A Visit to the Farmer’s Market

This is a story I did earlier in the semester, but I thought why not put it on here since it’s the semester crunch and I’m not going to have time to pitch it anymore…

I’ve never been one to believe in the idea of eating healthy. If something looks good I’ll taste it, and probably engulf the whole thing regardless of perceived future consequences. Perhaps this comes in to play more than ever when it comes to meat. A succulent steak, a perfectly crisp piece of bacon, or even a juicy breast of chicken will tempt me no matter the producer, just like many other consumers.

My curiosity about the natural and healthier food craze peaked, leading to my latest voyage through the Madison farmer’s market. I went to the Wednesday edition, opposed to Saturday’s market where a giant square suddenly feels miniscule as people bump your shoulder scouring tents for the most vibrant green in a green pepper. I had one goal in mind; seek out a meat vendor to talk about the craze revolving around “healthy” meat.

A giant “No Hormones! No Antibiotics!” sign caught my attention, but I scoped out a few more vendors just to be sure. It quickly became obvious that on Wednesdays, only one-meat producer sets up shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Pecatonica Valley Meat.

For over 30 years, the Carr family has been involved in meat production. They advertise purity in their meats and in the other items they sell. On this day, Amy and her husband Todd man the tent standing in front of a trailer full of dead animal parts. Amy stands with a warm smile waiting for the next consumer to step up.

I’ve always found it tough to trust people selling products in any form when asked to discuss why theirs is better, especially when it comes to food. Taste buds vary, metabolism constantly differs, and lifestyle choices play into health and pricing concerns.

The Pecatonica story can be seen as a mirror image of how the meat industry has fluctuated and the mentality of the buyer has shifted. In the 1980s, the Carr family found themselves on the outside of farming looking in. Prices in stores dropped significantly, larger meat producers dominated the market, and any chance of profits disappeared. “As my brother always said, the country is used to cheap food. And to farm commercially, back in those days you just couldn’t make anything,” Todd told me.

And that’s where the large-scale meat industry started drawing praise and scrutiny all at the same time. The ability to offer affordable food was, and still is, the key to many consumers’ hearts. At a farmer’s market or in the world of raising natural animals, you’re not going to find the cheap meat. In order to create inexpensive meats simple steps are taken. Feeding antibiotics to keep an animal healthy before they ever get sick, throwing in various hormones to speed growth rates, and constantly feeding them in a sheltered environment to prevent weight loss is part of the game.

For the Carr’s, that lifestyle didn’t fit their views for how an animal should be raised.

“When you raise animals naturally and you keep where they live clean, you won’t need to use a lot of antibiotics or hormones,” said Amy. “They’re outside getting fresh air and sunshine, that also helps contribute to a healthy animal.”

Approximately seven years after leaving the industry, the Carr family found a way to reenter full-fledged farming. It was what they knew and loved. Plus, many consumers started backtracking on the whole cheap meat concept. Pecatonica reestablished itself and could promote this “No Antibiotics, No Hormones” lifestyle without a problem. Enough people became willing to spend a bit more for cleaner and leaner meat.

While I chatted with the Carrs, I watched customers buy $1.00 beef sticks for a quick snack and the occasional piece of meat well above grocery store costs. Nobody questioned the prices or where the animal came from. They didn’t ask about the environmental effects of large-scale meat production or long-term health effects of eating red meat.

That’s when it became more obvious of the choice these people make. Instead of buying eight ground beef patties totaling $4.25, they buy one pound for the same price from the stand. The reasons might not make sense at first glance and may even seem elitist, especially to those struggling to make ends meet.

The choices can be broken down into three facets. People could simply be eating less red meat. If the product is higher quality and you’re willing to eat less of it, why not spend more. By buying massive quantities of commercialized meats, in the end you’re setting yourself up to eat massive quantities. Cheaper food can be enjoyed more often than stuff that can’t fit into a budget.

And as time has shown, if you eat a lot of red meat no matter what kind, health effects will eventually creep in.

