This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Last year I paid a visit to Miya's Sushi, in New Haven, a restaurant that tries* to be sustainable
We are aware that the restaurant industry has a very harmful impact on the environment; in particular, the traditional cuisine of sushi is destroying our oceans. Therefore, we try to maintain a restaurant in as ecologically responsible manner as possible. We do our best to not use ingredients that are either overfished or that in their production have a negative impact on the environment. As a result, half of our vast menu is vegetable-centered; the other half does not utilize traditional sushi ingredients such as Toro, Bluefin Tuna, Big Eye Tuna, certain Yellowfin, Unagi, Red Snapper, Maine Sea Urchin, Octopus, and so on. Instead, we’ve created dishes that include unconventional sushi ingredients such as Catfish, which, unlike the farming of many farmed fish, are grown in confined ponds that make it virtually impossible to cross-contaminate other species or destroy the aquatic ecosystem around them.
I was reminded of it because on a popular Facebook group called International Paleo Movement Group, there was an argument between me and Lana, the admin of Ethical Omnivore Movement, a facebook page where she posts various articles and other information.
Lana thinks it is unacceptable to eat any seafood ever because we need to give our damaged oceans a rest. That there is no such thing as sustainable seafood. She was promoting a film called Sea the Truth, which is produced by the Dutch animal rights party.
They also produced Meat the Truth and I think here it's where we find parallels between many tactics that animal rights activists use to discourage omnivory. The main tactic is to highlight parts of the industry that is destructive and then also highlight incidences where corrupt governments and NGOs labeled meat or fish sustainable where it wasn't. The implication is that the entire industry is bad and it is impossible to buy sustainable versions of these products. With the growth of the local food movement, in meat at least, this position has become untenable since a growing number of people have personal relationships with the farms they buy from and see that not all meat is produced in the way portrayed by these documentaries. So they also increasingly ally themselves with other arguments that appeal to self-interest such as that meat or fish is all full of toxins or will clog your arteries and kill you slowly.
They also attack small producers, trying the best they can to find small producers that are poorly run in order to undermine consumer's confidence that they can find good products or to highlight the idea that even small producers can have a negative effect on the environment such as Meat the Truth's emphasis on methane that even grass-fed cows produce.
They want you to firmly believe that there is never an acceptable meat or seafood to buy.
When this kind of stuff gets incorporated by the paleo movement, it becomes even worse since so many people in this movement are rabidly anti-government and anti-agriculture. Fish farming? It has the word farming in it, so it must be always bad. Government monitoring and regulation of fish stocks? Nope, because a lot of governments are corrupt. I don't even know what solution they are proposing. Lana simply said people who eat fish are being selfish and small picture and we have to personally change in order to save the ocean.
Given that the ocean is the commons and in general owned by no one (a more sophisticated libertarian argument would attack lack of ownership), and that we can't assume that rest of the world's population is willing to give up seafood because of animal rights films, unfortunately the main viable solutions will be on a global policy level. Which definitely is difficult considering the capture of governments by industry interests, but the consensus on individual action is that it is ineffective at even making a dent on global problems like ocean health or climate change. I think even the makers of these films understand that. Marianne Thieme, the Dutch politician that helms these films, is a big supporter of bans for things she doesn't like, not trying to guilt consumers into making different buying choices. The Dutch understand this more than most people with their multiculturalism struggles. Marianne, knowing that many of the things she opposes are deeply culturally embedded, has backed bans on Kosher and Halal slaughter for example.
I'm not saying that small local solutions aren't important, but they will fail if they rely on the commons and the commons are not protected. A good example was efforts in the Gulf to develop sustainable fisheries that were stymied by the oil spill there.
The reality on fish and meat is that it's not all black and white, that the presence of bad apples shouldn't tarnish efforts to reform the industry, develop alternatives, and lobby for regulations or other methods that protect the commons for everyone. Some methods of harvest will need to be banned like trawling (some countries have already banned them) and some species will require harvest moratoriums.
Sustainable solutions do mean we have to consume less of certain things and not consume others at all, which is why arguments about emissions from grass-fed cows and other similar arguments can be so deceptive. Methods like pastured cattle raising are less productive, which means higher prices for consumers. Even though I get my beef at a very good price, it is still more expensive than factory-farmed beef. Which means the average consumer will buy and eat less. There are costs, but they are worth it in order to support functioning ecosystems that can produce all kinds of foods for future generations.
