Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Meat: What I Learned

It's the beginning of October which means I can finally say "Hey, check out this month's issue of Indianapolis Monthly to see what I did all summer." Yes, writing about meat was how I spent my summer vacation. With a few road trips, lots of drafts, and some cute pictures of cows, this was my summer of beef. (Looks like an excerpt is online.)

Earlier this spring and summer, I had a chance to visit some of Indiana's best butchers, beef and pork producers, and processors and reconnect with meat from beginning to end -- or hoof to plate, if you will. I grew up in Oklahoma cattle country and I'm not kidding when I say school, 4-H club, and all manner of other groups took us on field trips to feedlots, feed mills, and our local Swift meat packing plant. It was never a mystery. I knew exactly where that side of beef in our freezer came from and how it got there.

But today, the business of beef is a lot more complicated. We have so many more choices. Butcher shops versus grocery store meat counters versus cases of pre-packaged branded meat in a case. Corn-finished or 100% grass fed. All natural, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic, local -- so many options! In addition, few people really understand all the other factors that go into making your steak taste great. Fat content, marbling, cut, and aging -- all are just as important. As consumers, we know so much more than we used to about what we're eating, but in that knowledge, there's so much more confusion. There are no easy answers and the best you can do is decided what's right for you and your family. It was terrific to visit some top producers and butchers, but only a tenth of what I learned actually made it into that article.

Now that you've read it, what can I saw I learned in my summer of meat?

* Trust your eyes: We did an 8-way steak taste-off comparing as best we could the same cuts trimmed to roughly the same size. Karl Benko at Peterson's gave us an afternoon of his time, lending his expertise to make them as equal as possible. Our panel of foodies and steak eaters tasted them in pairs, blind, and scored each steak on a 100-point scale. The surprising winner was the USDA Choice Sutton and Dodge pre-packaged steak from SuperTarget. And you know what? It was a great looking steak before it hit the grill! When our panel looked at all the steaks (with their labels) before cooking, we were all amazed. The meat was a great, deep, rich color of red, had plentiful and even fat marbled throughout, was well trimmed, and had an even grain. Lots of other steaks did, too, but we all noted after the surprising results that the top ranked steak had looked great right out of the package.

* Pre-pack can be OK: Call this Trust your Eyes, Pt II. If it looks great in the store, chances are it will be a pretty good steak. What I really learned is that we can't just write off pre-packaged meat. I interviewed a top meat merchandiser with 30 years of national chain grocery experience who reminded me that the state-of-the-art facilities that process and package much of the pre-packaged, ready to cook meat you find at some (better) stores run an ultra-clean environments. Of course, the downside to that is that these pre-pack facilities source so much meat to such large areas, that when there's a problem, it's a big, multi-state, huge recall of a problem. Bottom line: pre-pack isn't necessarily better, but you can't rule it out either. Trust your eyes.

*Butchers can make your life a lot easier: We have some terrific butchers in town. And their aim? To educate you. They want to get an amazing steak (or pork chop or chicken) in your hands and help you cook it. They want your family or guests or whoever to say to you "this is so good!" What's the best way you can succeed especially if you're not an experienced cooker of meat? Tell them what you're doing or what you need. At Kinkaid's, the first question they ask you when you call is "what are you making." And Joe Lazzara at Joe's Butcher Shop in Carmel can -- I'm sure quite literally -- get you *anything*. (Plus, he's become the best go-to guy on fish.) The last thing any of these guys want is for you to make an expensive mistake. They want you to shine -- impress the boss or the girlfriend's parents or whatever. 'Cause they want you to come back.

*When in doubt, ask: Over the summer, I overheard a woman lamenting an agonizing choice in front of a farmer's market stand. "I can never decide what's the best thing to do. Should I buy organic? Or local?" The answer is "ask". If she'd bothered to ask the farmer standing right in front of her, she would have found that he follows organic farming techniques, doesn't use pesticides, and in fact, just hasn't gone through the time and expense of getting a formal organic certification. Often local *is* organic -- and when it comes to meat, it's often *better* than organic. At least one producer I talked to has opted against USDA organic certification for their beef and pork even though their land and program is fully compliant. The reason? There are still certain medications allowable for organic meat that many producers feel shouldn't be allowed at all. And in talking with other food writers and authors, producers who choose to remain uncertified is a national trend. So, what to do? Ask. Ask your producer, ask your grower, ask the farmer. And you'll often find the "local versus organic" issue isn't one at all.

*Farmers -- 2nd Career, Smart, Professionals: This one may seem obvious, but it's worth pointing out especially since (in my opinion) at least one author who wrote a bestselling book last year went out of his way to portray farmers as dumb hicks driving tractors and stupidly raising cows pumped full of chemicals with no regard to the finished product. What I found was very different. Whether it's at the high end, large scale corporate farming level or the smaller producer raising 100% grass fed or all natural corn finished cattle, at every turn I was reminded that these agriculture professionals are a sharp, intelligent, and well-read breed of business owners. Farming is a tough business and these people have done their homework -- especially those who have chosen to come back into agriculture as a second career. (Rebekkah Fielder's successful first career? Commodities trader in NYC. Dave Fischer? Software developer in Europe.) And again, in talking with writers and authors across the country, everyone's noted it's a trend -- and one Indiana is right in the middle of. Smart, talented professionals are moving home to family farms around the US, and looking at ways to address issues of sustainability, production, and product. In Dave Fischer's case, he looked at the best use of the land and also at the trend for high quality, all natural beef. Jim and Rebekkah Fiedler made some of the same decisions -- but focusing on heritage breed pigs and grass feeding. Both have made the choices that antibiotic and hormone free beef production is the way to go.

*It's a small world: A huge shout out to Christine Barbour for her help and support. It was a year ago, at the Slow Foods Bloomington potluck, that I first met Jim and Rebekkah Fielder in Christine's kitchen. (Rebekkah and I are from the same part of Western Oklahoma and know people in common.) The Fiedlers and Christine introduced me to Dave Fischer (whose beef you can eat at The Oceaniare, Elements, and Restaurant Tallent in Bloomington). Dave introduced me to the Sander Processing folks (who also do the Fiedler's beef.) Thanks to all the great butchers and meat cutters I met and interviewed as well as all the guys who patiently let me stand out of the way on killing floors of processing facilities.

There really is something pretty elemental and special about seeing your food up close. And I remain impressed by the dedicated folks who do this for a living. Plus, I ate some pretty darn good meat along the way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In part 3 of the book you are probably referring to, the author went out of his way to portray farmers as incredibly intelligent and deserving of our utmost respect.

I don't think many people walked away from the Omnivore's Dilemma thinking Michael Pollan had a problem with farmers (unless they stopped after part 1). What he took issue with were the corporations and the government policies that have bastardized farming.