Meat: Is Dead Just Dead?

I have bought grassfed meat from three local farms lately. If you’re interested in a pricing breakdown (with Kroger, my usual grocery store, as a — dare I call it a? — touchstone on price), you can see my working copy here. The farms I’ve tried are River Ridge, West Wind, and Laurel Creek. I don’t remember what got me started on this kick, but I’m to the point that I’m considering buying a freezer and paying a bit more for quality meat without the fear of suddenly growing breasts or hulking out and going on a roid rampage thanks to all the hormones and steroids I’m taking in through the animals I eat. Of course, in addition to not wanting to turn into a mutant, there’s the matter of wanting to eat things that don’t taste like cardboard. Of course, you don’t know that what you’ve been eating for 30-plus years tastes like cardboard until you’ve had something that doesn’t taste like cardboard, and it is that taste test that I’m conducting now as I work through how I feel about meat and how I’d like to consume it.

In addition to buying meat, I’ve bought three books about meat. The first and biggest is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book, which is basically a 500-page text book that I’m a quarter of the way through. From this book I’ve learned fun things like what mechanically separated meat is, and of course it reinforces some of the things that made me shudder and choke back vomit when reading Fast Food Nation a few years ago. The author makes a pretty weak philosophical case for eating meat (one of the things I’ve long struggled a bit with), but the book generally goes along at a nice clip with some charm and is pretty engaging. One of the most influential things the guy has said — and this touches on some of the ethical problems I currently sidestep while chewing on one of our bovine or porcine friends — is that if you’re going to kill a sentient being and eat it, you should do it a sort of honor and make its murder worth it, or as near worth it as you can. I’m beginning to buy the argument he puts forth that to eat factory farmed, maltreated animals (I suppose that’s redundant) is to devalue the lives they give for your consumption. I can’t escape here the recollection of some old probably racist lore about Indians thanking the animals they killed to eat. I also keep going back to an example that I think I made up: If your plane crashed in the mountains and you were forced to indulge in the last taboo and given the choice of eating a dear friend of known provenance (so to speak) and physical quality or eating a drug-ravaged fellow passenger with emaciated limbs and like pus coming out of his eyes, which would you eat? Hard as it would be to eat a friend, I’m thinking I’d go that route. And if you’re going to eat a friend, you’d better darned well make a big spectacle of honoring him for the death that brought you sustenance.

So I suddenly have visions of asking these farmers for the name of the cow or pig I’m eating so that I can honor its sacrifice, and that feels a little dumb.

The second book, which I’ve just scanned a little is The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook. As I considered buying a half a cow to stock the freezer I’m thinking about buying, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know how to cook most of a cow. I’m a ground beef and grilled steaks and occasional crock-potted roast kind of guy, and before I took the plunge, I wanted to understand a little better what I could do with other cuts (and what the cuts even are) and how grassfed animals in particular might best be presented at my supper table.

And finally, I bought The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It seems I had heard something about this book recently, and I thought reading it might be a good exercise for helping me work through some of the ethical issues that have resurfaced as I’ve devoted as much brain as digestive tract to what I’m eating.

But back to the meat.

So far, I’ve eaten the following things:

  • Ground beef from River Ridge, as burgers (disclosure: I make a killer burger by finely chopping red pepper, garlic, and onion and mixing that in with the meat; these were the best burgers I’ve ever made, but maybe I just got the veggie additives perfect this time)
  • Ground beef from Laurel Creek, in spaghetti (you could actually taste the beef, rather than just having its texture)
  • Ribeye from River Ridge
  • Ribeye from West Wind
  • T-bone from Laurel Creek
  • Pork chops from River Ridge (I seasoned these with a mixture of mustard powder, garlic powder, and salt, and they tasted like steak; best pork chops I’ve ever had; the second batch I managed to undercook, and none of us wound up with trichinosis)

As noted, the River Ridge burgers were great. I’ve got queued up for tomorrow burgers made from West Wind beef. West Wind’s prices are through the effing roof. I paid nearly $20 a pound for ribeyes from them, for example, and the ground beef is literally $2 or more dollars per pound more than what I paid for the ground beef from Laurel Creek, which was perfectly adequate for spaghetti (haven’t tried it in burgers yet, though I will next weekend).

