Articles in Livestock
I watched a butchery demonstration by third-generation meat cutter Kari Underly at the annual Chef’s Collaborative conference last year in Seattle. One of the attendees was the editor-in-chief from a national cooking magazine. I asked her what drew her to watch a skilled professional divide muscles from bone and fat. “I just love watching people cut up meat,” she said. “I won’t ever use this stuff, but it’s fascinating.”
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Observing a butcher elegantly wield a knife is a spectacle, one I recommend to anybody tempted by the smells of a burger on the grill. Years ago in cooking school, I was rapt by my first butchery demonstration on a lamb, and I wasn’t even a meat eater then. Since there’s no blood to speak of (slaughter and butchery are two vastly different steps in the process), the butcher’s craft is akin to witnessing a master wood carver create an end table from a stump.
Underly is one of several pro butchers to publish a book on her craft, “The Art of Beef Cutting.” Her step-by-step illustrated guide is geared toward professional meat cutters, but is approachable for motivated home cooks. Other recent books are for the general meat eater eager to learn their striploin from their skirt steak. They include San Francisco 4505 Meats butcher Ryan Farr’s “Whole Beast Butchery” and New York-based Fleisher’s owners Joshua and Jessica Applestone’s “The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.”
Along with “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” these books aim at the DIY market and the mania for home-cured bacon and assorted salumi. The newest butchery book out this spring is “Butchery & Sausage-Making for Dummies.” Written by San Francisco Chef Tia Harrison, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild and co-owner of Avedanos Meats, this book brings butchery to the masses.
As I paged through illustrations, photographs and diagrams of animal carcasses and cuts in each of these books, I wondered how many people would find it both fascinating and useful.
Butchery is back, but is it relevant for everyone?
By the time I witnessed Underly in action in Seattle, I had years of informal experience cutting up parts of beef, elk, pork and lamb, whole rabbits, chickens, duck and turkey.
Laying my hands on primals and smaller muscle groups gave me firsthand understanding of how those parts related to the whole. I had an intimate understanding of how the composition of the shoulder differed from the leg, right down to the muscle texture and color.
These experiences handling, cutting, trimming, chopping and grinding my own meat not only improved my knife work, they also enhanced my cooking knowledge and skill with anything meaty.
Even if you don’t aspire to break down a whole hog or side of beef, there are surprisingly many transferable skills to be learned from a bit of butchery. Butchery guidebooks such as these are an accessible starting point for seeking out new opportunities to use your knife.
You can also sign up for a class, watch an online video or enlist a more experienced friend.
Here’s what some hands-on butchery experience can do for you:
- Connect with the meat you eat, its source and quality. Once you get up close and personal with your meat, it’s impossible not to ask questions, including how was this animal raised? What was it fed? How was it slaughtered? You become a more conscious carnivore.
- Learn the location and composition of cuts. Carcasses are like jigsaw puzzles. When you take just one piece at a time, you can more easily grasp the whole. You can then translate what you know about beef to pork to lamb, or chicken to duck to game birds.
- Increase your confidence at the meat counter and in the kitchen. Have you felt shy approaching the butcher counter? Or, do you only buy steaks because you know how to cook them? With a little experience, you become the master your favorite meats.
- Understand the reasons for different cooking methods. The proportion of lean to fat in any cut determines whether it needs slow cooking or can be roasted, grilled and sautéed. Demystify the cooking and your options open wide.
- Waste less and use more of the meat you buy. Whether you purchase a whole tenderloin to trim or a pork shoulder to smoke, you’ll find a good use for every morsel of meat, fat and even bone. Stock and sausage making are natural next steps.
5 Butchery Skills for Beginners
With your knives — a boning knife and chef’s knife are all you need — freshly sharpened, here are some beginning butchery skills anyone can try at home:
- Slice your own steaks from a strip loin (or boneless rib roast or top round roast)
- Bone a whole chicken
- Bone a leg of lamb, roll and tie it
- Butterfly pork loin
- Trim a whole tenderloin
Top photo: A butcher Frenching a rack of lamb. Credit: David L. Reamer
Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims — usually implying that the food is produced with animal welfare or the environment in mind.