Additionally, the carbon footprint of buying local is astronomically smaller than from most stores. Time magazine once said the meat industry generates over 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases. While this may be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind looking to feed their family, think about the future costs. Manure has to constantly be destroyed (and it’s piling up). Add in some unused offal meats that might be needed one day to help the world sustain enough food for all and there are some troubles.

And finally, think of the animal lifestyle. I’ve talked to people who want to know the animal they’re eating was happy. It might sound slightly sadistic because the animal ultimately died to be on your plate. Can that ever be a happy lifestyle? But, to them they’d rather eat an animal who got to see the sun, than locked in a sheltered room.

But, it circles back to how you eat the meat. And that’s what so many people miss in the healthy meat craze. A place like Pecatonica Valley has been around long enough to build customer relationships full of trust. They have no desire to become the largest farm and they’re happy working with local restaurants and on the farmer’s market circuit. And that’s okay because it leaves more options for those looking beyond price and quantity.

There are choices like happy cows and environment they can help you with, but the ultimate decider is you. If you’re looking for the cheapest and most meat, a farmer’s market isn’t the place to look. If you want to enjoy meals every day involving pig, cow, or chicken, it really doesn’t matter where the meat comes from because it will still clog your arteries.

But, if you’re looking for an alternative, the Carr’s method might not be so bad.

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Eating Bird

Picture courtesy of Maslowski/National Wild Turkey Federation

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought it about time we venture into the world of eating bird.  Sure, we’ll talk about your traditional Thanksgiving turkey, but I’m interested in the more unique birds and items people eat. Eating quail and duck isn’t totally unique, but Quail Eggs are fun and there are some good duck recipes with the meat or don’t do the work and find some duck fat fries. How about some Partridge, pigeon (the rat of the sky), pheasant, and grouse. Plus, the big birds, cousins Emu and Ostrich and a little bit of Rhea. For all your chicken needs for raise them for meat yourself, could be fun. And even though I am totally against eating them because they are a top 4 animal in my book, Penguin.

First, the turkey because people like holidays. A brief history of how the turkey came to where it is today shows that the turkey population almost ceased to exist. Like often seen with species in the 19th century, hunters took advantage of the plentiful amount that existed on the land. As they spread further west to take over more land, more turkeys were discovered and killed. Finally, with some federal protection turkeys began to survive. Now, you might even see a wild turkey in your suburban neighborhood. I had the honor of seeing one cross the street a few years ago. So, you enjoy the taste and think how about I raise some wild turkey! Okay, very few actually think that, but if you do… here is a intro article into it and an in depth beginners books that exists. And of course, some nice turkey recipes for when that thing is ready to move on from your backyard to your dinner plate. And as an added bonus, a turkey confit recipe courtesy of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

Moving on, let’s check out the essence that is the “game bird”. The University of Minnesota has a nice breakdown of the world of these birds. And even a brief synopsis of how to raise them yourself if you don’t feel like hunting is included there. Be careful if you’re buying game bird to eat, however, as the FDA doesn’t have many guidelines or testing for that meat.

One of the most common game birds is pheasant. You can do a lot of cooking with the young or old. The pheasant has 35 different species and are seemingly most commonly hunted in Britain. But do not fear, in America there are many dedicated sites to bird hunting, including the pheasant to show you where to go. Part of the pheasant family is the well known Partridge. Here’s a little hunting guide for Partridge and Grouse. And a very nice sounding Pan-Fried Partridge recipe.

Moving from the pheasant we’ll get right into the pigeon. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of them as animals. They irritatingly fly around waiting for food, swarm to whomever has food, and poop on people (true story). So I encourage you to eat the rats of the sky all you want. And if you’re really daring, have fun and raise them. There is actually a deep history of eating pigeons, especially at a young age. Eating squab has been around in Europe for generations. But, here is a distinct hunting guide for you to find those pigeons (where you aren’t shooting wildly on the streets).

