LET THEM EAT GRASS

05 MARCH 2004

The
Atlantic Monthly | May 2003 

 

Back To Grass 

The old way of raising cattle
is now the new way˜better for the animals and better for your table

by Corby Kummer 

Beef has come to seem a hazardous
substance. If years of warnings about the dangers of saturated fat and
heart disease weren’t enough, Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation (2001)˜with
its graphic and disturbing picture of the inhumane working conditions of
meatpackers and the contamination from criminally rushed slaughtering and
processing˜made clear that it is unwise if not foolhardy to eat beef ground
by anyone but yourself. Then an article last year by Michael Pollan, in
The New York Times Magazine, told us that corn-fed beef, the presumed gold
standard for tender, luxurious steak, is far from wholesome. It isn’t very
good for the people who eat the fat-streaked meat that corn produces, and
eating corn is terrible for cattle, which are ruminants meant to chew grass.
Corn leaves their digestive tracts susceptible to E. coli and other pathogenic
bacteria. Almost all cattle raised for beef are force-fed corn (which costs
less to buy than it does to grow, thanks to federal farm subsidies), and
the resulting stress makes it necessary to keep them on high doses of antibiotics.
“Finishing” for corn-fed beef takes place on vast feedlots, where cattle
raised in many parts of the West are trucked to a miserable end. This force-feeding
provokes moral hesitations like those raised by that notorious product
of force-feeding, foie gras. At least geese are designed to eat corn.


    
Whatever the current troubles of McDonald’s and other burger purveyors,
beef remains America’s most popular meat. Many meat lovers, alarmed by
Schlosser’s book and Pollan’s article, have decided to go organic˜a choice
always to be applauded, for the benefits that chemical-free farming brings
to the environment and the health of farm workers, and a choice made easier
by the adoption last October of a national organic standard. But organic,
vexingly, will not necessarily satisfy people who care about flavor and
freshness. Once the food industry saw there was a profit to be made, “organic”
stopped being a guarantee of attention to flavor or individual care. In
the case of beef, “organic” can mean “raised in confinement and given organic
corn.” And a last-minute legislative provision passed in February, allowing
farmers to give livestock non-organic feed and still certify their meat
as “organic,” threatens to rob the term of all credibility.


    There
is an alternative: grass-fed beef. Ideally this refers to animals raised
in open pastures and fed grass and silage all their lives after weaning.
Grass feeding results in far lower levels of saturated fat and high levels
of both omega-3 fatty acids (more commonly found in fish, and thought to
help prevent heart disease) and the newest darling of the nutritional world˜CLA
(conjugated linoleic acid), polyunsaturated fat that may help prevent cancer.
These benefits, and also higher levels of antioxidants, appear in all food
from all animals that eat grass, milk and cheese as well as meat.


    

As with “organic,” though, the lure of a new market willing to pay a premium
has led to fudged definitions. Some meat producers use “grass-fed” to describe
animals that are raised in pens on industrial feed, including corn, and
finished on rations of grass in feedlots far from home. A similar confusion
still surrounds “free-range,” which can refer to animals that roam where
they please or to animals kept in barns and allowed to range in circumscribed
yards. No one regulates the use of these terms, and given how many years
it took to achieve a national definition of “organic,” it may be a long
time before anyone does. Determined beef lovers in search of true grass-fed
beef have encountered uneven availability and, occasionally, the necessity
of buying an entire side of beef at a time (which requires both a very
large freezer and the skill to cook lesser cuts). Economic inefficiency
and shipping costs lead to higher prices˜the usual tariff for more healthful,
less industrial food. 


    The search
is worth it. Grass-fed beef tastes better than corn-fed beef: meatier,
purer, far less fatty, the way we imagine beef tasted before feedlots and
farm subsidies changed ranchers and cattle. I recently visited two ranchers
and the founder of a cooperative, all of whom have taken the purist approach
to grass-fed beef. Each has managed to meet three big challenges facing
ranchers who want to avoid sending their animals to a feedlot: finding
slaughterhouses that will accept and process just a few animals at a time
and treat them humanely; supplying meat year-round, although grass is seasonal;
and selling both prime and secondary cuts. Each offers an easy way to order
true grass-fed beef, a step that should lead to a conversion experience.
To ensure satisfaction I offer a foolproof recipe for brisket˜my mother’s.