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As consumer interest in how our food is produced has increased, so too has the use of subtle imagery of happy livestock grazing in lush pastures on food packaging. They’re backed up by claims like “all natural,” “cage free” and “organic.” Yet in many cases these labels bear no resemblance whatsoever to how the animals are raised.
While you might think you’re buying food that’s better for animals, for the environment, and/or for your health, the sad truth is that many of the terms and claims on meat, milk and eggs actually mean very little. They are used to hide the same old intensive farming systems that have been used for decades, a billion-dollar business that does not have animal welfare on its short list of priorities.
The intensive farming industry doesn’t want you to know what goes on behind its locked gates, because the chances are if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch your food — let alone eat it. If food manufacturers were legally required to use actual images from the farming systems, most standard egg cartons would be adorned with horrific images of row upon row of caged hens, all with their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other. Pork products would display images of pigs packed indoors in concrete-floored pens, the sows confined in gestation crates. Most of the beef products would have to show the thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of cattle crammed together on each of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that supply 90% of all U.S. beef, where they have no access to pasture and are fed an unhealthy diet of corn and grain and antibiotic growth promoters.
Nothing natural about it
Two of the most common terms you’ll find on meat products are “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised.” Both terms arguably suggest that livestock have a “natural” life, with access to pasture. Yet the term “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal was raised and simply means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. “All Natural” ground beef in stores almost certainly comes from cattle who spent their last three to six months on a dirt-yard CAFO. And while manufacturers who use the “Naturally Raised” label must take steps to ensure the livestock involved were raised without growth promotants and not fed animal byproducts, the animals are usually confined in feedlots or cages. Although there are no independent checks to make sure the rules are being followed.
“Cage free” eggs are becoming increasingly popular as more people refuse to buy eggs from battery cage systems. While “cage free” eggs may come from hens raised without cages, they almost all spend their lives indoors in vast barns or warehouses with thousands of other hens in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, and receive routine antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. As the “cage free” hens still don’t have much space to move around, beak cutting is routinely practiced on them as well, to stop them from pecking each other to death.
When food labels that say organic aren’t
Many people put their faith in the “certified organic” logo. Yet an increasing number of headlines show unscrupulous operators are exploiting the weaknesses in the organic rules to introduce practices associated with industrial farming. In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute investigated organic egg production and found numerous instances across the U.S. where industrial-scale operations were managing thousands of hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors — yet they could legally sell their eggs as organic. These operations make a mockery of the organic principles and threaten the livelihoods of countless real organic poultry farmers who are farming to the high standards consumers rightly expect.
There are even problems among some of the “humane” certified labels. Despite claims that products carrying the American Humane Certified label have met rigorous welfare standards, this animal welfare certification supports caged production for chickens and doesn’t require pasture access for any farmed species. Hardly what most people would consider “humane” practice.
So how can you spot a meaningful label from a spurious claim? Animal Welfare Approved — the industry leader in auditing and certifying family farms to the highest welfare standards — has published “Food Labeling for Dummies.” This free 16-page guide is designed to help decipher the most common terms and claims found on food packaging and, most important, determine whether they have been independently verified. Download a free copy or call (800) 373-8806.
Top photo composite:
Andrew Gunther and guide cover. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute
Almost 40 years ago, Kay and David James started their search in the West for the perfect piece of land on which to ranch and raise children. The couple was young and in love, and knew what they wanted: clean air, a large spread that would accommodate cattle, and plenty of water. Their search ended on 450 acres in the mountains of Durango, Colo.
Although there’s been a chronic drought throughout the Southwest, there’s plenty of water in the ditch that runs through the middle of this sublime land.