Of course when you are dealing with a wild animal things get harder. You have to have sophisticated monitoring in place in order to determine what can be taken sustainably. You have to accept that some years you might not be able to hand out any tags for animals or harvest quotas. It's possible that the best solution for some of these stocks is to treat them a bit like we started treating land hunting in the US after overhunting became an issue: we heavily regulated it, de-commercialized most of it. If you want a deer, you can go out and get it yourself with a tag given out by the government. This method has already been applied to abalone in California. You have to dive to get wild abalone. Given that this is kind of dangerous, sustainable abalone farms have been developed for the commercial market.
Back at Miya's, I thought most of our sushi tasted very good. The menu describes the production method, harvesting method, and a little bit about each fish. Well, maybe not a little bit. One of our complaints was that the menu was the length of a small novel, which made it difficult to actually decide what to order. I'm not going to pretend that my own choices or even your choices can save populations of fish. For every bluefin tuna I chose not to consume, there is a consumer in a developing economy who probably just got his or her first paycheck and is going to probably order fish without looking at their "seafood watch list" card. Solving ocean problems requires large scale policy solutions, not telling a relatively well-off educated person in New York City that they are selfish for eating grouper like Lana was doing on IPMG.
But I do think those of us in the food industry, whether its writers, chefs, or grocers can make a small dent by promoting good products and leaving bad ones off the menu. Good products might not reach everyone, but they provide business models that can be used around the world and generate demand that might spur development of similar production/harvesting elsewhere.
We hear a lot of endangered seafood, but what about marine species that are pests? That are invasive and negatively impact ecosystems? These are ideal to consume, we just need to make sure that we are purposefully overharvesting and not replenishing. And that we accept that if we are successful, these things won't be on the menu anymore. Jackson Lander's Eating Aliens highlights some of these species. Miya's has a tasting menu of invasives.
There are also conservation success stories that have been so successful that these species flood the market, which is the case with lobster right now.
I also think that we need to embrace some forms of aquaculture. This isn't black and white either. There are bad fish farms. Maybe right now most fish farms are bad, but there are good systems that are being developed right now. Development of fish feed for aquaculture that is not itself wild harvested and is not also species inappropriate grain pap is a major issue right now. We need to look at systems that farm seafood at every level of the ecosystem, from aquatic plants to brine shrimp. I visited an aquaponics operation here at the Plant in Chicago recently and there were farming herbivorous Tilapia there. Unfortunately, with most of their diet being grain, consuming them has almost none of the benefits of consuming wild fish. Innovations in the production of DHA-rich algae could be a possible solution. Closed salt-water fish production systems are already being developed. I have had an interest in aquaculture for some time and would very much like to produce freshwater prawns on my family's farm.
Also, I can't help but notice Lake Michigan in my backyard, which is full of fish. Maybe someday once the remediation is done, we can get pollution under control so we can consume fish out of their more often. I eat fish my father catches from there sometimes, but try not to consume it very often.
Either way, we can't let ourselves be derailed by sexy documentaries and books created by people who have other motivations, namely the end of omnivory, in mind. Even as a niche market, we can drive the development of better solutions.
I recommend the book Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe which takes a look at the current state of the fish industry. It's a short read and free of extremism. When buying seafood, I would recommend Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch website. You can even print out a card to take with you to restaurants and the grocery store. They use several criteria to determine which seafood are good choices. The ideal choices come from healthy populations which only what can be replenished is harvested, using methods that do not damage the ecosystem. The ideal fishery is managed in a way that preserves and maintains the marine habitat. You can read more here. You should also take toxin levels into account like mercury and PCBs. If you take fish oil, consider switching to algae-based DHA or source your oil carefully, as much fish oil production is currently unsustainable. I used to buy Marine Stewardship Council certified fish, but based on their approval of fisheries that use trawling, I do not believe they are a trustworthy source of information.
I treat buying seafood the way I treat buying anything. There is a wrong way to produce things. There is contamination everywhere. But if I ditched anything that was possibly bad, I'd have nothing to eat. Instead, I look for and support the best I can find. This requires me to ask questions and be knowledgeable. With sardines for example, there are two main fisheries. One is threatened (Atlantic), the other thrives (Pacific).
Personally, I've never been crazy about fish oil. I think the benefits have been exaggerated and there might actually be some negative health effects to high consumption.
I never ever ate fish until I was about 20, when I first started trying to use diet to treat my health problems. I hated fish and remember drenching it in spices to choke it down. But now I actually appreciate the taste of many fish and think it is a very important element in the flavors of my cooking. The main seafood items in my kitchen are:
I really would like to find a better source for shrimp. When I see wild caught Oregon shrimp at Whole Foods, I definitely buy them. Since fraud is an issue, I would suggest finding a reputable fish monger and buying whole easily-identifiable fish.