Now, on to the big birds known as Ratites. It includes the ostrich, emu, and rhea. The USDA has a guide to these fine tasting animals. These animals have become common alternatives when it comes to eating meat. A nice ostrich steak or Emu pate can be quite delicious. And the meat is becoming easily obtainable. If you have a farmer’s market nearby you might be in luck with an Emu farmer or two. Emu has many values in addition to meat like the oils, feathers, and skin they produce. So maybe you could even raise them yourself. As for Rhea, one Microbiologist is convinced of it’s magical powers that it has surpassed chicken soup in their mind.

Finally, the penguin. If you’re living in Antarctica I can accept you eating the penguin. There is a site out there taking a mocking approach with the concept of eating and hunting penguins. Penguin meat is a delicacy in some lands, but it’s also not as common as it used to be. Even Antarctic menus have removed penguin meat (and seal brain). Luckily for my sanity and yours, I could not find any true Penguin meat recipes.

So for now, they can go on happily living, but beware there might be one under your car.

Get right to the heart of matters, It’s the heart that matters more

Thanks to travelpod for the picture of a Peruvian Heart Skewer server on the streets

Looking to get a bit crazier in the next piece of meat you eat?  Let’s step it up a little bit and get to the blood pumper, the engine that drives the body, the soul of it all: the heart.

A little background first on heart for those ready to head out and eat something better or something you’re more comfortable with. Let’s start with this: you’ve probably eaten heart before without even knowing it. It’s quite possible in your fast food heyday that the taco from Taco Bell had a slight percentage (10-15%) of heart in it. According to Jeff Sindelar, University of Wisconsin meat extension specialist, the company is allowed to use up to 15 percent. And, since it is a cheap meat (because the demand is low), they take advantage.

Next, if you’re from Detroit or have ever had the honor of indulging yourself in any sort of coney dog or items with chili involved from Lafayette Coney Island or American Coney Island, you have had beef heart. Of course, that recipe emerged from the 1910s and 1920s, a time when organ meats were as common as regular ground beef is today.

And of course, if you’re from a place like Peru, beef heart is still commonplace. Peruvian dishes like to use beef heart and not in a way that hides the meat. Beef heart skewers can be found from street vendors and in many restaurants. Even in Madison, Wisconsin a Peruvian restaurant, Inka Heritage has the skewered beef, known as Anticuchos featured on the menu.

So what are the benefits of eating heart (besides being able to say you’ve got a lot of heart- awkward)?

Thanks to Kelly the Kitchen Kop, she helps lay out some of the benefits. These include the obvious heavy concentration of protein, but continue into more in depth benefits like B vitamins often found in offal meats, the much needed phosphorus and zinc, plus a lot of CoQ10- good for a lot of things according to Wikipedia.

Don’t forget the heart is a muscle, and one of the strongest for a body. That means it’s a leaner, less fatty meat.

And for those who don’t trust me, trust local Madison Chef Dan Fox, executive chef at the Madison Club. He says if he was limited to choices of offal meat to use in a meal, heart would be right up there.

“Heart I like to serve. I think that’s a very tasty part of the animal.” He says braising or roasting hearts

He also relayed a story that proves the theory, if you don’t have the mental image of what it is, it might not be so bad…

“We’ve served beef heart and called it beef skewers, I did it on purpose,” Dan told me. “We did the Best of Madison party and I put out very interesting things. One was a marinated beef heart skewer and all the salon stylists were up there like ohh that’s fantastic… Beef heart is very very good, but people just don’t want to try it.”

The best part of the story, Chef Fox never told the guests that they had just tasted beef heart, and probably for the first time. “They can just go on believing what they thought it was.”

And that’s the key for people trying foods they wouldn’t try because of the mental image. If you can trust where you get the meat from and the cook, it usually doesn’t matter what they’re using. And, Chef Dan wouldn’t risk the trust of the people who it his food. By taking a risk of serving beef heart to unsuspecting consumers, he didn’t put them in any danger and was willing to show them a world they never knew.

