This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I spent this weekend in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania at the Weston A. Price Foundation's Wise Traditions conference with John Durant and Allison Bojarski. I live-Tweeted it, but here is also a list of things I learned:
And a bonus:
11. The government isn't going to fix the food system and in its blundering will destroy many small farmers and food businesses. Wow, it was scary seeing a doc called Farmageddon, which was accounts of military-style raids on FARMS. It was weird being in the same room as many of the people I did my senior food law thesis on like Linda Faillace and Mark McAfee. I was very glad to pay $4 at breakfast for bone broth because it supported the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. But I still don't feel sad about not going to law school because the whole thing is just too depressing for me.
I started up the paleo meatshare because I wanted to have a meat buying program that was about health. Your health, the animal's health, the health of the land, and health of local communities. I wanted something beyond just jargon and labels.
Because unfortunately those labels and jargon have become meaningless. Buying good meat is hard and sometimes it's nice to think that regulations or labels could make it easier. But instead it just crowds the good food market with suspect products.
Take "grass-fed." The movement for grassfed livestock didn't start in the paleo communities, but among defenders of traditional farming practices. These people didn't know that grass-fed meat was healthier, but they wanted to preserve the traditions of their communities and a form of agriculture elevating for both humans and animals.
Paleo has embraced grass-fed because the fatty-acid balance is closer to that of the wild animals our ancestors ate.
But I'm afraid some of them didn't get the rest of the memo. Like it or not , when you buy food you are voting with your dollars. And farms are not all the same, even "grass-fed" farms. I've worked on farms that were "grass fed" where they treated the animals terribly and the meat had markers of stress on it.
Guess what is easy to make with that meat so that consumers won't notice? "Value-added" products: jerky, TV dinners, ground beef, etc.
What if you went to the farmer's market and there was a booth that just said "Grass fed meat." You walk up and ask:
"So, where's your farm?"
The farmer gives you a skeptical look and says "Sorry, we can't tell you. You might buy a farm near us and raise your own animals. It's a competitive secret."
"Um, what breed are the cows?"
"Sorry, we can't tell you, because you might buy some and raise them yourself."
"Err, what sort of slaughterhouse do you go to?"
"Sorry, we can't tell you because you might buy some animals and slaughter them there. Trade secrets sonny."
"Can I visit and see how the cows live?"
"Yes, but only blindfolded."
How many of you would buy from that booth?
I looked into a local "paleo" jerky company because I heard they were tasty and they had a grass-fed option. I was going to make a bulk buy for the meatshare program.
Unfortunately when I made an inquiry they said "I'm sorry but we do not disclose our suppliers for obvious competitive reasons."
Sorry, but that doesn't add up to me. Making jerky for wholesale is no trivial matter. What would really be competitive is to be the only company currently riding the paleo/Crossfit trend that actually has a supplier it can brag about.
And more importantly, it doesn't jive with my ethos of knowing where my food comes from. If you don't really care where your food comes from and you trust the USDA to make decisions about good food, go ahead and order from them. But otherwise, I recommend going elsewhere for your jerky needs.
Yes, they comply with USDA regulations, but if you read this blog you'll knnow that you shouldn't trust the government to decide if food is fit to eat. There are some loopholes in USDA grassfed that allow for sub-optimal feed, antibiotics, hormones, and confinement.(more info and here and here).
Chipotle, US Wellness Meats, and Niman Ranch and just a few companies that are successful, produce great value-added products, and also TOUT THEIR FARMS. Unfortunately, none of them make a jerky product I've been satisfied with. I'm a busy person, so I don't have much time for my own jerky making, but I like to have stuff at work to snack on.
How about posting some pictures of the animals that make your jerky? How are they doing? What are their pastures like? How were they treated? Are the farmers paid a fair price? Are they small family farms? Are they in the United States? Where?
If a company won't answer your questions about farm to table, their accountability is shot as far as I'm concerned. I'm not going to name names, but my recommendation is don't buy grassfed meat if you don't know where it came from.