So no, I don't think the solution to our ocean's problems is to leave them alone. Good fisheries are stewards of the ocean and by relying on the ocean for food, our stake in the matter is much higher. Good community fisheries can even mount effective resistant about threats like undersea drilling. I also think it's important to preserve traditional healthy livelihoods and work with small local community fisheries to adapt their traditions to new global challenges as best as we can, a sentiment Lana does not share. To her it's black and white- there is no fish from the ocean that is acceptable to eat. I won't be liking "Ethical Omnivore Movement" any time soon on Facebook. It's time for a rational omnivore movement.
* they had no information at the time I dined there on the sustainability of the rest of the menu, such as the vegetables or the grains.
Some people sent Nicholas Kristof's latest editorial to me, a seemingly feel-good story about "happy cows." Maybe it's vestiges of my old veganism, but the whole story made me uncomfortable. It brought up some things I wrote about in my recent post The Meat in Your Milk.
It describes a farmer who loves his dairy cattle "like children." Then it dances around the issue about what happens to them when their dairy production wanes:
This isn’t to say that Bob’s farm is a charity hostel. When cows age and their milk production drops, farmers slaughter them. Bob has always found that part of dairying tough, so, increasingly, he uses the older cows to suckle steers. That way the geriatric cows bring in revenue to cover their expenses and their day of reckoning can be postponed — indefinitely, in the case of his favorite cows.
So they are like his children, except he sends them to slaughter when they aren't useful, unless they are his favorites?
It's almost enough for me to want to start a startup where you purchase milk with a percentage of profits going to a cow retirement home.
And what happens to male offspring? Surely he isn't feeding them for charity. Don't get me wrong, I think this farmer has some admirable ideas, but it takes a Pollyanna view of animal production to portray that system the way that Kristof does.
And ultimately it reminds me that I have mixed feelings about dairy. When humans started dairying, it created a strangely intimate relationship between humans and the animals they utilized as food. Hunter-gatherers and foragers generally don't kill the animals they raise themselves. It reminds me of this Richard K. Nelson story about how Koyoukon hunters found it so difficult to adopt animal husbandry.
After watching the chickens grow, many couldn't bring themselves to eat the eggs, and it was even worse to think of dining on the birds or pigs. "People felt like they'd be eating their own children," a Koyukon woman told me. "A lot of them said, from now on they would only eat wild game they got by hunting. It felt a lot better that way.
I wonder how many pastoral cultures even slaughter their animals very often? The Maasai, for example, view cattle as too valuable as signs of wealth to slaughter. When meat is eaten, it is often in the context of a ceremony. Perhaps religion is not just for humans to understand their own lives and deaths, but the lives and deaths of animals as well.
Now that my family raises some cows, I reflect on what they mean to me. I do not consider them children or friends. They are essentially wild animals to me. We left their horns on and they haven't socialized with humans much. I'm not arrogant enough to think a cow that hasn't been conditioned towards being fed (usually grain or formula) by humans when they are young will have any interest in consorting to me. They aren't my children or my friends. They are part of the ecosystem. We steward their land, fix them up if they are sick, but largely we leave them alone to do what they want as long as its in the realm of our fenced pastures until their slaughter day comes.
My friends have put up their recipe for these amazing gluten-free egg baos with pork belly and pickled ramp aioli. Yeah, the bao bread here is really just egg yolk and baking soda! I keep telling them that they could make it big if they had a egg bao food truck.
Sadly, I had a less exciting dinner, but some people have asked me to share this method I use for post-workout or other meals in which I need a lot of calories at once. It's simply cooking haiga rice with some sausages (or fish if you want a lower calorie meal) on top.
My favorite sausages to use used to be the Banh Mi ones from the Meat Hook because of all the rich flavors contained in them. But these are lamb merguez from Smoking Goose. I also like some of the Butcher and Larder Sausages. The aim is to find a sausage that is full of goodness because it will hopefully drip into the rice when you put it in the steamer. I also have found that this method will cook frozen sausages perfectly fine, just make sure to check the middle to make sure it is cooked and if it's not you can throw it in the frying pan, but I've never had that happen. You can also add any kind of vegetables you would normally steam.
Meanwhile, I grease the bottom part of the rice cooker with ghee and add in my .25-.5 cup of rice and some ice cubes of frozen stock. I turn the rice cooker on and leave it to cook. When it's done, the rice has a nice crispy buttery bottom resembling the Persian "tahdig" delicacy. The rice is seasoned by the sausage, but I also add garlic-pepper relish, an egg yolk, a few drops of Red Boat fish sauce, a bit of rice vinegar, and tamari. I mix that all together, slice up the sausage, and top with vegetables, fresh herbs, or seaweed.
