Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Vegetarians, this post is not for you. Go elsewhere in your daily ritual web wanderings, and come back here tomorrow.
Today we're going to talk about meat.
We eat a fair amount of meat around here.
Hard as it may be to believe, I was a vegetarian from the ages of nine to seventeen. I sported a PETA button on my "too cool for school" vintage jean jacket that kept me exiled in junior high. I think the button said "Meat is dead". (I was never one for subtlety) When I was seventeen, my confronting and rebellious aunt (not to be confused with my gentle and vegetarian aunt) put a steak in front of me at the Clement Street Grill in San Francisco and my vegetarianism was quickly forgotten.
What can I say? I'm the granddaughter of a woman who was a vegetarian for the majority of her adulthood except for when she had the chance to eat ribs. And when she had the chance, man did she take it.
Meat makes Joey happy, and that's pretty worth it to me too. A lamb shank will remedy any amount of bad day for him. But it's not just Joey who finds contentment in a meaty braise. Lately, meat nights are the only nights that Rosie will come off her "I'm not eating dinner" couch that I have installed in the new kitchen. She will eat as much meat as I can give her. She calls everything "pork chops." I let her, as labels hold a lot of meaning for that girl.
Way back when, I made a decision about meat. Because the majority of meat production and processing is grosser, more disrespectful to life, and more dangerous than we could ever imagine, we stopped buying meat at the store. Lucky for me, there are a whole lot of farmers in these environs raising animals on grass, giving them a good life and a humane death. Buying meat from these farmers is such a good idea, but before we go any further, I need to admit something to you.
I have a really, really big freezer. It is in my basement. I share it with my farmer friends, Jen and Pete, who fill their half with frozen corn and spinach. They are vegetarians, and they are very nice about the fact that there are several animals chopped up in my side of the freezer. It is a chest freezer, and no, it does not require a lot of electricity to run, and yes, if you have the space and you are interested in changing the source of your meat I suggest you get one if at all possible.
Logistically, there are pretty much two different ways to buy meat from small farms. The first is on a piece by piece basis, like you would buy at the supermarket. You can buy meat this way at farmers markets, sometimes in a farm stand freezer at a farm, and occasionally at a good health food store or coop market. This is a good way to buy local meat if you don't have a large freezer, or if you are very clear about the cuts that you are interested in. The downside of this is that it is often fairly expensive, as the farmer is offering the choicest cuts and packaging them for individual sale.
The second way is to purchase an entire animal, or at least part of one. In the case of chickens or smaller animals, you might purchase a certain quantity. Depending on the set up, this can be similar to hiring the farmer to raise an animal that you have purchased. Often you will commit to buying the animal while it is still alive, and this way the farmer knows that they won't lose money on the animal. This is how I purchase my meat, and the good things that come of it are numerous enough for a good old fashioned list. Here we go.
Why purchase an animal or part of an animal from a local farmer?
1. Usually, when you purchase an animal or part of an animal, you pay a flat fee per pound. For example, you might purchase half of a cow for five dollars a pound. You are paying five dollars a pound for ground beef, but you are also paying five dollars a pound for some pretty amazing steaks and roasts. It saves you a lot of money.
2. You are supporting local farmers, as well as your own local economy.
3. You can go visit the animals at the farm where you buy your meat. You can see exactly what conditions the animals live in before they are processed. Most farmers really love visits from their customers.
4. I have never had a piece of locally raised meat that did not taste exponentially better than its store bought equivalent. Especially in the case of pork- some of this meat will amaze you.
5. In the commercial meat system, animals are being bred for meat production. Chickens with oversized breasts are just one example. Usually farmers are raising breeds of animals that are just gone from the commercial meat system, and by supporting their work, we keep certain breeds around.
6. For any of you who have belonged to an agricultural csa, you know how great it can be to be forced to welcome a new vegetable into your home. Maybe you've never had a rutabaga, but you got two in this week's share and you better figure out what to do with them. The same is true for the purchase of an animal. You will get all sorts of cuts that you have never thought to be at the store, many that are not even available. I would never buy a boston butt pork roast at the store, but this has become one of my favorite cuts of pork. I feel like I have begun to learn where cuts come from, and this deepens my appreciation of the meat in general. When I bought a half of a pig this fall, the boxes included pork chops, shoulder roasts, butt roasts, ribs, sausage, bacon for breakfast, bacon for soups, ham steaks, a larger ham, sausage, and pork loin. You the idea, right? Endless meal opportunities.
There are also a few challenges to buying meat this way, and in the interest of fairness, let's talk about those too.
1. Although it is often less expensive in the long run to purchase meat in this way, it requires that you have a bunch of money all at once. You might buy a half of a pig which lasts you all year. It could cost 400 dollars, which stretched out on a meal by meal basis is pretty great. But when you go to pick up your pig, you need 400 dollars, and this certainly requires some planning.
2. Space is certainly an issue. But you've been wanting to buy that chest freezer for a while now, right?
3. Having a freezer full of meat requires meal planning, as it takes time for meat to thaw. But I think that this is also a plus. When I get it together to plan my meals at the start of the week, I buy less groceries, and I feel less panicky about what we're going to eat all week.
4. Sometimes, it can be hard to find a farmer. Farmers who are putting their lives into their small farms are often so busy that they don't put their energy into advertising, so you often have to go looking for them. Around here, the information of who is selling good meat is traded around like a guarded secret. It may feel like some people have the in, but there are easy ways for everyone to join the club. More about this in a minute.
I know, even the cons make you want to buy meat from small farms! So how do you start?
Start at the Farmers Market! There are probably farmers there selling meat. Talk to them about their farm, what they are raising, and whether they offer the option of purchasing sections of animals. Also, you can try their meat at the market and see if you are interested in more.
If you don't have a farmers market or you're not sure where to start, there are several websites that can set you in the right direction.
Local Harvest can direct you to farms, csa's, and grocery stores where you can purchase good produce and meat. There are even some meat csa's, and you can find them through this site.
The Eat Well Guide is a similar site that I really love. Their search feature is very graceful, and they have a great blog on their site as well.
For those of you over in my neck of the woods, Berkshire Grown is the best place to start. Our local Co-op market also carries meat from a lot of local farms.
I know, it's all so exciting. What are you waiting for? Go!