Through the 1970s, the James’ raised five children on grass-finished meats, high ideals and the concept of stewarding the land. When these kids graduated from high school, Kay and Dave pushed them out of the nest into the world of higher education and self-sufficiency. They were told if they wanted to return to the ranch in the future, they should bring back something that would add to the already flourishing ranch. And while the mainstay of the ranch continues to be the beef, all the kids have finally come home. And they’ve come home with their talent.
Julie James and her husband, John Ott, raise free-range chickens for eggs, and blue spruce trees. Jennifer and her husband, Joe Wheeling, raise fresh produce, flowers and herbs. Dan James and his wife, Becca, raise pigs and Jersey milk cows for raw milk and artisan cheese. The James food is available at the Durango Farmers Market and also at their own truly exceptional roadside farm market just above where they all live in the Animas Valley.
A second generation returns to the land at James Ranch
Two years ago, Cynthia James Stewart — the third child and last to come home — pulled all the blessings of the ranch together by creating a roadside grill that serves the ranches’ own hamburgers, cheese and bratwurst, thus making the ranch a real destination for dining.
Unlike the rest of the gang, when Cynthia returned to the ranch, she had no plan. She and her husband Robert were not “rancher-type” people. Her siblings suggested she raise meat birds. She just shook her head. But while she and Robert waited for their epiphany, they worked the farm market.
In her former life, Cynthia had been trained at the Fashion Institute in New York City, and then she’d worked for Ralph Lauren. After that she worked for an environmental company that specialized in water filtration equipment.
“Folks laughed when I told them soon they’d be spending more on bottled water than gas,” she said.
When she met Robert 11 years ago, he was in the mortgage industry. They’d both reached a point in their careers where they were ready for something new around which they could build a family. Soon after they began thinking about adoption, Cynthia knew she had to get back to the ranch.
At the bottom of the ranch property in the old hay barn was a wreck of a trailer that Cynthia’s brother Dan kept saying the family had to get rid of. Cynthia asked her youngest brother, Justin James, who was in the restaurant business, how much he thought it would take to put a basic grill and griddle into the cart. She imagined “people sitting around eating all our food, looking out on all of this beauty — the mountains, the cows, the chickens, you know …”
The trailer had to be completely gutted, which estimates showed would cost about $5,000. In the end, the final cost, which included obtaining many permits and putting in a Bob’s John, was nearer to $18,000.
“Before I married Robert I didn’t cook. At 35 years old, I started,” Cynthia said. “I fell in love with how my family were scientifically rediscovering nature’s harmony of food production. I was amazed at how my dad moved the cows each day, how he’d figured out how much grass each one needed.
“My brother Dan’s milk cows only ate grass and what an effort to make sure they get enough food for milk production. He doesn’t supplement with grain. And how much Jennifer has to go through with her vegetables because we’re at high altitude.
“And the huge amount of work Julie has with her chickens and their eggs. She has 450 now! It’s a lot of work.”
The Harvest Grill and Greens
Cynthia and Robert and The Harvest Grill and Greens are now part of the James Ranch circle. Most all of the ingredients are sourced from the James Ranch, including the meat, cheese, tomatoes, all the salad material, and the currant sauce. The blue chips come from the local “chip peddler,” and the bread from local bakeries. All the recipes are Cynthia’s, and she’s not giving away the recipe for her “signature sauce” for the burger.
During summer, the grill has two cooks, one of whom is Robert. In winter, the grill is open only on Saturdays when Cynthia makes chili, stew, sloppy Joes, and other fun food.
“By the end of September, I’ll have a basement full of my sister Jennifer’s squash. I’ll use her squash and pumpkins through March in soups and stews. I take all her Roma tomatoes, put them in olive oil, roast them and then freeze them. Robert is always reminding me how expensive my ingredients are. We have Annie’s ketchup and organic Dijon mustard … probably why we got voted best burger. We use real food, organic, no non-sweetened, no corn syrup, everything the way nature wanted it to be.”