    Any
reservations I have about the ethics of eating meat recede when I visit
a farm or ranch run by someone who cares deeply about animals and how they
live.
Culling and, yes, killing a portion of a herd seems a natural
way of helping a group of animals and their habitat to thrive. This paradox
struck me when I rode last summer in the old tan Suburban of Dale Lasater,
a rancher in Matheson, Colorado, an hour or so southeast of Denver. Lasater,
a gentle, witty, contemplative man, appears briefly in Fast Food Nation
as a corrective model for the beef industry. His father, Tom, himself a
third-generation rancher, moved from Texas to Colorado in search of affordable
land, and in the 1950s took the heretical step of making his ranch a wildlife
sanctuary, refusing to kill predators and pests or, later, to use fertilizers
and herbicides. This, he hoped, would allow him to restore nutritive grasses
and water reserves to the parched, depleted land he had bought, and to
protect the ranch from developers in Denver and Colorado Springs. The Lasaters
were influenced by the ideas of Allan Savory, a guru of grasslands management,
who advocated a careful rotation of pastures to allow the natural regrowth
of grasses.


    Tom Lasater’s
unconventional methods worked. Even if his fellow ranchers couldn’t bring
themselves to copy them, let alone to install the miles of electric fence
necessary to keep animals in a land-preserving rotation, they respected
the health of his livestock, which they bought for breeding.


   Since Fast
Food Nation was published, Dale Lasater has built his mail-order meat business,
now in its sixth year, to the point where he can sell most of his animals
directly, either for breeding or as meat.
The idea of selling meat,
something his family had never done (though they had sold dairy products),
was inspired by his memories of working on a cattle ranch in Argentina
while on a Fulbright scholarship, when twice a day he ate what he remembers
as the best beef he ever tasted. Argentine beef, still thought by many
to be the world’s best, is all grass-fed in the high Pampas. Now that the
ranch was raising grass-fed cattle, he reasoned, their meat should be just
as good to eat. Lasater and his partner, Duke Phillips, a former manager
of the ranch, had to find careful slaughterhouses, and also refrigerators
where they could dry-age meat for fourteen to twenty-one days. Dry-aging,
a step that was long a luxury reserved to the wholesalers and customers
who could pay the added costs of storage and surveillance, enhances flavor
and is a necessity to tenderize grass-fed beef.


    After
we toured the miles of his ranch, where heifers and young bulls surrounded
the Suburban as if magnetically drawn, Lasater gave me cooked samples of
several cuts of meat, including the first ground beef I’d had in a long
time. It was so lean that it tasted like some other kind of meat, perhaps
game (wild animals are naturally lean and of course grass-fed, too, if
they are herbivores). But I quickly became accustomed to the more intense
flavors, and began to appreciate what I had been missing. I found that
the brisket˜a secondary cut that has more fat and lots of collagen fibers,
which turn gelatinous and tender when cooked˜had the deepest and most rounded
flavor of everything we tasted. Lasater wasn’t surprised: it’s his favorite
cut too.

    Tom Gamble
has much in common with Dale Lasater. His grandfather went into cattle
ranching in the early 1900s, near Napa, California, and one of his father’s
goals in continuing the business was to preserve the land from encroaching
urban development. When I met Gamble at his house in Napa last fall, he
described stumbling through many of the difficulties that Lasater and Phillips
faced five years ago: where to process the meat, how long to dry-age, which
cuts to offer, how to distribute. A slaughterhouse that would treat the
animals with the care Gamble wanted proved very hard to find; when we spoke,
Gamble was preparing to spend the next day trucking several steers to one
in Chico˜nearly three hours away. 


   His partner
in the meat business is Bill Davies, the scion of a highly regarded winemaking
family. Gamble compared the nascent grass-fed-beef business to the Napa
wine industry in the 1960s. “There’s no infrastructure for the little guys,”
he said. He is optimistic that the market will flourish once consumers
understand how grass feeding contributes to the environment and to flavor,
and he looks forward to changes that will help small ranchers. Mobile bottling
lines have saved small wineries from having to buy and maintain expensive,
hard-to-clean, space-hogging machinery; Gamble dreams of mobile slaughtering
facilities that will go from ranch to ranch. He himself went door to door
to the area’s nationally known restaurants, which were more accustomed
to calls from neophyte winemakers. He was proud to have created an enthusiastic
local market for secondary cuts such as skirt steak, sirloin tips, and
even fajita strips. (“Go next door,” he said of one local restaurant, “and
have an enchilada with beef in it˜it’s an incredible thing.”) Speaking
in a vocabulary familiar to his winemaking peers, Gamble described the
shift from corn-fed to grass-fed beef as being “like going from insipid
hearty burgundy to a Cab that maybe needs more age but has more complexity.”


    Ridge
Shinn, the founder of the New England Livestock Alliance, in central Massachusetts,
has big ambitions: to show New England dairy farmers who join his cooperative
that by switching from milk to meat they can survive in a steadily more
difficult economy. He scoffs at the idea that freezing winters like this
past one are an obstacle: “Deer don’t live in barns,” he says, “and cattle
have much thicker layers of fat.” While working as a farmer at Old Sturbridge
Village, in central Massachusetts, Shinn learned nineteenth-century agricultural
practices and became a believer in the superiority of New England grass
to any other grass in the country˜a superiority, he told me recently, that
ranchers visiting from elsewhere enviously confirm. As for the short grazing
season, Shinn advocates “long-cut silage,” meaning hay baled as soon as
the grass is cut rather than after it has been allowed to dry.