I know my farmers. Do you?
If anyone knows of a more transparent company that sells grass-fed jerky, let me know. Or maybe we'll have a jerky making party ourselves.
A friend asked:
Off the top of your head, do you know if buffalo raising practices are similar to beef? I ask because I'm unsure if buffalo can be raised with soy/corn feed instead of their natural grass diet. I also ask because there seems to be no grass-fed label for buffalo.
Unfortunately it is possible to fatten bison on corn and other grains and more and more farmers seem to be doing this. It's been happening for awhile too as this old piece demonstrates. So you can't just order bison at a restaurant and assume it's grass-fed. Union Square Farmers Market has true grass-fed bison on Saturdays, but it's increasingly hard to find.
Does it matter? Well, I think bison, grass-fed or not, is a pretty decent choice of meat. Ruminants, even "factory farmed" usually spend more of their lives outsides before moving to a feedlot. And in terms of fatty acid balance, feedlot lamb/beef/bison generally has less omega-6 than pastured chicken and often less than pastured pork.
Here is an interesting chart of fat breakdowns. BUT those are just from small samples, usually from conventional breeds and sources. Joel Salatin said his chickens varied substantially from the USDA data. Generally when eating out I chose pastured anything first, but if that's not available I go for beef, lamb, or bison.
Feed is more variable for pigs than for chickens. Since pigs will eat quite a lot of different foods without a problem, they are fairly versatile. Some farmers have insisted to me that they need grains, but my family's farm manager Dr. Andrew Lorand says:
Pigs need lots of stuff (variety), but they do not need grains. They are foragers by nature and can live well, healthy and long on roots, tubers, grass, herbs, veggies.
Much of the pork I eat is fed organic whey and acorns. If any of you will be at the Biodynamic Conference this week in NY, say hi to Dr. Lorand for me. I would go, but I'm heading to Santa Fe.
Honestly I prefer local pastured animals whenver possible. I think they are better for people and better for the world in general. But I'm not going to give up and order a tofu bowl when presented with the choice between that and conventional beef. It highlights a discussion (err...teasing?) my eternally skeptical roommate and I had tonight about whether my fresh uncured lamb sausage was "paleo." Um, paleo is eating meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. Some meat is probably better than other meat, but you don't have to eat special meat to qualify as paleo and to get the overall benefits of including animal products and excluding neolithic foods.
Out of Seattle comes this excellent story about a butcher claiming to sell local organic grassfed meat...but when asked they are unwilling to reveal their sources. Just goes to show that you need to do the research. Apparently marketing genius have realized that food with a story sells...whether the story is true or not.
I think there is lots of room for a trustworthy certification service. I've personally had good experiences with Animal Welfare Approved, which is a group actually devoted to making animal production better instead of eliminating it like other sneaky groups.
Some restaurants have moved away from listing every farm they source from, citing it as trivial and cluttering. But when you are buying your own meat, it's not trivial. Ask "is it possible to visit this farm?" If the answer is no, be suspicious.
Brings me to two new NYC CSAs that are looking for members:
High Point Farms Meat CSA
Grass fed beef, pasture raised pork, free range chicken, free range eggs and local cheese from farms in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York are now available in the City.
High Point Farms, LLC starts a NEW meat, egg or cheese CSA in June to be picked up at Jimmy's 43 in the East Village and at Sweet Pea CSA in Brooklyn Heights. Animals are humanely raised, without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics, on intensively managed pastures. All meat is processed USDA and no added nitrates or MSG is used. Many of the Cheeses are from RAW milk.
Farm Fresh Vegetables at a great price
Saturdays at Grace Church
139th and Edgecombe Ave.
Flexible Payment Options Available
Receive a Variety of Great Fresh Foods each Week like salad greens, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans, zucchini, kale, potatoes, squash, collard greens, basil, cilantro
There will also be the opportunity to order meat from Veritas Farm, which is a great opportunity since it's not sold anywhere else in the NYC metro area. I have personally been to this farm and it's top-notch! All their animals are happily out on pasture all the time- they are shaggy highland cattle, so they can handle it! I blogged about my visit here.
I've been really enjoying the farmer's market lately. Bizarrely enough, some people really want to know what the heck I eat. It's boring to me...but apparently exciting to you?
The above dish was from the Friday farmer's market at Union Square, which isn't always my favorite, but I scored this ground ostrich for pretty cheap and some fresh nettles. Yes, you can eat the stinging nettle and its full of great nutrients. I always collected it in Sweden and despite wearing gloves I got stung regularly. It's not so bad and might even be beneficial for people with inflammatory illnesses. But I didn't get stung this time. They were in a bag and I blanched them in boiling water before quickly putting them in an ice bath. Then I chopped them finely and mixed them with a beaten egg. After coating with some coconut flakes left over from making coconut milk (almond or other nut flour would work too), I fried them in lard. Pretty good nettle fritters. The ostrich I just made into patties in cooked. It was fairly good, but a little gamey and like all farmed poultry, the ostrich had been fed corn. Ruminants >>>> poultry in terms of fatty acid balance.
At the Saturday market I scored tons of asparagus, ramps (a wild leek), a grassfed beef heart, lovely purple potatoes, and tons of bison marrow bones. The beef heart got my "offal killing marinade" overnight. I call it that because it really does kill any off flavors, but maybe the heart didn't need it because it's not that offaly. Either way, it's minced red hot pepper, jalapeno, ginger, and cilantro in lime juice overnight. Then I grilled the heart and salted it....and it was DELICIOUS. I will definitely buy it again. I put the marrow bones on top of the potatoes in the oven and let the fat from the bones coat them in deliciousness as they cooked. Then the killer combo of lemon juice, salt, capers, and black pepper.
Today I got more asparagus and some striped wild sea bass. All of that went in the toaster oven at work with duck fat, salt, and pepper. Sea bass is an incredible fish- 100% silky and 0% weird. I love how quickly and simply it cooked too. I will definitely buy it again.
What's next? Rhubarb and strawberries, the former I try to limit my consumption of because historically it's a medicine and not a food. It was originally imported from Asia to Europe as a laxative, well...at least according to the Linnaeus mueseum in Uppsala, Sweden. Interestingly, Linnaeus suffered from terrible gout, which he was finally able to cure with wild strawberries. But either way, rhubarb is very high in oxalic acid and definitely requires sweet to taste palatable. My paleo rhubarb recipe mixes finally chopped strawberries and rhubarb and lets the mixture sit overnight, then tops it with crushed walnuts/fat/honey mixture. A treat that I shouldn't eat ALL the time like I did when I lived in Sweden, probably because people there ate rhubarb crisp like crazy.
Do you want to eat local grassfed pastured meat, but you have trouble finding it? Grassfed meat is much healthier than the average meat at your grocery store, but it can be hard to track down at your local farmer's market. A CSA, community-supported agriculture program, is a great way to get great meat consistently. It's also very convenient for busy people- instead of getting up early and going to the farmer's market, you can pick up your meat once a week.
I'm already a member of The Piggery, which is sold out, but there is a new meat CSA in NYC you should check out. High Point Farms does beef, dairy, pork, and eggs. They drop off at an excellent local bar, Jimmy's No. 43.
Last night I heard Joel Salatin speak in NYC. I was kind of surprising that he would speak on Easter Sunday. I grew up in Georgia and Easter was a big holiday there, but pretty much everything was open here and lots of people turned out for his lecture.
I only saw the first one, which was about whether or not the local food movement is elitist. Salatin mainly talked about how regulations hinder the development of new local food businesses and make food more expensive. I was familiar with this argument because I did my senior thesis on regulatory obstacles to a healthier local food system and Salatin's book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal was one of my starting points.
You can read his original essay on the subject here. What does this have to do with paleo? Well, the main food regulations affect are animal foods, though produce is becoming more controlled thanks to the spinach, peanut, and tomato food poisoning outbreaks that killed and sickened Americans.