I wonder if West Wind’s prices aren’t high for good reason, though. This weekend, I cooked a bunch of steaks for visiting family. I had four River Ridge ribeyes and two West Wind ribeyes. The River Ridge ones looked a little weird, and I had noticed this when I first bought them but figured maybe it was just the way local, organic, grassfed beef was butchered. They were sort of formless, as if they’d just been hacked out of the cow rather than cut in the usual fashion, with the customary sort of semi-circular crust of fat. Both sets of steaks had adequate marbling, though upon close inspection, the West Wind steaks were prettier and ultimately better marbled. Neither were the technicolor scarlet color of the steaks you see at the grocery store. The RR steaks were much much darker, tending almost to purplish, while the WW ones were more pinkish brownish. Both of them were yummy steaks, though the WW were far more tender (also generally thinner, and perhaps that made a difference). If I were wealthy beyond my wildest dreams and inclined to eat ribeyes often, I’d go with WW over RR. I’m eager to try Laurel Creek, as their pricing is the best, but they haven’t had any available at the farmer’s market the two times I’ve been.

Sometime this week, I aim to cook a Laurel Creek tenderloin. The loins I bought are smaller than what one can find at Kroger, but they also look a bit less fatty, and I can hardly wait to grill one up.

The pork chops from River Ridge were delicious; if the differential between the beef at WW and RR extends to the pork, I’ll be in for a treat indeed when I try a WW pork product.

West Wind is consistently more expensive (sometimes by six or eight dollars per pound), but they also claim to be the only fully organic local(ish) farm. The farmer’s wife (WW is apparently run just by her and her husband) informed me rather brusquely on Friday that they don’t trust Tennessee slaughter houses and so go just into North Carolina to slaughter their animals at a facility that follows a Temple Grandin design. This no doubt accounts for some of the price differential. And the ribeyes did seem to be of better cut and quality than what I’ve had elsewhere (even though I overcooked them).

What I’m left to consider now is how much price means to me. I’m willing to pay more for ethically killed (hah!) animals, but am I willing to pay three dollars per pound more or eight? Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests that it may be better to eat ethical(ish), high-quality meat in lesser quantities than to gorge simply for the sake of eating meat on cheap, bland meat that requires a sea of barbecue sauce to make it palatable, and for the moment, I’m feeling inclined to agree. Tonight, my family of four (ok, two-and-a-half, as two of them are under five years old) split a leftover T-bone, and it was sufficient if not belt-looseningly abundant. Eating less meat (with less guilt) but appreciating it more seems reasonable enough.

With respect to the considerable price differential among local farms, I have yet to figure out how I feel about requiring the full organic chain of events for the meat I eat. There are guidelines, I believe, about how far an animal has to walk prior to its death, how exactly it is killed, whether the grass it eats can have had any ancestral seeds that weren’t raised by hand and whispered to during germination by hippies reeking of patchouli (perhaps I carry this a bit far), and I’m not sure how important these are to me. Once you’ve resolved to carry an animal off to kill it for food, provided you’re fairly kind about it, I’m not sure how much it matters to me whether you let it walk lackadaisically in a circular queue to its death or whether you nudge it a little along the way. This was one of the things the WW farmer cited as a benefit of organic. I’m very much in favor of kindness to animals on their way to oblivion, but ultimately, dead is dead, and a marginal difference in anxiety level within the animals may not be worth five or six bucks per plate to me. Or this is what I think for the moment, at least.

4 thoughts on “Meat: Is Dead Just Dead?

