Meat Beat Manifesto

The food we eat and where it comes from have been hot topics for the last couple of years. The release of Michael Pollan’s latest book, as well as Wednesday’s piece in the New York Times about the lengths chefs are going to to raise awareness of how the meat we eat is raised and slaughtered, have stimulated a lot of discussion this week both online and in my own home. I feel strongly that the decision about what to feed yourself and your family is a complex and personal one. People need to decide for themselves what they’ll eat based on their income, ethics and lifestyle. I would never judge or lecture someone about their food choices, but I would like to discuss how we shop, cook and eat here at Chez Dietschyblossom, and what changes we hope to make going forward.

Over the last couple of years, Mike and I have tried to eat seasonal, locally grown or produced foods more often. I don’t expect that we’ll ever be true locavores – we like our citrus fruits, San Marzano tomatoes, wild Alaskan salmon and runny French cheeses too much – but we still try to buy the bulk of our fresh foods direct from the Greenmarkets or via FreshDirect’s local foods department. The fact that Mike works just blocks from Union Square makes it easy for us to shop this way – on market days, I’ll often send him off with a shopping list, or he’ll make a pass through the market on his way into the office, report back any interesting finds via email, and return at lunchtime to make his purchases.

Most Saturdays begin with our “food safari,” where we hit the Greenmarket in Union Square or Fort Greene or Greenpoint, then make the rounds of our favorite little specialty shops for cheeses, butter, eggs, wine, bread and pantry items like Frankies olive oil or Carolina Gold rice or Rancho Gordo beans or those imported canned tomatoes we love so much. This is our big shopping day where we try to purchase the bulk of our grocery needs for the week, and it is a fairly large commitment of our time and energy, but it’s fun to be out and see what’s in season, to talk to the people who produced what we buy and to find out what’s particularly fresh or tasty that week. I realize that shopping and cooking this way isn’t a realistic thing for many of you, but it’s what we do and while it can be exhausting, it has been fun and very worthwhile.

Shopping this way often leads to me changing up our meal plan for the week. Sometimes we’ll find something unexpected that I’ll want to buy and use right away, so dinners I had planned for the week will get shifted around or put off to the following week to accommodate new ingredients. It’s because of this that I’ve cooked guinea hen and chicken liver ragu, and it’s why when I make a lamb stew I now use neck bones rather than the cubed stew meat I would have selected previously (Karen from 3-Corner Field suggested it to me once and I haven’t looked back since). With meats in particular, shopping this way has made Mike and I start to look beyond steaks and chops and begin to experiment with more interesting cuts of meat; we hope to stretch our boundaries even more this year. We are meat eaters, and though I don’t anticipate that will change any time soon, we have given a lot of thought to the kinds of meat and other animal products in our diet and where they’re sourced from.

Mike has been vegetarian at various times during his life. I was a vegetarian from age 14 to 21, for reasons of squeamishness and taste – I just physically couldn’t tolerate the smell or texture of meat. Thankfully, it was during that time of my life that my love of cooking was blossoming, and with the help of The Moosewood Cookbook and other books and magazines, I was able to make myself soups and salads, pasta and bean and grain dishes, and not depend on processed faux-meats or prepackaged vegetarian dinners. My taste buds changed over time and I eventually added meat back into my diet, though I wasn’t giving much thought to how it was raised. I was a city kid, after all; the closest I ever got to cows and sheep and chickens was at the petting zoo, and the meat I grew up on came wrapped in plastic on Styrofoam trays.

My husband had a different experience growing up in southern Indiana. Mike’s grandparents raised hogs when he was a kid; he has memories of the butchering, and of eating ultra-fresh pork afterward. The only pork I had ever tasted had little to no flavor, so aside from bacon, I avoided it. Things changed after our first meal at Marlow and Sons. (Yes, I know I like to wax poetic about that place, but it really has had a huge impact on how we cook and eat at home.) Our neighborhood doesn’t have much of a dining scene, so we head to neighboring areas when we eat out. We had read about the oyster happy hour at Marlow and shortly after we moved to Bushwick, we decided to check it out.