   Shinn found
a slaughterhouse that was willing to follow techniques recommended by Temple
Grandin, the autistic woman who has pioneered humane treatment in the country’s
livestock-handling industry. The slaughterhouse, in Stafford Springs, Connecticut,
is just two and a half hours from New York City, the country’s largest
market for top-quality meat. About a dozen farmers have agreed to follow
Shinn’s rules, which include feeding calves on mother’s milk for at least
two months and then on just grass or hay, and adopting certain other humane
raising methods. To ensure the quality of the meat on which he is betting
the cooperative’s reputation, Shinn goes from farm to farm with an ultrasound
machine that evaluates the fat and muscle structure of each animal at slaughter
weight. Big industry, he points out, grades meat after slaughter; but the
cooperative’s machine enables farmers to choose in advance only those animals
that will meet the standards of the cooperative’s Pasture Perfect brand.


   Like Lasater
and Gamble, Shinn believes that in the long run the only way to guarantee
quality is through careful breeding; his chief concentration is on finding
breeds best suited to the New England climate. So far he is a successful
competitor in the luxury market on grounds of flavor: in a recent tasting
of filets mignons, Wine Spectator rated Pasture Perfect’s best.


     
Before ordering and cooking grass-fed beef, you have to decide you’re ready
for the real taste of beef˜a taste that corn-fattening has for decades
blanketed with an unpleasantly sweet, bland, rich coating. Losing the flavor
of corn in beef is like scraping away a gooey glaze. The usual complaint
is that grass-fed beef is stringy rather than tender. This can be addressed
by careful cooking, and by buying cuts naturally higher in fat. It can
be erased by my mother’s famous brisket.

    Every
family has its treasured pot roast, of course, and mine has special significance.
At the beginning of their marriages my mother shared the recipe for it
with her best friend from high school, who had moved to northern California
from the Connecticut town where they grew up, and who liked it so much
that it became her company dish. After my mother died, my family had the
luck of continuing to enjoy it as prepared by her friend, who became my
stepmother.


    Homey
recipes like this have periodic revivals, especially in insecure times,
and they are at the heart of two appealing new books: The Way We Cook,
by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven, full of wonderful, simple recipes based
on their northeastern upbringing and wide cooking experience, and Marian
Burros’s Cooking for Comfort, with reliable, barely reconstructed recipes
from the 1950s and 1960s and her own Connecticut Jewish childhood (shockingly,
Burros adds ketchup, brown sugar, and tomato puree to her mother’s spare
original brisket).


   For my family’s
recipe, season both sides of a medium brisket˜Lasater’s are just the right
size, three to five pounds, and well trimmed˜with salt, pepper, paprika,
and, if you truly want to revisit the sixties, Ac’cent. Heat the oven to
350°. In an uncovered heavy Dutch oven sear the meat fat side down
over medium-high heat in a film of hot olive oil. Turn it when it is quite
brown and remove as much fat as possible. Strew over the meat one or two
medium onions, chopped; two or three medium carrots, peeled and sliced;
one large tomato, skinned, seeded, and chopped; a bell pepper, peeled,
ribbed, and sliced (green for period authenticity, though I prefer red);
and a medium clove of garlic, peeled and minced. Add two cups of water
or stock (my stepmother makes fresh, unsalted chicken stock for this dish),
cover, and cook in the oven for three and a half hours. After two hours
add peeled and halved potatoes if you wish, being careful not to crowd
the pot lest they steam rather than roast. An hour later add one cup of
sliced button mushrooms (my mother used canned sliced mushrooms, drained˜a
practice my stepmother follows despite her Californian emphasis on freshness),
a quarter to a half cup of red wine, and half a teaspoon of Gravy Master.
You can omit the Ac’cent, of course, now that we know about MSG headache,
and water is fine in place of stock. But you should really add the Gravy
Master. When the pot liquor is skimmed, it makes an incomparable gravy
for a dish that will ever withstand the test of time.

Lasater brisket and other
cuts can be ordered at http://www.lasatergrasslandsbeef.com or by phone, 866-454-2333.
The site for Tom Gamble and Bill Davies’s fajita strips and fancier cuts
is http://www.napafreerangebeef.com, and the number is 707-963-6134. Information
for ordering Pasture Perfect steaks and other cuts, and also on grasslands
farming as practiced by members of the New England Livestock Alliance,
is at http://www.nelastore.com, and the number is 413-528-3767. 


 

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock