Posts Tagged ‘Meat’

Where’s the beef?!

Yesterday I helped bring a baby calf into the world.  Today I was at the other end of the spectrum, taking a trip to our butchers to see four sides of our beef cut into retail cuts.  The circle of life. (Apologies if you now have scenes from The Lion King flashing before your eyes!).


For the last few years I have been the point person for selling our family’s beef. Whether it’s friends from college or people from the gym, I have a pretty good pool of people who are interested in locally-raised grass-fed beef.


If it’s not obvious, I LOVE beef.  I like to cook it (all of it, including the odd bits!), I like to eat it, I’m interested in the ethics of it, I’m keen on the impact of local grass-fed beef for the economy and the environment, and I’m interested in the potential health benefits of grass-fed beef.  Oh, and I’m all about saturated fats.


When I talk to friends and potential customers about our beef I can talk about our animals, recipes, or anything else on the list above, but when it comes to discussing the traditional bits of the animal I sometimes find myself woefully unprepared.  Yes, I can explain that you either get T-bones and Porterhouse or Filet and Strip Steak (those are the options when it comes to the loin of the animal- we’re not going to discuss grinding it!), but quite how you break down the round, chuck, and rib is a topic I sometimes skirt around (though I don’t skirt around skirt steak- it’s probably my favorite cut!).


Today was the day the butchers were cutting the last four sides of our beef, which had been dry aging in their cooler for the last two and a half weeks.  I just started an EMS elective that has me doing six 12hr shifts and I had today off, so I asked my butchers if they would mind me hanging out and hopefully learning a thing or two as they finished the work on our animals.  They kindly obliged, and I think they actually quite liked having a young lady around the place to liven things up!


When I first showed up they were half way through butchering the first side, which was now broken down into a number of primal cuts.  Primal cuts are large sections of the animal that are then cut down further into retail cuts.  Some of the names will be familiar. “Chuck” is the shoulder, “rib” is the next area back, followed by the “loin”, “sirloin”, and then the “round”.  On the underside of the animal, starting from the front, you have “brisket”, “plate”, and “flank”.  You also have the shanks, and some people break the sirloin down further.  The round is broken into a top round and a bottom round.  These are all names you may see slapped on a piece of meat in the supermarket, but seeing a carcass go from a hanging side to a retail steak helps put it all in perspective.


This is what a 400# side of grass-fed beef looks like!

This is what a 400# side of grass-fed beef looks like!


The rounds... Eye of round, bottom round, and top round from front to back.

The rounds… Eye of round, bottom round, and top round from front to back.


The butchers we go to have been in operation for 75 years.  They service the local farming community, and are butchers for people who raise a single animal for themselves as well as farms that are sending multiple animals to the butcher every week.  While there has certainly been an increase in nose-to-tail eating, I think my “paleo”/“foodie” customers are still somewhat in the minority in their preference to have tail, shin and marrow bones, and offal… “Everything but the squeak”, one of the old guys said.  These guys are good at doing simple, standard cuts, and if we ask for something special they try and oblige, but requests for flat-iron steaks and flap steaks have gone unanswered.  When I made a plea for the hanger steak today they gave me a questioning look, but obliged (I think many of their customers don’t even want skirt steak- the horror!).


Some beef options- the loin can be cut into T-bones and Porterhouse (bone in) or Strip Steak and Filet





Strips- the other option (with filet mignon) for cutting the loin.

Strips- the other option (with filet mignon) for cutting the loin.


Roasts, steaks, or stew…

Some people want the big roasts all cubed for stew meat.

Some people want the big roasts all cubed for stew meat.


One of our other topics of conversation was the difficulty of USDA inspection.  Our butchers have a USDA inspector onsite 8hrs per day, 5 days per week, but for smaller butchers that is a burden they can not shoulder.  Likewise, while our butcher has stayed up to date with regulations and standards, some smaller butchers have not been able to keep up and have dropped their USDA inspection or closed.  It also seems that the mountain of paperwork is a real burden- taking the boss one full day per week to handle.


Talk of USDA was a bit demoralizing, but it was fun to chat with the butchers about meat.  I recently had a patient on the floors who had been a butcher (he was 85).  We talked about a number of things over his extended hospitalization, but if I really wanted to get him talking all I had to do was get him talking about meat…  Ask him about his favorite steak and he was off telling you about the best way to age things, the best part of the country for raising beef, and how he liked to cook things.  On the other hand, one of the guys I worked with today admitted that he sees too much meat during the day and doesn’t care for it much at home (this was not my problem- I was very keen to head home to a steak lunch).


