Sunday, April 13, 2014

From farm to table.

It seems that spring has finally arrived in Maryland. We’ve had a whole weekend filled with sunshine and crisp, fresh air. There are daffodils popping up along the creek, little green buds on all of the trees, and a constant buzz of little creatures (human and otherwise) venturing back outside. To celebrate this lovely change of events, we are dusting off the grill and making the one food we have rarely had the chance to eat over the past few years: hamburgers.

It may sound strange – hamburgers are one of the most popular foods in the United States – but eating only ethically-sourced meat means avoiding hamburgers almost everywhere. I recall eating them quite regularly back in college, though, both at restaurants and grilled in my backyard. Hamburgers were the mainstay of nearly all get-togethers: the Superbowl, July 4th, or even just a weekend poker party. I remember those times fondly because, above all, they were celebrations of friendships. They certainly weren’t celebrations of food, however. I bought my burger patties frozen, in a big tan box from Costco. I never thought much about how the meat had come to be in its mechanically-pressed, totally uniform state, and I had no idea how the cows were treated in the process.

Today’s event will be quite different. It will be just me and my little family, celebrating life, hard work, and of course, food.

After the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, a fellow attendee who lives nearby contacted me about joining a cowpool. I’d never participated in a cowpool before, but I jumped at the chance. Here’s how it works: A group of people pool money to purchase a half or whole steer from a farmer. Typically, the price per pound is lower than if you bought comparable meat at a store or farmers market, and you can find a farmer who uses practices you are comfortable supporting. Depending on the farmer, you may even be able to visit the farm and your particular cow while it is being raised.

Our cow was grass-fed, raised on pasture at Legacy Manor Farm in northwest Maryland. Although the farm isn’t run with quite the level of management of Polyface Farms (i.e. maximizing integration between the different animals and the land), the animals are raised in a natural, low-stress environment without hormones or antibiotics. Our cowpool, which was broken down into 8 shares, purchased a half-steer. A few months later, our intrepid cowpool leader, Steve, met up with our farmer, Kathy, at the midway point between Silver Spring and the farm to pick up our half steer.

Buying a whole or half animal is quite a different experience than buying cuts of meat at the deli counter. Our meat came, quite literally, as a side of beef, which weighed in at 347 lbs. Although we could have had it broken down before delivery), we instead turned to the experts at The Urban Butcher, an artisan butcher shop located in downtown Silver Spring. These guys were amazing. They allowed Steve to attend and photograph the butchering process. Rather than issuing them a list of cuts, Steve simply let the butchers make the decisions about how best to break down our half steer. Due to their diligence and expertise, only 10 of the 347 lbs were unused, and we got some rather uncommon steaks and roasts in addition to T-bones, ribs, ground beef, and the like.

In early February, all the members of our cowpool met up in order to distribute our shares of meat. It was a lovely day, and our hosts greeted us with wine, a warm fire in their backyard pit, and over 300 lbs of vacuum-sealed and labeled beef. Before we started divvying up the meat, Steve gave a toast. He spoke of the gratitude he felt for this food, which was enhanced by his participation and the awareness it gave him of all the time and effort that goes into raising and butchering a steer. We were able to acknowledge and appreciate the life lost in bringing this food to our table, and the efforts of our farmer and butchers to honor that life.

We then picked numbers out of a hat, and took turns selecting cuts of meat until each share-holder had their allotted amount. My family took home about 40 lbs of grass-fed beef, bones, and tallow. The cuts we selected included: neck roasts, oso bucco, ground beef, kabob, “man” steak, top sirloin roast, short ribs, sirloin tip roast, T-bone steak, picanha steak, clod, and flank steak. We paid $210 for our share, which comes out to about $5 per pound, although excluding the fat and bones brings it up to about $7 per pound.

Over the ensuing months, we’ve been slowly working our way through the meat. Everything we’ve tried has been delicious, in part because we treat each of these meals as a special occasion. Even today, grilling hamburgers on the patio for no one but ourselves, it is a celebration. The ground beef has a heftier consistency, with larger chunks of bright red meat and bright white fat, than you would find in a grocery store. We prepare it simply, alongside grilled portabellas, asparagus, and romaine hearts. We pour some wine. Even our toddler can sense that this is a special meal. It’s not just the amazing taste of the food, it’s also the fact that this meal took effort, that makes it so satisfying. This is a hamburger I will remember.