  1. mattbucher says:

    Fascinating post, Daryl. I can honestly say I’ve read very few books that I consider “life-changing” but Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of them. It will likely reinforce your ideas about eating only grass-fed beef. I have been buying grass-fed lamb from a farmer at the local farmer’s market and it’s about as far away from “traditional” lamb meat you can get. Also, I don’t know if you’ve read Michael Ruhlman before but he cowrote the French Laundry cookbook (which has an anecdote about Keller having to slaughter several baby lambs by hand) and he has a book about meat called simply “Charcuterie”. You should check it out.

  2. Dave says:

    I appreciate the spreadsheet. One observation: I pay like $3.89 for 7% Kroger brand ground beef. Sometimes less. You’re getting ripped off if you’re paying $5 or $6 a pound!

    Also, I’m bothered by your use of the word ‘literally’ in the 8th paragraph. Are you just trying to make me mad?

  3. Carla says:

    I’ve had experience w/ WW in another area, namely their raw milk. Kim (the wife) is generally brusque about everything. Not saying she’s mean or anything, just to-the-point and no-nonsense. Their milk prices are pretty high, but it is a very high-quality product, and I’m not surprised to hear their meat is the same.

    Looking at those spreadsheets for full/half a beef, is that per pound on the hoof, hanging weight, packaged weight, or what? Makes a big difference in your comparison. We buy half a beef at a time for $2.50/lb hanging weight. In terms of the final product, it ends up being probably $3.50/lb. Not a super price for ground beef compared to the grocery store (though you can’t even compare them quality-wise), but when you take into account we are getting roasts, steaks (including filet!), and stew meat, it’s a great deal. I also get the bones for making fantastic broth, and you can get the liver, heart, tongue, etc. if that’s your thing. 🙂

    I think the organic standard that WW adheres to is great, but I’m not willing to pay that much more for it. Although we currently get our meat from Polyface up in Virginia (the farm that Pollan talks about in Omni Dilemma), we’re having to factor in the cost of gas now. Though I still think it’s cheaper to go up there. Joel Salatin (the Polyface guy) really believes in what he does and it shows in his product. We love visiting the farm and talking w/ him and his family and seeing all the yummy animals. Like he says, it’s really “food with a face”.

    Oh, and did you taste the chicken? The difference between free-range and factory-farmed chicken is even more mind-boggling than the beef. Buy it whole or else you’ll go broke.

  4. Very nice article. I know the owner of both WWF and RRF. They are all wonderful people. Ralph and Kimberly (WWF) pay dearly for their organic certification. It is a great deal of time and cost and is reflected in their price. Their products are all wonderful. WWF has been in business longer than most of these farms and has really focused on providing a wide range of products to their customers.

    Dave and Verlinda (RRF) use various butchers. If you notice they have “weird” steaks, (1) tell them. The would appreciate the feedback. and (2) it is really hard to find good butchers who really know how to cut meat the way the old NYC butchers do. Also, the breed of beef animal can make a difference in appearance and taste. WWF raises Scottish Highland. RRF raises Tarentais. The quality of the pastures between the farms varies also and this can make a difference.

    As with WWF, RRF is also concerned about the comfort and state of mind of the animals they butcher. If there were a way for any of these farms to butcher their animals and sell directly to you, they would. The federal and state governments but many restrictions on them in this regard. What would Thomas Jefferson or John Adams think?

    The Grassfed Gourmet is THE BEST MEAT COOKBOOK EVER. Can you tell I love it? I have yet to find a recipe I don’t like. Try the Slow Roasted Beef and Chili Brew Beef Stew recipe! Ah, they are to die for! If you have yet to buy this book, you’re missing out. Don’t even get me going on the pork, chicken, and lamb recipes!

    Also, look for Holy Cows & Hog Heaven and Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin. Excellent books you will very likely enjoy.

    Finally, do visit the farms if at all possible. You really get an understanding of the cost issues when you can see the work involved in raising these animals and the research the farmers put into their farming techniques, nutrition, grazing management, etc. It is well worth your money to spend it on good quality food for your family. It will have a marked effect on the health and longevity of your children.

    Blessings!

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