Not very pretty, but delicious and filling... and quick and easy.
I remember when I was a vegetarian and I first encountered literature on veganism that described the dairy industry. When I learned about how older cows and unwanted calves were sent to slaughter, it made sense to become a vegan. To this day, beyond people who don't like meat or who come from a vegetarian cultural tradition, vegetarianism doesn't make much sense to me. Even for people who are religious vegetarians, the dairy produced in most of the US is a far cry from that traditionally consumed in India.
Even the beef cattle from the worst farm gets to spend part of their lives, usually most of their lives, on pasture. It's a far cry from factory egg and milk production, where animals are often in a state of continuous overcrowding in filthy low-quality conditions. This is true confinement agriculture.
In confinement dairies, after cows have reached the end of their "production cycle" they are normally sent to the slaughterhouse. This was in the news recently because some animal rights activists exposed the mistreatment of a dairy cow at a slaughterhouse. The video is worth watching if you can stomach it, but the cow was a "downer" cow, meaning she was sick and was lying down. The video shows workers torturing her with electric prods. It's sickening.
Beef from dairy cows is 6 percent of all beef production in the U.S. and about 18 percent of ground beef, but the amount varies. I'd imagine that because of the drought, more and more farmers will send their cows to slaughter as feed prices continue to soar.
Typically this isn't exactly premium beef, but it doesn't have to be this way. The NPR article notes:
Veterinarian Richard Wallace, who spent 15 years at the University of Illinois before joining Pfizer Animal Health in 2010, has led the campaign. "Slaughter is not a place to dump animals," he says.He tells dairy farmers to think of their older cows differently — not as "cull animals," but as potentially valuable beef cattle. And instead of going directly from milk barn to slaughterhouse, Wallace says farmers should coddle those animals for a few weeks. After ending their milk production, the cows should just get to rest and eat. The result, Wallace says, is a healthier cow, higher-quality meat — and more profit for the farmer.
If you are buying from a local dairy this might be a great opportunity to get some decent grass-fed beef for pretty cheap. I find that a lot of people, particularly people who eat grass-fed beef for health reasons, don't care all that much about getting the very best quality. For example, my family slaughtered an older cow and the beef was a little lean and chewy. At $3 a lb, it sold out immediately, mainly to the Crossfit types. I ate it too. It was fine, and even very good in certain dishes like Chili or Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes" so it's quite fitting.
Another great option is pastured veal. Now this isn't the kind of veal you feel bad about buying. It's from young steers that grazed with their mothers on pasture, not from confined grain-pap fed calves. It's actually really really good and I think it is going to become a trend, because the cuts are so much smaller and so easier to fit in a small freezer.
Indeed, the method of chaining and crating veal calves is a new practice, established in the years following World War II when the agricultural communities of the United States began their dramatic move from the small, intimate and self-sustaining farms they were to feed-lots and monocropping. Dairy farmers moved male offspring, who otherwise held little value, indoors to save space and costs in an era when young farmers were encouraged to “modernize.” Tradition, as is often the case, was lost under the effort to modernize the agriculture of America’s heartland. Prior to this change, veal calves were raised alongside their mothers in open pasture, under the sun and with access to clean air and fresh water before their brought to harvest at about the same time lambs are traditionally slaughtered. Thanks to the renaissance of truly traditional and sustainable farming practices – and, in a way, to the raw milk movement – humanely raised veal is increasing in availability.
I don't know anyone who eats confinement veal and it amazes me that they still produce it. The dairy farm next to me has about 20 calves in teeny tiny pens. It's not as bad as a PETA video, but I do not think it is a production method that respects the animal. This dairy farm is also a small family farm, so once again proof that this is no guarantee that such an operation is a good one.
A commenter on my last post pointed out that craigslist is a good source for finding some affordable beef, if you don't mind the animal having had some grain in its life. One of the first results for Chicago was a pastured Jersey steer for $1.40 a lb. Surprisingly big though at 1000 lbs, but I wonder what the yield on this breed is. The yield is the actual weight of the meat since there are things you obviously aren't getting in your freezer order like skin/hooves/horns/etc. It's an on-farm pickup which is great too, since you can see what the farm is like, though obviously it would be awkward if you got there and it was not to your liking. Maybe this calls for a new post on interviewing your food suppliers...
