Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stimulating dinner conversation: Three discussions about food. (Part Two)

The second event I attended was a panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club entitled The Conscientious Carnivore: A Guide to Humane and Sustainable Meat Eating. As the name implies, this event covered how slaughter animals are raised and “processed” both conventionally and ethically, how to find ethical meat, and how to cook ethically as well. The panelists included a grass-fed cattle rancher named Mac Magruder, food writer Deborah Krasner, author and butcher Marissa Guggiana, and executive chef Chris Cosentini.

From farm to butcher.

Mac Magruder is a fourth generation cattle rancher in Mendocino County, CA. In a great video from Oliveto, we get to see the ranch, the animals, and Mac’s family. He explains the importance of raising cattle on grass and letting all of his animals roam on pasture. You can see more pics of the Magruder Ranch residents on their Facebook page.

At the panel discussion, Mac described his process of raising grass-fed cattle on pasture in contrast to confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in which cows stand about in their own manure and are force-fed corn. CAFOs depend on corn made cheap through crop subsidies, which means the whole feedlot system is dependent on non-renewable resources such as water, fossil fuels, and phosphorous that are used to grow commodity corn as well as the tax-payer dollars that make monoculture commodity corn farming economically viable. The fumes and runoff from CAFOs - a stew of animal waste, hormones, and antibiotics used to control the spread of disease and combat corn-related digestive problems that would otherwise prove fatal for the cows – contaminate ground water and add to pollution and even climate change. As Mac stated at the panel, “feedlot is not a sustainable industry".

Even good ranchers often sell their cattle to feedlots rather than to consumers. Mac’s animals never go to feedlots, but getting the meat to consumers is harder than you might think. In fact, according to the panel, one of the biggest challenges in linking local, sustainable meat producers with consumers is that, for Mac to sell his meat, he has to have the animals slaughtered and “processed” at a USDA-certified facility.

Like much of the meat industry, consolidation has reduced the number of meat processors. And the increased volume of meat production and meat-related food-borne illnesses, has led the USDA to add many more regulations to reduce contamination and hazard within the process. Unfortunately, when regulations intended for large-scale facilities are applied to all facilities, small-scale processors are often driven out of business. Nowadays, a local cattle rancher like Mac may have to transport his animals hundreds of miles to a certified processor in order to sell them within the community.

Not all of the sustainably-minded processors have disappeared quite yet. Panelist Marissa Guggiana runs Sonoma Direct, a USDA-certified processor, butcher, and wholesaler that deals exclusively with local ranchers. Their goal is to follow the philosophy of famed butcher Dario Cecchini: to provide an animal with a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook. The idea is to, in the end, create a meal that pays homage to not only the animal being eaten but also all of the people who labored to raise that animal and bring it to us in the form of food.

Marissa recently wrote a book about butchers and meat processing called Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers. The book highlights some of the unsung heroes of the sustainable meat market. Marissa pointed out that butchery is a diminishing field of study, and without people willing to do this work, we can’t expect to revitalize local markets for ethical meat.

Supporting local ranches like Magruder’s and processors like Sonoma Direct is obviously important, but working to create a scale-dependent regulatory system for processors is also necessary. One potential solution currently operating in Washington is mobile processing facilities that would be eligible for certification and could travel to small farms and ranches. The USDA is also providing assistance for small processors to develop action plans so they can meet the regulations. More work needs to be done, however, before the local, sustainable meat industry can really have a fair shot at consumers.

From market to plate.

Farmers markets and CSAs have been growing in popularity in recent years. It’s now feasible for most consumers to purchase local, ethical meat. Eat Wild maintains a database of grass-fed animal farms, searchable by state, and has a lot of great information on the benefits on grass-fed meat; Local Harvest compiles searchable lists of farmers markets and CSAs.

Although sourcing ethical meat is becoming easier, most people still think of purchasing meat the same way they have for years – buying only a few cuts of meat with only the next meal or few meals in mind. The panel suggested a different approach. Deborah Krasner explained how she purchases meat in terms of whole, half, or quarters of an animal and takes care to use all the parts of the animal she receives. Her philosophy is that "you have an obligation to eat everything that's edible".

In her book, Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat, Krasner goes into exquisite detail on the subject of purchasing animals and having them processed by a butcher into different cuts of meat. She then includes recipes for everything from the familiar steaks and roasts to the more obscure cuts such as sweetbreads (generally glands) and tongue. The book covers beef, lamb, pork, poultry, rabbit, and eggs and is filled with pictures of animals that Deborah raised herself.

Cooking less-familiar cuts of meat is currently going through a bit of a renaissance. These used to be the cheaper cuts of meat so there are traditional methods and recipes; we just have to relearn them. Deborah made the point that cooking is an integral part of eating sustainably saying, “all of us who are invested in sustainable meat want you to learn how to cook meat beautifully".

Offal, the internal organs such as liver and brains, are also being incorporated into modern fare. At San Francisco restaurant Incanto, executive chef Chris Cosentino combines offal with more familiar cuts to create amazing edible experiences. In addition to his work at Incanto (and a hobby of endurance mountain biking), Chris maintains Offal Good, an educational website and blog all about offal.

Chris and Deborah agreed that sourcing animals that are grass-fed and pasture-raised is even more important when using these cuts. The flavors are completely different and do not contain chemicals that can linger in the organs of conventionally-raised animals.

They also recommended that people reprioritize cooking within their lives. Planning ahead of time can make many more recipes fit into a busy lifestyle. Even a dish that takes hours to cook often takes much less time to prepare, and the time the food spends in the oven or the slow-cooker can be time for the chef to do chores, work, or even yoga. Buying in bulk reduces both time for shopping and the cost of meat per meal. While this type of sourcing and cooking may still prove unrealistic for struggling families, for many people, it really is a matter of organization and priorities.

From audience to participant.

My mother’s recipe for thanksgiving stuffing uses chicken livers, which elicited quite the negative response from my husband the first year I tried to make it. Every year since, much to his chagrin, I have made this stuffing because it reminds me of my childhood although it never seems to come out quite right. After attending the Conscientious Carnivore event, it occurred to me that perhaps one reason the dish never tastes right is because I use conventional chicken livers from the grocery store and use water with beef bullion cubes to make the broth.

This year, I got serious and picked up chicken livers and beef bones, which my husband used to make an incredible broth, from Marin Sun Farms. I also used bread from a bakery and local organic vegetables. The stuffing turned out fantastic. All my guests raved about it and were surprised to hear that liver was the unfamiliar flavor that carried the dish.

My commitment to eating ethically, the information I learned from the panelists, and my positive experiences from thanksgiving have inspired me to go even more outside my comfort zone. My husband and I have often been wary of lesser-known cuts of meat available at the farmers market because we wouldn’t know how to prepare them. After the panel event, I purchased Good Meats as a guide to help us expand our repertoire. Eating more cuts of meat means that we are really using the whole animal, a more sustainable and ethical way of eating.

Next up, a Q&A between Berkeley students and author, Michael Pollan. Then, a synthesis of my three experiences and how they fit into the bigger picture of sustainable food systems.

Additional sources:
USDA meat regulations: Taylor DA 2008. Does One Size Fit All?: Small Farms and U.S. Meat Regulations. Environ Health Perspect 116:A529-A531. doi:10.1289/ehp.116-a528
More on Deborah Krasner
More on Marissa Guggiana
Special thanks to Tess McEnulty for supplying me with quotes. I must learn to take better notes!

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