The Harvest Grill and Greens puts all the James Ranch pieces of the food puzzle together. In July, they fed between 120 to 160 meals a day. June and August were also fabulous. “All of us at the James Ranch want people to come to their food source and delight in it. The stars of our show are the remarkable cheese, our grass-finished cows and our organic vegetables. Those things and my recipes using all this great food, ties us together.”
So far, the James Ranch has two generations working their food. Grady James, who is 14, is teaching his first cooking class this fall. The third generation is coming up fast.
Photo: Cynthia James Stewart and Robert Stewart cooking up a hamburger and some chili in their Harvest Grill. Credit: Rick Scibelli
On May 9, 2010, a young couple set out on a yearlong driving adventure in their home state of Minnesota. There would be no mindless eating on this road trip, however. For Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, real food was the journey as well as the destination. In place of junk food bags, their car collected local products, like wild rice, honey and edible weeds.
Itinerant filmmakers, their aim was to document foods grown, gathered, husbanded and hunted by real people. By the end of the year, they had created a collection of 52 short films called “The Perennial Plate: Adventures in Sustainable Eating” and a 60,000-views-per-month Internet hit series.
Their passion fueled, the tireless couple set off on a second year road trip, this time across the United States. Their resources: a Toyota Prius, an immersion blender and double the funds of their first trip, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. Through 43 states and across 23,000 miles, “The Perennial Plate” posted 50 new episodes. Their three-to-12-minute videos on subjects from eating insects to a Southern farm-to-table dinner went viral.
For their third season, “The Perennial Plate” goes global with the first episode set to air in late October. Their route is a 12-country journey in partnership with Intrepid Travel, beginning in China and Japan. Anyone with Internet access can go along for the continuing journey. It’s all free, but the going’s not always easy.
Not the Food Network
Episodes of “The Perennial Plate” feature Klein, a chef with four-star credentials, visiting a locale and interviewing regular folks. Subjects have included everyone from cheese makers and ranchers to urban homesteaders and mushroom foragers.
While Klein has a background in filmmaking, videographer Fine is new to the process. A vegetarian, Fine shot the lamb butchering in episode 6 when Klein couldn’t find any other help. “She did a better job than anyone else,” Klein said, and she has had the role ever since.
“There’s no script or agenda,” Fine said.
Their shoots can last from one to several days. Together, they edit the footage, finding the story and timing it to the music, which drives the pace. (Their ideal length is seven minutes.) Their video creations have the energy and momentum of a great, short road trip — with exceptional, if virtual, snacks.
The pair build each episode with a combination of gorgeous camera shots, memorable characters and a catchy soundtrack (all by independent artists) capped off by a pithy on-screen quote. It combines the personal travelogue with an engaging story of people, place and the food in their lives.
“We’re looking for vulnerable moments with people,” Klein said. “Sometimes we shoot animals being butchered and it’s hard.”
From road kill to Dumpster diving, the couple don’t avert the camera lens from any food topic they find compelling, but they don’t dwell on the bizarre.
Storytelling and activism in ‘Perennial Plate’
Another hallmark of “The Perennial Plate” is the “you are there” quality, whether it’s a joyous, sunlit farm dinner or a stern-faced fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico struggling in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Backed by memorable images, the subjects do all the talking. No voiceover tells viewers what to make of it all, but it’s hard not to be swayed by the filmmakers’ craft. Klein and Fine have a broader mission than to entertain. They want to influence the future of food from production to consumption. Broadcasting via the Web, with traffic from Facebook, Twitter and The Huffington Post as well as other media, has given “The Perennial Plate” a larger distribution than they could have imagined.
These filmmakers believe that personalized, captivating storytelling is more effective than showing movies with a big agenda about changing the world.
“The work seems effective when it’s not shoved down people’s throats. They get excited because it’s exciting or inspiring,” He said. “People come on the journey with us.”
This is a series, at heart, about a boyfriend and girlfriend on the ultimate road trip, connecting with people and confronting with compassion the difficult realities of their lives. Even Fine who spends nearly all her time behind the camera said, “We open ourselves up. I really care about them and I’m really sad when we leave.”