Jersey cattle in the UK from Wikimedia
I think referring to conventional feedlot cattle as "grain fed" is unfortunate. I think it's an insult on small local family farmers who raise their cows mainly on pasture, but supplement a little grain here and there. Sometimes I buy this kind of beef. It's not terribly different nutrient-wise from completely 100% grass-fed beef. And many people prefer the taste. Furthermore, it's often very affordable, as low as $2-$4 a lb if you buy in bulk.
Such cattle might also have received antibiotics, but for sicknesses, not to promote growth or to make up for unsanitary conditions like in a feedlot. If you have a sick cow and only a few cows in your herd...you are going to want to give the cow the medicine it needs.
Conventional feedlot cattle receive much more than just grains, they often receive antibiotics, hormones, antimicrobials, and nasty industrial byproducts. Just like my post on how Americans aren't eating meat, they are eating sugar-coated soybean-oil drenched garbage, industrial cows aren't eating grains, as much as they are eating crap.
The difference between these cattle and the cattle that receive a little supplemental whole grain is like the difference between someone eating a standard American diet and someone who eats a "paleo" diet and has tacos a couple of times a week.
I was reminded of this today when I saw the headline "Farmer feeds candy to cows to cope with high corn prices"
The worst drought in decades has destroyed more than half the U.S. corn crop, pushing prices to record levels and squeezing livestock owners as they struggle to feed their herds.
To cope, one Kentucky cattle farmer has turned to a child-tested way to fatten his 1,400 cows: candy...
The chocolate and other sweet stuff was rejected by retailers. It makes up 5% to 8% of the cattle's feed ration, Smith said. The rest includes roughage and distillers grain, an ethanol byproduct.
Yum? I'm not crazy about ethanol byproducts in feed either.
Now, meat and bone meal from cows is explicitly banned from cow diets. But it ends up in chicken feed; a significant amount of it spills into bedding and ends up in poultry litter; and poultry litter gets fed back to cows.
Official numbers on just how much poultry litter ends up in bovine diets is hard to come by. But with corn and soy prices at heightened levels in recent years, feedlot operators are always looking for cheaper alternatives, and poultry litter is very much in the mix. Consumer Union's Michael Hansen claims that 2 billion pounds of chicken litter are consumed by cows each year—as much as a third of which consists of spilled feed, including bovine meat and bone meal.
So much for "grain fed" beef.
It does raise the question of what exactly should be done with America's massive amount of chicken waste? Maybe we should eat less chicken? Or as much as I hate to think about, pigs are at least better equipped biologically to eat such "food."
So if you are having a hard time affording good beef, considering buying from a local farmer that is not 100% grass-fed, but who doesn't finish on a conventional feedlot. It can be hard to find such farmers though since a lot of them tend to be older and not think of promoting their product in the many online directories that exist like Local Harvest or Local Dirt. Often such cattle are sold word of mouth to family friends and through old-fashioned social networks like churches.
But if you have a freezer, you should stock up ASAP because cattle prices are on the rise thanks to the aforementioned droughts.
A reader alerted me that the Nytimes has put up the finalists for the meat ethics contest I mentioned before. Foolishly, they are allowing the readers to vote on them (the tyranny of the enthusiatic internet community). And the one that's winning currently is hilariously bad.
My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater...His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that "wretched bother" in a time when ethical issues were raised only by "a handful of Hindus and Grahamists."
Nevermind that those problems aren't even conclusively tied to meat and are common in even vegetarian regions of the world, but the solution they proposes is
In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.
Wait, so it's a really unhealthy substance that causes cancer, heart disease, strokes, and gout, so we should grow it in the lab? Sure it might not have "misery" or e. coli, but as they said, it's still meat. At least doctors like Campbell, Fuhrman, Ornish, etc. make sense when they say we should go meat-free, because they say that meat is bad for you and you just shouldn't eat it. I'd personally take lentils any day over lab-grown meat, considering that plain-protein grown in the lab is going to probably be as flavorless as textured vegetable protein (and will need additives in order to taste decent) and at least lentils have been bred for flavor. The inclusion of this essay makes the contest seem even more insincere than it already did.
While I've been acused of doing otherwise, I did not chose to become an omnivore again because of taste. In fact, I had no idea how to cook meat and it took me several years to really get into it and like it. I LOVE hummus, falafal, sambar, dal and all kinds of veggie dishes. I was always perfectly happy eating those things, but my stomach was a wreck all the time. I still love them and have to be careful when I do eat them. In NYC I maintained an expensive addiction to Organic Avenue's raw falafal, which at least didn't seem to cause the inflammation the conventional fried falafal seems to trigger for me.