The standard regulatory argument is that risk is risk and every farm should be regulated the same way. I personally disagree with that. Part of the rational behind regulations is that people are victims because they can't make a rational consumption decision due to the structure of our food economy. People wouldn't purchase things made unsafely if they could see the production, but they can't and it's pretty unrealistic to expect most people to closely keep tabs on food factories 1000 miles away. Of course a private certifying agency probably could, but it's equally unrealistic for libertarians to expect the US to drop all food regulations.
Even if you are not libertarian, it's clear that most regulations on food producers are unfair. I went to a big agricultural school sponsored by the government. Much of the technology used on farms is developed by such universities and most of it is geared towards large farms. That's an unfair advantage. So when regulations are written they typical require capital that would be unrealistic for a small farm to own or use. Also, there is rent seeking behavior- manufacturers of this expensive equipment often are the loudest advocates for more regulations. Things are changing- there is a foundation around here that is working on small scale mobile slaughterhouses, but they are facing an uphill battle. The mobile slaughterhouse has to have a separate trailer with an office and bathroom for the USDA inspector. They can't just use the normal bathroom in the farm office, regulations stipulate the inspector has to have their own.
Another subsidy is that large feedlot operations are pretty much allowed to pollute. I don't see why they should be allowed to sully steams they don't own. Small farmers often take great care of their land and the environment in general. Many factory operations also employ illegal workers and the government turns a blind eye, while small farmers struggle with the challenge of having legal workers, which is more than just paying minimum wage, it's often also paying worker's comp and dealing with some draconian state employment laws.
Contrasting with shoppers in the grocery store who really would have a hard time really knowing where their food comes from, people who purchase directly are able to talk to the farmer and often able to visit and work on the farm.
The consequences for all these regulations are stressed farmers who have to haul their cattle hundreds of miles to the nearest USDA slaughterhouse and more expensive meat. One of the reasons poultry tends to be cheaper is that there is an exemption that allows small farmers to slaughter on-farm . Why chickens slaughtered on farm are safe but goat aren't never struck me as logical. The safety of an animal to eat has more to do with the skill of the butcher than the magic of a USDA inspector. I'd certainly rather have animals killed by my own butcher that I know.
Either way, read the book, it's great and will help you understand why small farmers have such a tough time. Salatin also addressed the global agriculture problem. He mentioned how large companies like Monsanto who often claim to be the savior of the third world often don't acknowledge that the green revolution is often the cause of the problems in the first place. He mentioned how the old Thai system was diverse and grew rice alongside fish and vegetables. Replacing this system with rice monoculture created the vitamin deficiencies that the GMO golden rice is supposed to cure.
Another factor is that contrary to popular opinion, small sustainable farmers aren't Luddites. There have been massive increases in the efficiency of many sustainable methods like composting in the past 50 years. Such methods are more sustainable not just from an ecological perspective, but from an economic perspective. In unstable third world countries introducing methods that require imported seeds, pesticides, machines, and oil just isn't appropriate.
Salatin also talked about the choice aspect of the matter. I don't make much money myself, but in the past I had to be on all sorts of expensive medication. Now that I eat a better diet, I don't need those pills and inhalers, which unlike grassfed beef, just masked the symptoms and did nothing to nourish or heal me. Joel Salatin mentioned how tests done at the local ag school showed high levels of CLA, a fat that shows strong anti-cancer properties, and DHA, which is the most prized of the omega-3 fatty acids that promote good health in general.
He said it's a shame that libertarians, free marketers, and conservatives have so often been reactionary against healthy eating, but the tide is turning. I agree. While paleo dieters come in all stripes, a growing segment is people traditionally associated with the right.
Surprisingly enough, many people write to me asking what I eat and where I get it. I think it's boring, but I guess it's useful for many people, especially if you live in NYC. I haven't been good at posting the rest of my week, but here are some things I've been eating!
What delicious foods have you been eating lately? Where are you getting your ingredients?