With continuing input and tips from their followers and viewers, these food adventurers will find more uplifting and true stories about eating and health within local communities and environments everywhere they go. Season 3 of “The Perennial Plate” will feature a biweekly video from around the globe through the spring of 2014.
Photo: Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of “The Perennial Plate.” Credit: Fran Collin of work-for-food.com
Everyone eats. All of us go to the store and purchase groceries. And yet, how many of us understand the food production system that we rely upon? Most of the people I know have very strong opinions about food, not only about the types of food they prefer but also how that food is made and gets to them.
Many folks have a romantic notion of a family farmer getting up when the rooster crows at the crack of dawn, and starting the day with a huge breakfast — made with food from the property — before heading out to ride about on a tractor. I know family farmers who live their lives close to this idyllic notion.
On the other side of the fence are those whose scenario of the family farm is one corrupted by mega-conglomerates out to reap huge profits from unwitting consumers. I know many corporate farmers. The difference between them and their idealized colleagues is really very little.
A family farmer’s daily juggle
The family farmers I’m acquainted with indeed rise very early, often well before sun-up. But, there the romantic notion fades. These hard workers get out of the house first thing to check on the welfare of their crops and/or their animals. They often put in a few hours of farm work before breakfast, a meal followed by office work — responding to emails, purchasing supplies, checking up on sales, evaluating market prognostications and looking at weather forecasts. Then it’s back to more farming tasks, and maybe a drive into town to pick up the supplies they ordered. These farmers’ days are filled with a high degree of physical labor along with tactical decision-making, all the while keeping in mind their strategic goals — usually increasing yields and decreasing costs.
A California dairy farmer explained to me that he was currently wrestling with signing a contract locking in a specified amount for his milk for five years to come. He told me that the offer was a good one, but, he was balancing it with two other long-term contracts to purchase fertilizers and petroleum. To make these decisions he was studying the tensions in the Middle East and the effect that situation might have on future petroleum prices.
Many farmers tell me they long for days in the tractor or combine to just think. Family farmers spend their waking hours solving the inevitable crises of the moment: capturing an enterprising pig that got through fencing and chomped on a neighbors’ crops, or something more dire, like a storm on the horizon at the very moment wheat is being cut.
Growing product is just the start
In the late afternoon or evening there is usually more time spent in the office, to review the latest batch of emails, return phone calls, place orders and sell product. Some farmers, generally commodities farmers producing grain or animals in abundance, have prices locked in ahead of harvest. However, vegetable producers and those with niche markets (like high-end organic meats, or produce sold directly to restaurants) often spend a great amount of time dealing directly with their buyers. Many do not use wholesalers or even co-ops. This means creating personal relationships and maintaining them, and may require investing time in social media and going to farmers markets.
I asked a local berry producer in California to describe her average market day to me. She said she was up at 3 a.m. and out with her crew picking berries under lights. Then it was back to the warehouse where the fruit was cleaned before being packaged. She had to load up her van, drive two hours to the market, set up her booth, and be ready to sell her berries before 8:30 a.m. “Oh yeah,” she added, “and I have to make sure that I have a few hundred dollars in change because everyone arrives with $20 bills.”
Growing locally requires thinking globally
The large-scale corporate farm owner usually has hired hands to take care of daily tasks. Often the CEOs of their companies, these farmers are more tightly tied to their desks, Internet and email. Success or failure rests upon their business savvy and understanding of the global agricultural marketplace. During a meeting with one not long ago, I noticed he spent the entire time we talked going through résumés for a position that he desperately needed to fill. He didn’t consider anyone with less than six years at their previous job and looked for someone with a diverse mix of skills that included physical work and decision-making acumen. “Folks who work for me,” he said, “must have the ability to make a decision and see it through.”
Americans tend to forget that the family farmer and the large-scale corporate farmer are business people. Too often the belief is that farmers are just cogs in the machine, played like marionettes by seed, fertilizer and petroleum companies, and everyone else we refer to as “The Man.”