Which essay is your favorite and why? What do you think of the contest so far? I liked the holistic ecological view of Sometimes It’s More Ethical to Eat Meat Than Vegetables. Of course mathematically, the likely winner is the vat-grown meat essay because it will get all the anti-real meat votes, whereas people without that agenda are likely to fragment amongst the somewhat similar other five.
You know, it's kind of amazing to realize that you can get pretty good craft beer at nearly any convenience store in a city. You can even get it at a random mediocre bar your friend dragged you to for a birthday party or something. It's pretty much everywhere at this point. I wasn't allowed to drink when I was 5, but I hear that twenty years ago it definitely wasn't that way. I've often mused about what it would be like if you could get good grass-fed meat so easily.
But imagine if you went to a good bar and you asked what was on tap and they said "craft beer." You've heard good things about it. You ask what kind and they are like "well, it's artisan and it's certified craft beer." You order a pint and it's really really bitter. You decide to order a Corona next time.
Unfortunately that's kind of where grass-fed meat is now. It's a premium product, people are interested in buying it, but it's stuck in some kind of commodity purgatory. I'm often torn between thinking that it's great that some jerky in the store says "grass-fed" on the label and that there are "grass-fed" burger bars across Chicago, and kind of disappointed in them. Most of the time if you contact the companies that make those products or talk to the burger bar owners, they won't even tell you what farms the animals are from.
This is bad. I recall a conversion I had a few months ago with a guy at the gym. I told him I mainly buy grass-fed meat from local farmers and he said "yeah, I tried that, but it tasted so awful that I don't think I'll buy it again." I asked him where it came from and he had no idea.
Honestly, I've bought some positively awful grass-fed meat. It sucks to spend that kind of money on something that you end up having to drown in spices. Luckily I know that not all meat is the same. "Grass-fed" is a minimum premium standard that has nothing to do with taste quality. Taste is affected by diet, breed, age of animal, and butchering skill, among many other things. Yes, consumers buying these products often need to learn a few basic cooking skills, but that won't save them from meat that's just not very good (a meat tenderizer, added fat, tons of spices can sometimes save mediocre meat).
So the whole commodity attitude damages the product's reputation. I also think it stifles producer innovation (of course there are tons of things doing that, like regulation, this is just one of them). I was drinking some excellent Rockmill beer this weekend and I thought, what if niche meat were more like craft beer? What if people knew of certain producers and knew their product tasted different? What if stores stocked meat from multiple producers and labeled it as such?
I'm happy to say there are already some places in Chicago I know of that treat meat like this. The Butcher and the Burger is one of them. If you have been to the other burger bars in Chicago and didn't like them, definitely try this place. My main complaint is that they don't always get my order right (medium when I said rare) and they use peanut oil in the fryer, but the meat itself is very good and some of it is even from one of the owner's own farms. There are some exceptions on the menu, so I'd stick with the meat from specific farms, such as the Q7 beef, which is very silky and has a good amount of fat, and the La Pryor pork.
The good butcher shops I've been to are also pretty good about this. In NYC you have The Meat Hook and Dickson's Farmstand. In Chicago you have The Butcher & The Larder and Publican Quality Meats. Of course farmer's markets seem like a good option, but few allow consumers to taste before buying, which is an obstacle because why should I buy extremely expensive meat if I don't know what it tastes like? With craft beers, tastings are common. I had Mint Creek Farms lamb at a restaurant before, so that's how I started buying from them. With Meatshare I often worked with farmers new to selling to urban markets and they offered their meat at lower prices or offered tastings in order to gain a foothold. The cool thing about that is I can tell you exactly what their products tasted like. And they all tasted different. The pork from Spring Lake Farm, for example, had a high percentage of hay in the diet, giving the pork a delicious almost-beefy savory flavor. B&Y farms, a producer that later moved on to the farmer's market after working with us, produced Tunis lamb that had these fatty wonderful tails that braised up very nicely. The goat I would buy from Glynwood was the best goat I've ever had, not too fatty and not too lean.*
I've followed Carrie Oliver on Twitter for awhile and she does some events with beef tasting that seem like a promising model. I think we definitely need more of this- more emphasis on meat as a diverse producer-oriented product.
*that's the problem I have with Whole Food's lamb. The NZ stuff is grass-fed, but often is so terribly lean and gamey. The US lamb is usually too fatty and a little flavorless. I like balance.
An old lady about half my size almost pushed me into a bucket of fish today. I had just wanted in to Isaacson and Stein and I was kind of disoriented. I felt like I hadn't walked into a fish shop, but a school of fish already organized in a way I could hardly comprehend. Immigrants from around the world, Chicago old-timers with heavy accents, cooks from restaurants, and a few random confused white people circling bins of every possible fish I could imagine. Mainly whole fish, of course. I didn't ask questions, I just tried to figure out what to do and how I could obtain some fish without getting fish goo all over my clothes and shoes. One thing I've learned from traveling is just try your best to do what everyone else is doing. I saw a woman reach for a bin labeled "gloves" and grabbing plastic bags. I did the same.
