Food

A Creative, Healthier Way to Eat Meat

People are warming up to the idea of buying and eating whole animals, not just the choice cuts.

Cow meal in a slaughter house
Photo Credit: FocusLuca

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.

Leach did not always appreciate her mom’s odd specialties (like fried chicken livers) as a kid, but as an adult, the nutrition advice she subscribes to makes her grateful for her upbringing. She identifies with the teachings of both the Weston A. Price Foundation and the Real Food movement. The latter is inspired by the bookReal Food: What to Eat and Whyby Nina Planck.

Leach’s switch to eating whole animals is also based on what she learned about nutrition. “I started researching the benefits of overlooked or even maligned foods such as pastured lard, slow-braised cuts of 'tough' meat, and even organ meats—which are full of vitamins and minerals, which was why every child I knew growing up was fed the then dreaded liver and onions at least once a month!”

For the uninitiated, those who did not grow up with frugal parents who served organ meats, both restaurateur Jay Porter and ranch general manager Matt Prijatel of SonRise Ranch note the importance of first establishing trust with your customers before slowly guiding them to try more exotic foods.

SonRise Ranch raises grassfed, pastured beef, lamb, chicken, and pork. Their animals never spend time in a feedlot, and the farm has to charge higher prices than customers might be used to if they usually buy meat in supermarkets. But, notes Prijatel, if a typical person off the street remarks that $40 per pound is too much to pay for filet mignon and Prijatel suggests a less expensive organ meat as an alternative, “they would look at me as if my hair was on fire.”

For Prijatel, the key to selling the entire animal, organs and all, requires an educated, niche customer base who cares about where their meat comes from and how the animals were raised, and who are willing to try something out of the ordinary. Also important: the meat has to taste good.

Prijatel might start by suggesting somebody buy ground beef with a small percent of beef heart blended in. And, he adds, maybe you shouldn’t tell your kids what they are eating until after they’ve digested it. “Nine times out of 10, they come back and say my kids absolutely loved it.” Experiences like that build trust, and that customer might now be willing to be more adventurous.

Sometimes, selling organ meat requires a bit of creativity by the farmer. “This is a psychological situation,” acknowledges Prijatel. “And eating is psychological. We can grind it. We can make it more palatable and otherwise easy to handle and cook, then the customer is very much willing to give it a shot.”

But that’s in part thanks to his niche market. “The primary reason [our customers] come to us is because they want a clean animal product. They want to know where it came from… We live in a toxic environment and they want to stay as healthy as possible.”

Several customers subscribe to special diets that recommend bone broth, marrow or organ meats. These include the Weston A. Price Foundation, the paleo diet, and a diet based on the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride.

With such a customer base, SonRise Ranch has grown so popular that several items are on back order. If you want marrow bones, you have to order them while the cow is still alive.

Serving up entire animals in a restaurant is even more complicated. Jay Porter recently closed his two restaurants in San Diego, the Linkery and El Take It Easy. Both served local, sustainable food, but the Linkery was known for its sausages whereas El Take It Easy served Baja-style Mexican food. He’s now in Oakland, preparing to open a restaurant called Sal Si Puede, hoping that the Bay Area market is more conducive to his success than San Diego.

Like Prijatel, he found that trust is a factor in introducing customers to new foods. “Basically, the more successful you are, the more opportunity you are to lead with unfamiliar. People already trust you that you've been serving them delicious food… What we found was to the extent we had a good rapport with our community, we could push them slowly out of their comfort zone with new cuts. But what we found with El Take It Easy, where we didn't have that rapport yet, we couldn't open a restaurant with a bunch of offal. That was a mistake.”

When El Take It Easy opened, one of the dishes on the menu was chicken spleens. By all accounts, it was delicious. “Nobody bought them,” remembers Porter. “It becomes really hard when you have items like that that don't move quickly… We couldn't keep those on the menu because we would be throwing them out.”

Porter takes experimental eating to the extreme, describing pates he made with goat brain and eyeballs. “I had never eaten eyeballs before and I was surprised with how delicious that was. All the head cheeses, the brains dishes, that's such a great opportunity.”

But, for a population that thinks of liver as adventurous eating, brain and eyeballs are going to be a hard sell.

Like SonRise Ranch, he found a lot of success turning his customers on to eating heart. “One of our most successful dishes was a heart burger, which was a beef burger that had beef heart in it. It adds such a richness to the burger. After a while you stop thinking of beef heart as offal, you think of it is as another delicious cut.”

And yet, for a restaurant, butchering and serving whole animals is not economical because of the labor costs involved. Even buying offal and serving it requires special talent in the kitchen. “In a restaurant, you have to have very good cooks to do it,” says Porter. “It’s so much knowledge required about each bit and we were fortunate that we had really great cooks who understood the product and were able to make delicious food from it. That’s hard to get and it’s expensive and requires talent and effort. It’s not something in a restaurant you could just throw on a menu without knowing what you’re doing.”

Porter continues, “What's really cheap is grinding burgers. People love burgers and that's kind of the thing that makes the most sense economically. Actually what's really cheap is making pizzas because they are made of flour and that makes a lot of sense.”

He feels that, in smaller markets, people on special diets like Weston A. Price or paleo, “make up a significant share of the offal market.” But, in a larger market like the Bay Area, “it’s more people who are interested in gastronomic adventure.” He’s excited to make a fresh start in Oakland and says he wishes he hadn’t waited so long to do it.

In the meantime, the cold, hard facts of economics and anatomy do little to solve the conundrum: an 1100-pound steer only has a few pounds of filet mignon, and a whole lot of bones, marrow and organs, yet butchering that entire animal and serving up offal in addition to steaks takes a lot of work, costs a lot of money if it’s in a restaurant, and many people just aren’t willing to try it.