I don’t remember what I ordered that night, because the memory of Mike’s entrée is burned into my memory (and probably his as well). Braised pork belly. I will never forget when he took that first bite – he closed his eyes and said “Oh my God,” and just sat there for a minute, eyes closed, slowly chewing. “This is what pork tastes like – this is what I remember pork tasting like.” That bite of pork had taken him back to his childhood, to the flavor of that ultra-fresh pork he’d eat at his grandparents’ place. I had to try it, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a revelation.

The chef was standing near the exit that night when we left, and we profusely and rather embarrassingly thanked her for the meal, for the gift of that pork, and from that point on, we decided that we would seek out the good stuff, and as it turned out, the pork that we found that actually had that flavor that Mike remembered from his childhood is the pork that is being produced by people who sell at the Greenmarket. Not only does it taste the best, as it happens it’s also raised with respect for the animal and for the environment. Talk about a win-win situation.

We started with pork, but we have since arrived at a point where almost all the meat we buy is meat that was raised on pasture, our seafood is local or harvested in ways that don’t damage the environment, our eggs are from chickens who roam free and eat what they like, and our butter, cream and milk are from grass-fed cows. These foods do cost more than their factory-farmed equivalents purchased at a supermarket, but it’s a price we’re willing to pay, and we feel very lucky that we are able to do so – not everyone can afford to shop this way exclusively if at all.

2008 is going to be a year of big changes for us, and as such our food budget will need some tweaking. I’m already thinking of ways that we can continue to buy the types of animal products we want, but stretch them so that, for instance, one $30 pork shoulder can go into several meals. We’ve played with ingredient cycles a bit already, but I expect we’ll do so even more in the coming months. We have and will continue to try to use as much of every ingredient we bring into our kitchen as possible, to buy less and use more. We already save vegetable trimmings and bones to make stocks, turn old bread into croutons and crumbs, freeze parmesan rinds to toss into soups, but I want to reduce our food waste even more, and we would both like to make our meals a bit less meat-centric.

Last Night’s Dinner came about as a sort of progression from the photos I had been taking to catalogue our dinners on a day-to-day basis, and it’s interesting to me to look back and realize just how often we eat meat. While I’m very comfortable with the kinds of meat we eat and where it comes from, I do feel that we can reduce our footprint (not to mention improve our health) if we rely more on the great beans, grains and vegetables available to us, making meat a component part of a meal rather than the main focus more often than not.

I guess you could say this is the official Last Night’s Dinner position on the subject; I thank you for indulging me and I certainly encourage questions, comments and further discussion. On a completely unrelated note, Mike and I are celebrating our second wedding anniversary this weekend, and we’re kicking it off tonight with dinner at Hearth. I wish you all a wonderful weekend – regular posting will resume next week!

18 thoughts on “Meat Beat Manifesto

  1. Happy anniversary!

    It’s interesting to see your position on meat-eating. My husband and I used to be vegetarians, but over time we’ve discovered that we are both healthier and maintain our weight better if we eat meat or eggs at every meal, with vegetables as the main filler. When I ate a primarily vegetarian diet I was tired and overweight. But everyone is different! And we do try to always have a local pasture-raised cow in our freezer.

    I like seeing what you’re doing with some of the more unusual cuts of meat – that’s something I’d like to experiment with a bit more.

  2. That’s a very thoughtful position. Thank you for sharing it and acknowledging what a privilege it is to be able to eat the way that you (and many of us) do.

  3. heathercoo says:

    Happy Anniversary!!!

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m so jealous at the markets you have available to you in your city, I only really have access to the regular supermarket. On weekends I could take a trip to the farmer’s market and see what they have available. I really want to try and eat more the way you speak of than the way we eat now.

    Maybe tomorrow I will take a trip to the market and see what kind of selection they have of meats and produce and make on of the dishes I’ve been drooling over on this website.

    Thanks again for writing this post and really explaining everything.

  4. That was such an inspirational post! I’ve been trying to eat the way you described for a while now. As your “neighbor” I can attest that task is no small feat in Bushwick! But again, in that respect, your blog is an inspiration.

    Happy anniversary to you – wishing you many more years of happiness!

  5. Great post! And to think I almost skipped it (due to it’s length). I’m glad that people are discussing how to humanely raise and slaughter the meat we eat. That statement was a complete oxymoron, but I’m not ready or willing to give up meat. So the next best option is to purchase meat from animals that were raised in a happy and healthy environment.