I escaped with a bad of whole head-on smelt for less than $2.00. The French Market nearby had smelt too, in a less chaotic environment, but missing the heads and for twice the price. Sorry, but as I've written before, I think the head is an essential part of the experience. You should look your tiny tiny fish in the eye before devouring it.
But it's a typical case of culinary creep for me. Because you can't have smelt without homemade aioli. And I can't seem to make that without destroying my tiny kitchen with some mixture of oil and duck fat. I'm almost tempted to go to DMK burger bar and try to buy their aioli because the chef says it's made with only olive oil, a rarity in the world of Hellman's.
I'll definitely be back at Issacson and Stein because I just got a new cookbook I'm kind of excited about. I've already written about Ferran Adria's influence on fine dining, but The Family Meal focuses on the kind of relatively-simple meals shared by the staff "family" at elBulli. Not "fancy" like the food served to the restauarant's visitors, but still elegant and tasty.
Being Spanish, there are lots of great fish recipes here that I'm looking forward to try. Most of them feature the whole fish, though he also has a good recipe for fish stocks and several recipes that feature it. Interestingly enough, a lot of the recipes are already gluten-free, even the baked goods. Spain already had a history of using ground almonds in cakes. But a lot of the desserts of just simple fruits and custards.
The only depressing thing about buying fish in Chicago is that so few options are local. Which is stupid since Chicago happens to be right on Lake Michigan. My father gets some amazing fish from the lake, including salmon, but I'm more concerned about the pollution than I am from ocean fish. The last advisory I read said to remove as much fat and organs as possible, AKA all the good stuff, from fish caught from the lake. Mercury and PCB pollution sucks. Imagine- I would be able to walk just a few blocks and get fish for almost nothing if we hadn't messed the ecosystem up so much.
I think The Family Meal is exactly what American fine-dining chef Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home should have been. Family Meal has better pictures, showing each recipe step-by-step, which is important for those of us who don't have much experience with things like cooking with whole fish (though this is quite funny since so many of my family is fisherman, but I was too picky when I lived around them). Also, Keller's cookbook contained lots of canola oil, which I'm not a fan of and is also somewhat mystifying considering that olive oil is now produced in Keller's home state of California. In Spain, almost everything is cooked with olive oil (and I was surprised to see that studies there show you can fry in it without damaging it, which is probably a testament to the protective effect of antioxidants) as a "neutral" oil, but in the United States, the flavor of olive oil is not considered neutral.
Anyway, after I bought the smelts, I headed to Publican Quality Meats, where the owner, Paul Kahan, was holding court. He looked the part of a butcher, because he is one, but he's also a chef and owner of several of Chicago's best restaurants. It's awesome to walk into a shop where everyone who works there seems to like the same things you do. Like offal. And authentic fish sauce. It's worth the price. After chatting with one of the butchers about blood, I walked out with my Red Boat fish sauce, heart, blood sausage, and Pok Pok drinking vinegar.
I've also been shopping at The Butcher and The Larder. Their liver pate is truly excellent and they will cut some great marrow bones for you to go. So far there isn't much in NYC that I miss, except the Asian food in Queens and the raw offal/meat at Takashi.
And my meatshare buying club. I've not started it up because I haven't had the time, my own family's farm isn't producing that much, and I was super lucky to have Spring Lake Farm to work with there. Seems like the market for lamb and goat, my typical starting point for shares, is much tighter here. So far all the farm's I've contacted have been sold out, but I guess I need to be more systematic and do a day of calling.
I will say that if you are in Chicago and you want to try lamb, it's easy enough to find Mint Creek Farm's stuff at farmer's markets and specialty shops. A lot of people tell me that they don't like lamb. And I understand, because a lot of it does have that acquired "gamey" taste going on that Americans don't really like. The New Zealand lamb at Whole Foods is a perfect example of that gamieness. But Mint Creek farm doesn't have any gamey taste and it's delicious, if a bit expensive. I recommend the Italian Sausages.
The New York Times recently announced a contest to write an essay on why it's OK to eat meat. They made it clear that entries that engage in the naturalistic fallacy and a smattering of other silly common arguments would not be acceptable. Some people wrote me to ask if I would enter.