I also asked the various butchers about their thoughts on grass-fed beef.  They laughed and said it was all the rage, but if they wanted something grass-fed they’d just walk outside and eat the grass themselves- give them corn-fed beef any day! They commented that grass-fed meat smelled different, looked different, and tasted different.  When I asked one of them how our grass-fed meat faired in comparison to other grass-fed animals the guy gave me a shocked look and said “This is grass-fed? I had no idea… All grass-fed? How’d you get all that fat on it?”  It is true that our beef had quite a bit of fat on it*, and for grass-fed meat had quite a bit of marbling.  British Whites are supposed to do well on grass, and my mother is very proactive with rotational grazing, so hopefully this is a testament to how good grass-fed meat is good meat!


London Broils being cut from the top round.  Good marbling for grass-fed beef.

London Broils being cut from the top round. Good marbling for grass-fed beef.


Short ribs. Our butchers tend to debone these and grind it all, but some people asked for them to be kept whole. They'd be trimmed, but it's still a high fat cut.

Short ribs. Our butchers tend to debone these and grind it all, but some people asked for them to be kept whole. They’d be trimmed, but it’s still a high fat cut from our grass-fed animals.


Seeing a side of beef broken down into retail cuts is quite sobering. For every 1000# animal there are only a few pounds each of skirt steak and flank steak.  For those who like these cuts, and eat them on a regular basis, it’s good to realize quite how limited they are (and to be thankful that there are those who don’t care for them!).  As delicious as some odd bits are, a commitment to eating nose-to-tail frequently means eating a lot of roasts and ground meat…


*As I said, there was quite a bit of fat on our steer.  I asked the guys to save me a couple boxes of trimmings so I could render it down for tallow.  I’ve done this the past few years.  It’s a messy task, but grass-fed tallow isn’t easy to come by and I like to use it in cooking and as gifts!


Tallow in the making.

Tallow in the making.

Rendering down trimmings for tallow

Rendering down trimmings for tallow

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Some may be aware of a NYT contest that asked people to submit a brief essay on why it is ethical to eat meat.  Because I have an opinion on the topic (and because I occasionally enjoy exercises in futility) I applied myself to the task and wrote a response. Those of you that read my blog might appreciate that constraining myself to 600 words was difficult, but I managed! I was alerted by a post of Melissa’s over at Hunt Gather Love that the finalists had been announced, which meant it was time for me to publish my entry here!  I hope you enjoy…

Composing a convincing argument on why it is ethical to eat meat in less than 600 words is challenging, and by no means can such an argument be comprehensive. But few aspects of moral philosophy can be described with such brevity, and contemplating an issue as provocative as meat-eating under such auspices would take even longer. That’s not to say, however, that a brief and compelling case for the ethical eating of animals cannot be made, and I shall attempt to do so here, positing the (arguably utilitarian or hedonic) case that the appropriate consumption of well-raised and well-managed livestock maximizes benefits for humans, the environment, and animals. Considering the evolutionary context of the different components further strengthens the case.

Despite the occasional media hysteria over epidemiological studies, the argument that humans evolved to eat and thrive on meat is irrefutable. Anthropological evidence suggests that when our ancestors started to eat meat, our brains grew and our intestines shrank, starting the long road to making us human. As a result of millions of years of evolution, humans are “designed” to thrive on meat, and that is what modern research continues to show. While epidemiological dietary studies are notoriously difficult to interpret, the fact that meat is rich in compounds that the human body needs to survive and thrive is irrefutable. While humans can survive on a vegetarian diet (and, with supplementation of B12, a vegan one), we thrive on a diet that includes meat. The consumption of meat, in order for humans to prosper, is an ethical pursuit.

While eating meat has arguable benefits for human prosperity, there are also numerable ethical implications for the environment. Correct management of livestock can benefit the environment dramatically. Much as humans evolved to thrive on meat, our environment thrives when appropriately utilized by animals. Animals raised outside, on the products of the land on which they walk, give back to the environment by fertilizing the land with their manure and shaping the land with their habits. The (usually small-scale) farms that appropriately raise livestock are able to nurture (and often heal) the land that they manage. Furthermore, the purchase of local farm products greatly increases the economic health of the local community. These implications bolster an ethical argument based on maximizing benefits.

Perhaps the hardest aspect of an ethical argument for the consumption of meat is the argument in favor of the animals. Unlikely though this may seem, I believe this is the strongest component of this argument. My family raises beef cattle. I have raised broiler chickens, and I continue to have a laying flock. These animals have good lives. Seeing a chicken enjoy a dust bath, watching a steer peacefully graze- it is hard to deny the inherent ‘goodness’ of seeing an animal thrive in their environment. The reality, of course, is that these animals would not exist if we did not eat them. Killing animals is not pleasant, but when done correctly can be less stressful and painful than common procedures we perform on pets and ourselves. Furthermore, the net benefit of allowing animals to enjoy life in their natural environment is, from my perspective, an ethical ‘win’.

In our modern world we have the luxury to argue about the ethics of eating meat. In the past, and in many communities today, such arguments would be frivolous. Nonetheless, when the evidence is considered under the auspices of the ‘the greatest good’, one can ethically argue that the consumption of meat leads to benefits for humans, the environment, and the animals that are consumed.

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