Farmers cannot afford to make bad decisions that jeopardize their livelihood and the success of their farms. I have never met an American farmer who did not want his farm to be sustainable. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about pollution, water quality and soil management. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about the welfare of their animals and who did not care for them deeply. Certainly there are businesses that squeeze the most out of an animal that they can, but, in my estimation they are few and far between. Most farmers I know get sentimental, and even cry, when their animals head to market.
So the next time you grab an ear of corn at the supermarket, eye the piles of freshly picked eggplants, cherries or artichokes at a farm stand or find yourself staring at the possibilities in the butcher’s case, take a moment to consider what went into getting these products to you. Back-breaking physical labor, intense business acumen and world politics are all juggled — with a prayer that the vagaries of Mother Nature won’t devastate the finely honed calculations — to bring each harvest to fruition, each animal to maturity. Whether they have corporate or family run operations, farmers put their lives and businesses on the line every day to get the best food they can on your table. Not one bite should be taken for granted.
Photo: Christopher Barden. Credit: Maureen Ladley
Not many people eat a steak they love so much they become a rancher, but, in essence, that’s what Robert Estrin did.
In the mid-1990s, Bob and his wife Mary Lloyd Estrin began to operate Lone Mountain Cattle Company in Golden, N.M., raising Angus beef. Then in 2004, Bob, a retired film editor (“The Candidate,” “Badlands” and “A River Runs Through It”) and former professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, who was raised in southeastern New Mexico, tasted Wagyu beef at a Japanese restaurant and that was that.
Soon he and Mary took over Mary’s family’s cattle ranch and began a fullblood Wagyu breeding program using modern breeding techniques, including artificial insemination and embryo transfer. They wanted Lone Mountain Ranch to become a model of sustainable yet profitable practices.
Their commercial breeding operation pitches other ranchers with the slogan “Take your herd beyond prime with fullblood Wagyu.” In 2005, they began with seven cows and two bulls. In 2008, Lone Mountain had its first auction of live cattle and genetics. In 2010 they began selling their beef to the public.
One of the first challenges Bob and Mary faced was confusion from ranchers and the public about Wagyu beef and its relationship to famed Japanese Kobe beef. Wagyu is a breed of Japanese cattle. Kobe is not a breed, but rather a famous beef-producing region in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Wagyu cattle born and bred in the U.S. cannot be labeled Kobe beef — a process regulated by the Japanese government. Since 2010 trade restrictions have meant no Kobe beef has been imported from Japan to the United States.
The genetics of Wagyu — semen, embryos, live cattle — are strictly regulated by the Japanese government and are no longer allowed to be exported. American restaurants sometimes refer to “American-style Kobe” or “100% Kobe,” and those terms refer to beef produced in America from a cross between, usually, Wagyu and Angus.
Fullblood Wagyu cattle or beef derived from true 100% Japanese black Wagyu genetics are being produced in small numbers in the United States. These fullblood Wagyu are DNA verified to assure they are from the original Japanese genetics. There is no requirement that fullblood Wagyu be bred, born or raised in Japan, as long as the genetics are DNA verified. So a distinction must be made between true Kobe beef and Wagyu beef from American-style Kobe. To be clear, “American-style Kobe” may refer to many types of Wagyu, even some fullblood, or purebred (98% Wagyu, or even as low as 50% Wagyu). This detail is, of course, not specified on American restaurant menus. True Kobe is 100% fullbood Wagyu, but 100% fullblood Wagyu is not necessarily true Kobe.
Wagyu beef a personal favorite
One taste of Wagyu beef will tell the story of why it is considered special. This is the best tasting steak you can possibly eat, period. It is stratospherically beyond a USDA prime steak diners may eat in a fine steakhouse.
Wagyu beef is so finely marbled with intramuscular fat that its texture and taste is extraordinarily tender and flavorful. Marbling refers to the streaks and specks of fat dispersed in the lean red tissue of the beef, and this is the best indicator of flavor and juiciness. In fact, marbling is the sole indicator used by the USDA when grading beef. Wagyu is special because it is the highest marbled breed in the world with, for example, 45% and higher marbling than a USDA Choice grade.
