A Creative, Healthier Way to Eat Meat
Cow meal in a slaughter house
Photo Credit: FocusLuca
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Years ago, I attended a local food conference where a chef explained some of the challenges to getting local food into restaurants. Among the points he made was this: serving many conventional meat dishes is difficult because farmers raise whole animals, not just prime cuts like chicken breasts or leg of lamb. It’s all very well if you want to serve rib-eye or New York strip steak as the main course of your banquet dinner, but how many cattle do you need to kill to come up with enough steak for 200 people, and what are you doing to do with the rest of the animal?
At the time, eating local food was a newer idea for many people, so this was a bit of a revelation. The industrial food system uses the parts of the animals Americans don’t want to eat in all kinds of ways we don’t see. Chicken feet and hog rectums go to China. Some body parts might go into cosmetics or pet food, or perhaps they will be rendered and used as fertilizer. But a small farmer selling meat at a farmers’ market might not have such options.
Fortunately, the tastes of some Americans have caught up to the needs of farmers to sell entire animals, not just the choice cuts like steak, ribs or bacon. What is driving this trend, and how is it impacting farmers’ ability to provide customers with local, sustainable meat?
Compared to farmers who sell fruits and veggies, those offering local, sustainable meat have always had a few extra challenges. For starters, unless they only raise a relatively small number of chickens, they require nearby slaughter facilities that are willing to work with them.
With the exception of poultry, farmers cannot legally sell animals they slaughter themselves. Animals sold for meat must be slaughtered in USDA- or state-inspected facilities. Distance to the slaughterhouse from the farm is a factor, because transporting living animals long distances to a slaughterhouse is extremely stressful to the animals and expensive to the farmer. And a large slaughterhouse might not want to deal with a small farmer who is only raising, say, 50 lambs per year.
But assuming the farmer has a legal way to process the animal, what next? Do you split out all of the different cuts and wrap them in plastic, cure the bacon, make the sausage, and sell everything piece by piece? Or do you look for customers who are willing to buy an entire hog or a side of beef?
Some farmers go the latter route. And this suits some eaters fine. Becky Leach, who lives in rural Iowa, began buying entire sides of beef over a decade ago. After reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, “I was instantly converted into a person who could no longer bear to eat filthy food from unhappy, sick animals,” she said. “In my case, and in order to live within our budget,” eating humanely raised meat “required that we purchase whole or half animals directly from the farmer who raised them.”
With half a cow at her disposal—and soon thereafter, an entire pig—she had to figure out what all the parts were and what to do with them. Fortunately, she was already used to what she calls “nose to tail” eating. Her mother grew up, “dirt poor” in her words, in rural East Texas during the Great Depression. She learned to cook by watching her mother make do, stretch their meager supplies, and avoid waste at all costs, so she was talented in coaxing those odd bits and strange parts like ham hocks, or ox tail, or “innards” like liver and other organ meats, into delicious meals.