    The best practice you have is… “We have and will continue to try to use as much of every ingredient we bring into our kitchen as possible, to buy less and use more.”

    It’s something that I’m striving to do too. I’ve done a decent job at being “green” in other facets of my life, but I really need to be better in the kitchen. Thanks for the post and happy anniversary!

  6. Sara says:

    Happy anniversary!

    I loved this post – thanks for sharing your thoughts and habits. Although I am a graduate student and my boyfriend is a musician (read: low income) I try to buy organic meats whenever possible. Luckily in Toronto, we do have some very good options. I have a butcher near me with organic, free range whole chickens that are about $12 each. We usually eat seafood but when we do eat meat, I do my best to make sure it is raised well. Eggs are one thing I must have organic and free range, but I have yet to make the leap when it comes to milk and butter.

    You mentioned health and I have one question: Since becoming interested in food and cooking, I noticed that I’ve gained some weight in the past few years. I often wonder this about all chefs and foodies – how do you stay fit while eating so deliciously?

  7. I totally agree with your way of shopping and eating. Myself and my partner do exactly the same. Although, like you say, it is easy to forget that not everyone has the opportunity to shop this way. I too realised recently that we do eat a lot of meat and I’ve tried to cut down with success! As you say, beans, grains and the like should really be a staple part of our diets and are so essential in keeping us healthy. I think part of respecting where your meat comes from, how it is butchered etc is as important as respecting how you eat it and thinking of your own health! Too much meat ain’t good for us!

    Happy Anniversary too!

  8. Christine says:

    This post came just as I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A very enjoyable read and much lighter after having just read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. My family is also making changes.

  9. This is a great post Jennifer! I recently met Bill Kurtis who wrote a cookbook of recipes that all use grass-fed beef. He promotes grass-fed beef as healthier and much better for the environment as you outline here.

    I already admire your weekly trips to the market to buy fresh vegetables and the like and deeply respect your goals to take it a step further. I hope to follow your example some day!

  10. Jennifer Hess says:

    Wow, thanks for all of the wonderful anniversary wishes, and thanks as well for sharing your thoughts on this issue!

    claudia – let’s do lunch. 😉

  11. Kate McDonough says:

    Dear Jennifer — Bravo on a simply wonderful, informing and inspiring essay. We are kindred spirits but you have written of your food and cooking journey so thoughtfully and with encouragement to the rest of us. Hope you had a splendid anniversary!

    Kate McDonough,

  12. Happy (belated) anniversary! Can’t wait to hear all about the celebration dinner. We’re still kicking ourselves about going to Cookshop on our last trip instead of Hearth.

    It’s fun to see that you meal-plan and shop in much the same way that we do, with a continent between us. And not that you asked, but I vote that you get to call yourself a Locavore despite a few (rather sensible, IMHO) exemptions. As my friend Cookiecrumb reminds me: It’s not a religion. And of course she’s right — it’s about incremental change, about being a mindful consumer, about making informed choices, not about denial of the things that bring you pleasure.

    I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised (esp because of what you said about the pork revelation) that even though your ethical meat purchases will have an impact on your food budget, you’ll end up eating less meat because a smaller amount is just as satisfying when it tastes like it should. Cameron and I used to think nothing of buying two rather large steaks at the supermarket; now we buy one smaller piece and share it.

  13. Jennifer Hess says:

    Thanks, Kate!

    Anita – thank you! We’ve noticed the whole “eating less” phenomenon with steaks, too. A lot of it has to do with portion control, but it’s true that we feel much more satisfied when eating the pastured steaks we get these days, and are happier splitting a steak rather than each having our own.

  14. Carly says:

    Hppy anniversary!

    I have to ask, it sounds like you have found a place to purchase Rancho Gordo beans in New York. If so, can you share where? We order pounds and pounds at a time through the website but if there is a local shop, that would be so nice to know.

  15. Jennifer Hess says:

    Thanks, Carly! Last month the little grocery in the front of Marlow and Sons had a few varieties of Rancho Gordo beans in stock, so I bought a bunch. Hopefully they’ll continue to stock them.

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