eat grass, walk fields, and fart a lot. And although W was literally born to die, he never knew it, and therefore never feared it – again, not a bad deal.

And buying this cow and its 500-800 meals’ worth of beef would be a vote – a real, dollar vote – away from factory farmed beef.

But none of this changes the fact that, as a direct result of my idea for a beef draft, W was shot in the head with a bolt gun today.

W had the additional misfortune of being judged highly likely to be exceptionally delicious, as his cousin soundly defeated a cow from a neighboring ranch in a contest revolving around eating their flesh and evaluating their flavor. But if it hadn’t been W, it’d have been another cow.

The American meat industry has done an incredibly effective job divorcing the idea of “meat” from the idea of “animal,” in large part to deter the kind of thinking that I’m doing now. That’s why you never see a picture of a cow on a package of ground beef, or of a pig on bacon. It also explains a bit about why the popular cuts of meat are the ones that remind us least of the animals they come from. Chicken nuggets, boneless, breaded, and completely camouflaged, were invented in my lifetime and zoomed past more recognizable animal parts such as legs and wings in popularity. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the most-requested cut of chicken; in cows, burgers reign supreme; pigs, sausage and bacon. None of these feature much of a reminder to the eater of the animals they come from – no bones, skin, cartilage, or any odd bits to be found.

The success of the meat industry in its efforts can be seen in American eating habits: after eating meat about twice per week in the 1950s, American families eat meat more than 10 times per week today at a clip of over a half-pound a day, more than double the global average.

A big part of this draft is about getting closer to our food and this feels, well… close. While taking somewhat more direct responsibility by buying a whole animal makes me uncomfortable, that is a good thing. I’m still standing at a pretty safe distance – if I had to kill my own, something I hope to explore someday soon, I might well become a vegetarian – but I’m still closer to my meat than I normally get.

The Beef Draft will expose us to parts of a cow that I rarely see, and that clearly let it be known that these were once parts of an animal – hello, tail, heart, liver! Even more significantly, these are all parts of the same animal. Each of the hundreds of meals that my friends in the Beef Draft will have come from the same life, and there’s something sacred about that. In a weird way, it feels right. This sounds trite, but W, you will be appreciated. And this column is dedicated to your tasty little ass.

I don’t know about you, but I feel much better. Next column will be about worm poo.

HOW TO: BUY HAPPY LIVESTOCK

It’s not the simplest process. Unfortunately, there’s no quick answer – labels attached to meats raised in certain ways can confuse more than they help. Large meat companies (four companies produce over 60% of America’s meat) co-opt terms used to describe meat made the right way almost as soon as they prove effective: terms commonly associated with a higher standard of raising livestock are in fact barely meaningful. Many small farms that produce meat and other foods the right way are too small to afford the USDA certification fees to be labeled “organic;” “grass-fed” cattle can still be fed grain, which their bodies are not built to eat, and kept indoors; and “cage-free” and “free-range” animals still live crowded lives, often without ever seeing the light of day.

Even one of the leading brands in humanely-treated livestock, Niman Ranch, ousted its founder, as the venture-backed board wanted less stringent animal welfare controls than Bill Niman did. Their volume has gone up dramatically and they now sell to the McDonald’s-owned Chipotle chain.

Of the adjectives and claims attached to meat out there, “Certified Humane” seems to carry the most weight (though as a process with fees attached, I worry that smaller operations are priced out of obtaining the certification).

Other terms are created with an apparent deliberate attempt to mislead: for example, a “100% vegetarian-fed” chicken might sound good but it means that (a) these chickens were not eating their natural diet, which involves eating grubs and worms in addition to veggie fare; and (b) that the chickens were not allowed access to the outdoors, where they would almost certainly stumble upon some bugs and lose their “100% vegetarian-fed” status.

To get a better handle on all the terms used to describe meat, there’s an excellent summary in Issue Six of Meatpaper. The article is not available on their website, but was reproduced with permission about six paragraphs down here.

The best way to feel comfortable about your meat is to get to know the person selling it to you; ideally, that person also raised the livestock. Open-ended questions that require a somewhat lengthy response, such as “how do you raise your livestock?”, tend to do best, whether at a farmer’s market stall or in a restaurant. The ones who do it right will generally give you the straightest positive answers; watch for hemming and hawing.

And if a waiter or seller doesn’t know the answer… well, that speaks volumes. You can pretty safely assume the worst. According to FarmForward over 99% of American meat is factory-farmed.

Fortunately, there are lots of places to buy meats made the right way. Some places I like: for pork, Caw Caw Creek in St. Matthews, SC; for beef, Whippoorwill Farms in Lakeville, CT; for chicken, Hoosic River Poultry in Buskirk, NY.

NEXT: The Main Event

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