To enhance Wagyu cattle beyond its genetics, Lone Mountain raises Wagyu beef for 28 to 32 months, which is one reason the beef is so expensive. For comparison, the average age of an Angus animal at slaughter is 18 months. Another reason for the high expense is that they are scarce. There are only about 7,000 Wagyu cattle in the U.S. compared to 30 million Angus/black-hided animals. Furthermore, seedstock is very expensive, sometimes more than $7,500 for a fullblood bull when the rancher can find them for sale. Right now there are almost none as everyone is sold out.
How to grill Wagyu to perfection
To cook Wagyu beef, look for the best cut. One cut that shows off the true deliciousness of Wagyu beef is the 1-pound boneless rib eye steak sold by Lone Mountain, a member of the American Wagyu Association.
At $63 a pound, these are steaks you’ll want to cook carefully on the grill. Build a blazing hardwood charcoal fire to one side of your grill and wait until every piece is white-ashed and the grate very hot. Bang the coals so the white ash falls off. Place the steaks on the grate directly over the coals so that they rest about 4 inches from the heat source.
Grill on one side without moving the steaks for four minutes. There will be flames, but that’s OK. If you’re worried, place the cover over the grill to help dampen the flames. Turn the steak and continue cooking for another four minutes uncovered. If you’re still worried, move the steak to the cool side of the grill and let cook six minutes.
Take the steak off the grill, season with salt and pepper, and enjoy. If you like your steak cooked medium and beyond you’re wasting your money on Wagyu.
Top photo: Wagyu bull. Credit: Chris Mitchell.
Chris Mitchell Photo Credit: Lone Mountain Cattle Company
When I started writing a cookbook on grass-fed beef more than two years ago, I never imagined I’d become a spokesperson for carnivorism. Nor did I expect “Pure Beef” to be published during a searing national debate over the ethics of meat eating kicked off by the New York Times in April and promulgated on the Huffington Post and by food writer Michael Ruhlman into the summer.
Naturally, my editor, my agent and my publicist each prodded me to join the fray and stake my claim. I quietly resisted. Admittedly, I was petrified by the vitriol in the opinions (and reader comments) expressed online, but I had a more deep-seated reason: I have long believed that eating is one of the most intimate choices we make in life. What we put into our bodies borders on the sacred, and to eat or not to eat meat is as personal and entrenched as religion.
When two advance reviewers called my book a “case for the responsible carnivore” and “conscience salving” for meat eaters, I could no longer hide behind my fears and philosophical beliefs. By publishing a book on beef I had entered, naively yet tacitly, into one of the great unwinnable debates of our times.
I could not bring myself to reiterate the facts and arguments that Joel Salatin, Nicolette Hahn Niman and others have so remarkably shared. Instead, I challenged myself to reframe the discussion, to find common ground on this issue. What I settled on was ice cream.
The bond between milk and beef
Ice cream — that most joyful, universally adored and uncontroversial of foods. Throughout my years as a vegetarian, pescatarian and later flexitarian, I never questioned the place of ice cream in my diet. Ice cream has always seemed like a universal right. Who would suggest that everyone everywhere stop eating ice cream?
Only after researching my book did I understand how industrialized agriculture divorced the natural connection between milk and meat. In pre-World War II America, families kept a cow as a provider of both types of life-sustaining foods. Once the cow could not produce another calf and went dry, she was slaughtered to feed the family. Today, milk and meat hardly seem like they come from the same species moving as they do through two distinct food supply chains.
The milk churned into your favorite French vanilla, blackberry or salted caramel ice cream comes from more than 9 million cows on America’s dairy farms. Every year each cow bears a calf, and roughly 4 million of them are male bull calves — misfits of the industry. Nearly all of these Holstein, Jersey and other dairy cross-breeds are raised and finished in feedlots to become retail cuts of beef. Not that you’ll ever see them labeled.