So you want to try beef heart?  Well, if you can find a Peruvian restaurant nearby they probably present a good opportunity. Or how about cooking it for yourself…

Grilled Beef Heart with Roasted Chili Peppers
Beef Heart, Bacon, Butter and Onion

Beef Heart en Mole

And a whole lot more of them…

Change of Pace: A Look at Seafood

Today we take a little break from the extensive world of meats and focus on the world of seafood. Sadly, there is debate in this world as to if fish is actually a “meat.” For those wondering, it is. The animal is still being killed, the “meat” inside is being used for food, it contains proteins, and it’s still a living breathing being. The biggest debates come from the religious side (I’ll leave that one alone), but because this is a meat blog and I’m writing about it, clearly it’s a meat. So for those who think it’s different, especially vegetarians who try to get around, look in the mirror and realize what you are doing, you monsters.

Anyway, seafood tastes great and comes in a variety forms. But, like all good things there is usually some bad that comes with it. Much of the fish and seafood industry is heading the way of the meat industry and deserves attention as well. Seafood can offer some great products like salmon, swordfish, or the now popular Chilean Sea Bass, as well as crab, shrimp and lobster. There are controversies all over the world about certain items to eat (like the dangers of eating octopus head in South Korea, a very tasty treat by the way), fish that are constantly on the endangered list (like Salmon), and fish farms full of pollution (Thanks ARK fisheries).

First, let’s start with the previously mentioned salmon debate. There are people on both sides of the debate. Pacific and Atlantic salmon are both seen as heavily declining populations. If you’re into the whole trends, data, and maps thing the government has tons of sites set up here for Pacific salmon, a call for a 5- year review from March 2010 with an updated list of salmon species to be looked at, and a nice Atlantic endangerment article from Maine.  According to this report from Canada in October 2010, which includes a video, thinks might not be so dire:

The video, released by Positive Aquaculture Awareness (PAA) entitled “Salmon Extinction? A Reality Check”, uses the direct words of prominent activists who have claimed BC’s wild salmon are at risk of extinction.

“These outrageous quotes of salmon extinction were spread by activists with a clear goal in mind – to damage the reputation of BC salmon farmers,” says PAA President Cory Percevault. “But this year, we have literally millions of examples swimming back to BC rivers, proving just how wrong they were.”

But, why are things endangered?  There are more reasons than just the over-fishing part of fish farming. Diseases and hazardous practices can engulf more salmon species than it should according to the watershed watch.

Also in the Pacific Northwest, a political debate rages on over the Columbia Dam plan in America. This debate has raged on since the Bush administration and people feel Obama hasn’t done enough to change the original, faulty plans.

The 2010 plan assembles new information about climate change but does not offer any ways to help salmon survive the warming water temperatures and changing river flows that are expected, the motion argued. It added that the plan fails to follow the best available scientific information.

While there is both sides of the salmon endangerment concerns all over North America, one place that is safe is Alaska. The industry did take a hit when the world was looking for the cheapest food possible, but this article, from 2004, talks about what the Alaskan salmon industry went through.

Moving on from salmon, let’s take a brief look at the lobster industry. I recently read the book The Secret Life of Lobsters and it gives a pretty detailed account of the industry and the lobster itself. The lobster has also been in a heated population debate over the past quarter century. The book tells the story of how government forces and scientists have tried to enact regulations in the industry despite some data to the contrary. It looks at the fisherman/lobstering perspective, researchers, and government in the middle of this tenuous debate.

As you see, just like the meat industry there are environmental hazards, population debates, methodology debates, and anything else you can think of. Fish aren’t as easy to continue the local movement as water isn’t everywhere. But, there is one benefit of seafood everyone can enjoy. The pleasure of eating. And for those who lasted long enough, I will share some recipes that I’ve never used, but sound fantastic.

I’ve actually had similar variations to this simple recipe of the salmon variety. A nice Salmon with Lemon and Dill.

Salmon too fishy for you?  How about some simple grilled Sea Bass or a nice Tuna Steak

And finally, lobster. Instead of spending $45+ at a restaurant, how bout you make some at your home.