Meat

Harvest Moon - Rabbits, Mochi, Fragility, Abundance

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. The mournful notes of a cello, the desperate blaze of leaves' last color, the crisp bite in the air. I go to the endings. I go to the fallen leaves. To driftwood.

driftwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These move me more than the green shoots of hope, the spring.

These are the love poems of my ancestors:

What is the use of cherishing life in spring? Its flowers only shackle us to this world.

by Izumi Shibuku

 

This body grown fragile, floating, a reed cut from its roots . . . If a stream would ask me to follow, I'd go, I think.

by Ono no Komachi

The book, The Ink Dark Moon, is missing, again. I've bought and lent it several times...happy to share it with people. These poems are mournful and lusty, women articulating longing for lovers in a particular style of poetry in a sliver of life, high courts in ancient Japan, a context which is hard for us to appreciate today. What I love about the poems is how much can be conveyed in a just a few words. It seems impossible. With a bright harvest moon, and summer's end, my thoughts have turned toward harvest.

Harvest

My disparate and mindful friends offer provocative reflections on all kinds of things: random jackrabbits passing by a campsite, butchering of animals, eating of meat or opting not to, rants against excess, followed by reflections on severity and tenderness. Who else but Elissa Altman can make me cry while reading about brisket?

As it often happens, these threads catch each other, wind up together, and stick with me. Mental lint of the most valuable kind. E.M. Forster put it beautifully:

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

...and this is how these collected thoughts come together for me. This week it is harvest that keeps tumbling over in my writer's mind.

Thoughts keep beckoning in softer or louder voices, asking for some quiet time. I am just now longing for, craving, a few days or maybe just one with no other errands, tasks, pleas from those that need this or that from me now! Even as I begin to type, my mouse batteries are dying making things impossible and the next batteries are not yet charged and that perfect turn of phrase is escaping and I am chasing mercury again - and again.

Breathe. Focus.

Autumn is a time of gathering in, collecting, harvesting.

Harvest can mean so many things. We harvest food, we harvest organs, we harvest meat that was once walking, bounding across fields, or lazing in summer sun, we harvest and animals become meat. This is something many would rather ignore. Others ruminate on this in reflective or harsh ways. Some bring a silver-clear light to it and illuminate it beautifully.

This Harvest Moon has me reflecting on many of these percolating things.

We Japanese say we see rabbits, not a man, not bleu cheese, in the moon. At harvest moon, we make and eat mochi, honoring those mochi-pounding rabbits in the harvest moon. I've just reconnected to that imagery and at the same time recall the beauty of butchering my first rabbit. Jarring isn't it? Cute little bunnies and mochi, to denuded meat and bones.

whole rabbit

1har·vest

nounoften attributive \ˈhär-vəst\

: the season when crops are gathered from the fields or the activity of gathering crops

: the amount of crops that are gathered; also : the amount of a natural product gathered in a single season

tomatoes

2harvest

verb

: to gather (a crop)

: to gather or collect (something) for use

harvest

 

 

Itadakimasu

Giving thanks for the harvest. Around the 15th day of the 8th lunar month Asians celebrate the harvest moon. This year it fell on our Gregorian calendar on September 19th. I made mochi and began to write in anticipation of the holiday about these various harvest threads. It was meat, not mochi, that kept calling.

Itadakimasu means not "bon appetit!" or "tuck in!" as it is so often mistranslated. Instead it conveys a mindfulness and an appreciation of the thing that gave its life so that we may eat. I much prefer this reverence and mindfulness about the meal to the more familiar 'dig in' sentiment.

Appreciate the harvest you eat. Appreciate that thing that gave its life for your meal. Appreciate those that had a hand along the way, farmer, fishermen, butchers, cooks.

If you're enjoying heritage pig, even in excess, appreciate the biodiversity being sustained by farmers growing these pigs. Old breeds are often commercial nonsense, taking longer to grow to market weight, being trickier to have butchered and generally finding a much smaller market of buyers willing to pay the price. Elissa's Gloucestershire Old Spot is one of maybe 200 breeding animals in the US, making it one that is in "Critical" need of conservation. Yes - we have to eat it to save it. GOS are huge - some of the biggest. Other smaller breeds, and going in on a meat share with neighbors, can be a wise way to enjoy heritage breeds, to preserve them and to sustain community.

How an animal lives, what it's fed, is no less important than how it dies. My friend Tamar wrote so eloquently about it in the Washington Post. She's grown and harvested her own pigs. I have such a connection to animals, I find it difficult to imagine taking a life, but perhaps incongruously, less difficulty eating the harvest. I accept a charge of hypocrisy. I resolve it by buying meat less often, but buying better meat. We choose meat that has had a decent life and hopefully met a not-too-brutal end. (I exclude oysters from this, the occasional live spot prawn, and am marginally more comfortable with killing a lobster or crab.)

 

Fragility and Tomorrow

There are days when people abstain from eating flesh as a reminder of the precious fragility of life. Chinese abstain on New Year's Day, Catholics on Fridays or during Lent. Some folks are ravenous after funerals, some are sickened by their own excess after grief. Our appetites are intimately tied to the cycle of living and dying. The revulsion some feel when they are reminded that their dinner had a prior life are most likely repulsed not by the food with faces, but with facing their own mortality. When we're connected to the transition of another animal going from living-to dead-to dinner, we are facing the reality that we too will die.

The rituals of Halal butchery are particularly eloquent, but all butchery done well, takes on a reverance for life that we take and consume. It's often done with a certain hush. In the presence of butchers I often feel a weight in the air, the best of them stay connected to reality of what they are doing. Chef Josh Lewin approaches his lamb butchery with this sort of reverence and mindfulness.