I will not. In order to argue that it is OK to eat meat from an ethical standpoint, you must establish philosophically that animals do not possess the right not to be eaten by humans. In 600 words. And to a panel of judges that is biased to say the least. This is a philosophical and ethical question, the the judges should be experts in those areas. Instead, you have Michael Pollan, who is a journalist, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is primarily a fiction author who wrote a popular non-fiction book about meat called Eating Animals that is anti-meat, Mark Bittman, who is a cookbook author who has branched out into frequently ill-informed food policy blogging. Mark Bittman eats meat, but it's clear he hates himself for it. Peter Singer IS a philosopher, but only represents utilitarianism, and certainly already has his mind made up about meat since he has been outspoken about this issue for many decades at this point. Andrew Light is of the pragmatist school from what I gather and seems ambivalent(pdf of a book on animals and pragmatism) on the issue. He is a pescatarian.
So you not only have a few totally unqualified people, but mainly people who already are biased on the issue. And those that are qualified do not represent the full spectrum of philosophical schools involved in this debate. So you have to convince mainly people who are already convinced...in 600 words. In many ways I am a masochist, but it's not that extreme.
Hey, at least i'm not complaining that the panel is stacked wrongly because of what's between the judge's legs like the vegan second wave feminists are. They are asking for people EVEN LESS qualified, just because they are women and vegan, like Kathy Freston, who writes unscientific garbage for the Huff Post.
Also, an addendum, if you are entering this contest, your most serious opponent is probably Peter Singer, who has been arguing about this for DECADES. I strongly recommend reading his works, particularly since he's written some books for a laymen audience, such as The Ethics of What We Eat. Peter Carruthers, another philospher, has a book online that opposes some of his most important ideas.
So modern-day omnivores can rejoice in the fact that a simple hamburger is a beautifully engineered energy delivery system. But they should also remember that those little Harvard mice grew plump dining on tiny gourmet burgers from Julia Childs's butcher. "The mice were eating meat from Savenor's," Carmody says, "while I was eating meat from the local bodega."
So the mice grew plump on an all-meat diet? Hmm, let's pull up the study, evilly paywalled by PNASty even though they are supposed to be open access since it's an "early edition":
Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but considering that all the mean changes to body mass are in the minus zone, I'm not seeing any plump mice here. The researchers say:
Effects of Food Processing on Meat Diets. To assess the energetic impact of food processing, it was necessary to maintain mice on a 100% meat diet for a measurable period. Mice of this species (M. musculus) readily consume meat, and in some ecological contexts, they have been observed to inflict intensive predation pressure on vertebrate populations (16). Nevertheless, pure meat diets are not expected to be beneficial for omnivorous species. In humans, lean meat diets that derive a majority proportion of their calories from protein lead to rabbit starvation, a condition of negative energy balance resulting from the high costs of protein digestion and the limited capacity of the liver for urea synthesis (25, 26). We, therefore, expected mice to lose body mass on all experimental meat diets, with relative loss of body mass indicating the relative values of the underlying diets.
Although mice lost weight on all diets, we observed that cooking but not pounding had a positive effect on energy gain (2 × 2 RM ANOVA; cooking: P < 0.001, pounding: P = 0.138) (Fig. 3)
Hmm, NPR are you biased or what?
I'm pretty sure that feeding the mice this evolutionarily inappropriate diet based on pretty lean meat would have resulted in their deaths had the experiments continued.
The study is somewhat interesting even though it is limited by the use of mice rather than people, because it underscores the fact that cooked food is more caloric than raw food. Sometimes I see people put "ground meat (raw)" in their fitday even though they made cooked hamburgers, which leads to an inaccurate caloric count. Evolutionarily the researchers conclude:
First, the adoption of cooking would have helped ancestral humans thrive. Meat and tubers have been exploited by humans for at least 2 million y, and the energetic resources of these foods are believed to have provided critical support for the evolution of costly increases in activity, birth rate, body size, and brain size (34). Meat would have been a preferred food, but its pursuit would require a large energetic investment with low rates of success (35). Tubers, by contrast, were less preferred but more consistently available, and this consistency would have made investments in the high-risk pursuit of meat possible (36). The proportions of animal and plant foods consumed by ancestral humans are unknown, but the parallel effects of cooking that we found suggest that the adoption of cooking would have led to energetic gains whether meat or tubers predominated. Moreover, because we found the effects of cooking to be incremental to the effects of pounding for both foods, the adoption of cooking was likely advantageous even if pounding methods were already in widespread use.
Some questionable stuff even here. The low rates of success for hunting is based on studies on modern hunter-gatherers. There is some evidence that game was much richer in the Early and Middle paleolithic.