Once the mother cows’ milk production drops — conventionally within six to seven years of yields reaching nearly 20,000 pounds a year — they, too, move into the beef supply. Dairies sell off spent but healthy cows to the commodity market. I learned that 17% of all ground beef sold comes from culled dairy cows, but this simple fact — that milk cows become meat — is treated like a dirty secret.
The meat of the debate
The point is that everyone who eats ice cream — or butter, cheese, yogurt, or any other variety of dairy — participates in beef production by the inescapable facts of nature. If you are concerned about animal welfare, ethical and ecological implications of how we make meat, what can you do?
First, stop condemning the meat itself. Beef, a nutrient-dense food best consumed in moderation, has become demonized largely because of the highly industrialized production system. Four corporations control 90% of a market whose efficiencies and massive scale maximize profits.
We now apprehend all the ways this model is unjust to animals and workers, detrimental to soils, waterways (and therefore public health thanks to antibiotic resistant diseases) and wildlife. The industry is dependent on cheap feed, fuels and fertilizers. Most people agree that it is unsustainable in more ways than one.
The great debate I wish we were having is not whether or not we should be eating meat, but how we should be producing it.
Second, support the alternative: humane and organic pasture-based production methods ranchers are practicing in every state in the country. These beef producers operate outside the commodity system to raise, process, market and distribute their beef on their own or in collectives for sale at farmers markets and grocers, through buying clubs and on the Internet.
The centralized beef production, processing and distributions systems built over the past 50 years do not accommodate renegades. On top of the financial risk, these independent ranchers struggle to find USDA-certified slaughtering facilities within reach that will accept low volumes so that they can legally retail their beef. (This is the principal reason their prices are higher.) They take the hard way out because they know that there is a better solution — for their families and communities, their lands and animals, our health and environment.
The Environmental Working Group, the Animal Welfare Approved and the National Resources Defense Council are some of the organizations throwing their weight behind these ranchers through research, fact-based information and advocacy. They are seeking to change the how for the betterment of all.
Even if you never buy or eat a morsel of meat, you can support the work that these groups do to find real, sustainable and achievable solutions to our common — and very personal — need to eat. I, for one, am putting my trust in them. If you like ice cream, then you should, too.
Photo: Lynne Curry at a beef cattle ranch in Oregon. Credit: Anna M. Campbell
Zester Daily contributor Lynne Curry is an independent writer based in the mountains of eastern Oregon. The author of “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut” (Running Press, May, 2012), she also works as a private chef and blogs about rural life at www.ruraleating.com.
Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated film “Food, Inc.” electrified audiences when it was released in theaters during the summer of 2009, raising critical questions about the safety and sustainability of the American food system. In the midst of the storm of publicity that followed, Kenner gave Zester Daily one of our first Soapbox pieces and established Zester’s weekly opinion feature as a serious forum for authors and activists willing to tackle important political and environmental issues.
Today, Kenner continues to challenge us to think about what we eat through Fix Food, an ambitious effort to transform the American food system. Supported by progressive companies and nonprofit organizations including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Organic Valley, Environmental Working Group and Climate Counts, Fix Food uses videos and social media to educate and engage Americans about serious threats our food supply.
Fix Food recently released a new video in its Meat Without Drugs campaign produced in partnership with Consumers Union. Narrated by Bill Paxton, the video depicts “how the rampant overuse of antibiotics on factory farms is creating ‘super bugs’ that get into the air, water, and our food, making us vulnerable to once-treatable diseases.” We encourage everyone to check out Kenner’s latest Fix Food campaign and join the effort to end the overuse of drugs on factory farms.
Zester Daily is proud to announce that Robert Kenner is a member of our new advisory board and supports our mission to connect people around the globe through a mutual respect for and love of food.
All of Zester’s advisers are longtime supporters and friends who have increased and strengthen our relevance and reach. With the creation of the advisory board, we recognize and honor these sustaining relationships.
Click here to meet the other members of the Zester Daily Advisory Board.