I have been eating meat. Yes, it’s true, when I’m away from this blog I am probably eating meat. Away from home I have eaten it here, and here, and here, and here, though definitely not here, but I loved this place as well.
I’ve been a “pescetarian” as they say, although the word sounds something hideous to say aloud, for the last 15 years, give or take the tempting bites off of Matt’s plate for the last two. This is a fairly huge step for me. So huge that I have chosen to keep my previously fish/seafood/dairy/vegetable diet quiet, and waited for the larger part of a month to even declare myself a newly converted “meat eater.” Bah. True omnivore. In the offal, innards, organs, bugs, and brains sense of the words. But only so long as those brains were raised with utmost care, slaughtered in a decent way, and in one that doesn’t destroy, mame, or disrespect people, animals, or the planet. Simple enough, right?
If you ask me why, of all times, when our food system and planet are in utter crisis, and according to Pamela Anderson’s PETA, Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, and Mark Bittman‘s suggestions I should at the very least cut down on meat, why would I start eating meat?! Well, it’s quite simple. I couldn’t think of a better reason not to. Not given my current locale. “When in Rome…” eat like a local. If I were, say, in the Mediterranean I would be eating a lot of fish, nuts, and oil or if in Japan a lot of pork, duck, and miso. Well, in New York City I will eat pastured bacon, grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, and unhomogenized or raw milk from a conscientious milker. And while I love fish, nuts, oils, and miso, I can only get these foods as imports. It simply doesn’t make sense so solely rely on imported protein.
Meat simply tastes better and is more nutritious when raised well. The fat is where the flavor is, so for me any animal protein has to be fat on. As the lipids in my diet have increased, my standards have as well. A beast of any size, even an egg, can have a dangerous amount of toxins and microbes hiding in its fat and muscle. When it comes to quality and purity of food, my protein and fat are of utmost importance. This means I refuse to eat meat if it’s not at least Organic. When I say this I mean USDA certified Organic is at the bottom of my list. I would much prefer “pastured,” “grass-fed,” and animals raised under sustainable agricultural methods. But on the occasion I am in the grocery store and these labels are nowhere to be found, I will buy Organic.
While some may consider that sentiment food elitist, it’s really about health for me, then cost, then taste, then ethics. Fortunately, many times if I worry about the former I receive the benefits of the latter, as these qualities go hand in hand for those conscientious farmers. Which is also why I am searching for alternate solutions to the grocery store, where food is grown predominantly with storage and $$$ in mind. And while this may seem inconvenient at first, there’s a whole world of real people out there eating and selling good food. You’ll find these people are much more realistic about food, fairness, and simplicity than the underpaid worker stocking lemons at your local Key Foods.
While my cooking has become simpler, the quality of ingredients and potential complexity and variability of my search for them has increased. Here are my shopping guidelines:
Farmers’ markets first. If there’s a farmers’ market open I will give it a try. Some markets have changed from moving produce to eggs, juice drinks, and honey. I will always seek out the good farms and browse around before selecting my produce. Once I like a farm, I will come back often. Some farmers simply care more than others. If they’re approachable and have things to say about their food, it usually turns out that I bring it home and find it’s of better quality, too. I buy my eggs from Yuno’s Farm at the Union Square Farmers’ Market.
Be an active participant – talk to people who grow, raise, produce, or supply food. If you don’t develop a rapport, ask questions, and inquire when something is less than excellent, you can never expect to buy good food or improve the food system.
Pastured, pastured, pastured. “Pastured” or “grass-fed” beef and “pastured” chicken, eggs, and pork means not only that the animal had access to outdoors, but that their food and daily lifestyle revolves around cows grazing, chickens pecking, pigs rooting, etc. Pastured foods are not under specific regulation like USDA Organic, so you have to ask the farmer what their own methods are. From pastured food you can generally expect:
- Healthier meat – Since pastured animals are raised eating a more traditional diet with minimal grain feed, given access to sunlight, and also room to exercise, this results in a more balanced meat. As a result the animals have a better ratio of the fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6, are higher in vitamin D, and and also lower in cholesterol. Pastured eggs have a closer to ideal ratio of the fatty acids Omega-3s and Omega-6s, 1:1. In grocery store eggs, regardless of their labeling, you usually see a ratio of something like 1:20. While our diet is overall higher in Omega-6, this does not necessarily mean it’s beneficial to purchase eggs whose chickens were spiked with Omega-3s, either by feeding the bird fish or flax seed oil (which also alters taste), or pumping their feed full of the fatty acid. Unless you are one of those people who relies on getting your daily folic acid and vitamin C from Cheerios.
- More flavor – A more diverse diet leads to more complex flavors in meat and fat. Pork tastes more “porky,” eggs more “eggy.” The difference in incredible. Modern meat has been engineered to be bland and fatty.
- Leaner meat in warmer months – Since pastured animals eat off the land, grain is only supplemental in warmer months, producing a leaner meat. However in the winter many farmers use grain feed only because the animals can’t go outside. Meat can be seasonal too, you know.
- No antibiotics – If the animal is healthy the farmer should only need antibiotics on rare occasions. If the farmer cares they should set this as a standard.
- No fertilizer – If the farm is using sustainable farming practices, they should have little need to pave over the soil with fertilizer. Instead, they should use composting and pasturing methods that focus on the health of both the soil and the animals.
“Free running,” “Cage free,” “Naturally raised,” “100% Vegetarian Fed,” and “Free Range” labels on food does not mean pastured. ["Free running" is similar to "Cage Free" and has to do with how the animals were treated, but really only indicates they are not in cages. "Naturally Raised" technically means nothing, "100% Vegetarian feed" means there's no ground up animal parts in the feed, and "Free Range" means the animals have access to the outdoors, but has nothing to do with what they are fed and how much time they spend outside, if at all.]
Where to find pastured foods
You will very rarely find pastured foods in a grocery store. If you’re in a city you need to shop at farmers’ markets, specialty shops, and butchers who sell them. Even there, many times you will see the above labels and not “pastured,” or you won’t see a clear label at all. Then you ask. If you have a car, Eat Wild is an excellent source for looking up pastured farms, facts, and other suppliers. I also try to find creamy, delicious, and wholesome nonhomogenized whole milk from pastured cows. It’s not reasonably priced in New York, but it is excellent.
If not pastured, then Organic. Organic is an incredibly loaded term (and label), and I am not going to speak fully to it now. What I will say is that when I am shopping in a grocery store with no access to questioning those producing the food I will look for Organic. I know that Organic meats will have minimal toxins, no antibiotics, be raised on “land” without fertilization, and be fed grain feed that is non-GMO. While this is the case, I still always look at the ingredients to make sure that sugars, HFCS, and other toxins are not added into the food.
If I’m in a foreign place and don’t have access to information on farms, I will at minimum look for Organic foods.
No nitrates or nitrites. Nitrates are harmless on their own but can over time convert to nitrites, which can form nitrosamines, a cancer-causing chemical. I avoid these in my sausage and bacon.
Yuno Farm’s Italian kale sauteed with Niman Ranch spicy Italian sausage, diced sweet onion, and plumped currants.
Yuno’s Farm blistered shishito peppers.
Matt has perfected our daily breakfast: an egg on a toasted English muffin. We’ve found that pastured egg yolks have a cheesy quality to them that is so amazing and complementary to the egg white. These eggs are also from Yuno’s Farm.