I suppose some might approach a side of beef as a seamstress would a few yards of fabric, but the ones I've been in the presence of do not.

We have no certainty in tomorrow. Rituals in religions or at meal times can connect us to each other, to a renewed appreciation for life, for now, for community. Josh taught us:

Baynatha Khubz wa Milah - a Jordanian phrase, if memory serves, roughly translates to “now that we have shared a meal, we are connected.”

Our harvest can be more than the crops we gather at the end of a growing season. Our harvest can include joy in a shared meal and appreciation for that which gave its life to feed us.

I'm grateful for the harvest, for the abundance that allows me to use words like "starving" which only means I'm a few steps away from my next meal.

I'm grateful for friends who send me home with an embarrasssing amount of food from their garden, feeding me with their company, and feeding us with this bounty.

 

In this time of gathering in, I'm happy to share  friends who touch me deeply in our shared reflections on these things.

Elissa Altman - Poor Man's Feast

Hank Shaw - Honest Food

Tamar Haspel - Starving off the Land

 

mochi with respect for those rabbits: cocoa mochi for the harvest moon and all its reflections.

 

 

 

Good Beef, Bad Beef, Less Beef, Or?

If you're eating a burger while you're reading this post, I'll give you a minute to either finish it in blissful ignorance or go stick your fingers down your throat and get rid of it.

Why would I want you to do that? Because it may just save your life. Approximately 25% of the industrial, commercial beef (such as the boxes of patties or packages of ground beef) you might find in the grocery store or your big box store could have a little lagniappe (something extra) of salmonella. And thanks to the feedlot cattle raising practices, these nasty bugs, potentially lethal to anyone, are becoming stronger, developing resistance to more and more antibiotics. (The very young, very old or immune compromised are even more at risk.)

We're ensuring that these bugs such as salmonella, learn quickly by continually creating the perfect classrooms for them: cattle feedlots. You may have heard of "CAFO"s and wondered what the heck they are. Confined Animal Feeding Operation. They confine and congregate not only the animals, but also their feed, their manure, their urine, dead animals and production operations all in a giant playpen from hell.

Because cows are ruminants, they are designed to digest grass, not grain. But grain allows big cattle operations to fatten cows more quickly. It's cheaper than rotating cows on green pastures. Just pen them in and let them stand in their own feces, feed them what they can't digest and inject them or feed them antibiotics even when they're not yet sick. Getting the picture?

Eating meat from these operations is like playing Russian Roulette, only their are just four chambers for the one bullet. How do you like those odds?

As The Opinionator (AKA Mark Bittman) says in the New York Times:

...when you go to the supermarket to buy one of these brands of pre-ground meat products, there’s a roughly 25 percent chance you’ll consume a potentially fatal bacteria that doesn’t respond to commonly prescribed drugs.

As far back as 1977 ("since your dad had sideburns") the FDA has been aware of the increasing trend of potentially lethal bacteria in our commercial meats. Kowtowing to political pressure they did a nifty little sidestep and put action on hold, on the back burner. Then they killed it, just before the holidays. Completely abnegated their responsibility and decided to trust the same people who released, then were forced to recall, 36 million pounds of turkey products that were possibly contaminated with drug-resistant salmonella.

The FDA is taking the "judicious" course of encouraging "voluntary reform." In my experience, that's about as effective as hoping for abstinence from teens' with raging hormones. That is to say: not very effective.

Learning, or not, from History

Here is Maryn McKenna's excellent breakdown of the FDA's complete failure to protect public health from documented insanity of agricultural use of subtherapeutic antibiotics. At the end of Maryn's post, she says:

The FDA seems to leave the door open to accepting public comment on the issue of sub-therapeutic antibiotics so there may still be an opportunity to voice your opinion:

 

  • At the end of the Federal Register posting, the FDA says it is taking public comment on this issue, via the docket established for the draft guidance issued in 2010. That docket number is FDA-2010-D-0094-0002, and the form for submitting comments is here.

 

Earlier in the week folks were a-Twitter about the news that people seem to be eating less beef. By my read, it looked like the beef in question was the very same product that just skated by being regulated. My cynical self thinks the story was planted by the lobbyists so they could ply the "poor us, profits are down, don't put costly regulations on us now!" argument with regulators and elected officials.

Perhaps people are eating less meat? Perhaps they're eating meat from different sources than that news story counts. Many people (I have no idea how many) but at least some of us ARE eating less meat as we discover the joys of farmers' markets and local, seasonal produce. Some number of us are buying more local meat, from farmers we know. We're avoiding the anonymous corporations with enough money to shut Oprah up, or try to.

Barry Estabrook our intrepid fair food journalist has another piece in the Atlantic comparing pastured beef to "Cowshwitz" feedlot beef.  Barry has a very good photo comparing examples, side by side of these two extremes.

What to Do

So now you're queasy and mad and wondering what the heck you can do and why I've ruined your lunch? Fear not, I've got some ideas.

1. Do use the the comment link in Maryn's post to tell the FDA they stink. We need to rein in the use of antibiotics in Agriculture. Currently, 80% of the antibiotics produced in the US go to animals not humans. You might also want to weigh in by sending an email on the related issue of CAFO farms' waste lagoons and the threat they pose to our water supply. The comment period for the EPA closes mid-January and they appear to need pressure to collect more robust data on this public health and environmental threat. Takes two minutes.

2. Eat less meat. It's not about giving up something you love; trust me, I don't want to come between you and a good steak. But for your health, your wallet, the environment - eat a delicious meat-free meal just one day a week. If you need inspiration, ideas, recipes -  holla!

3. Ask questions and be an informed consumer (see below). Most of us know more about the phone in our pocket than the food we put into our bodies. This is crazy.

4. When you buy meat, choose locally farmed, grass-fed, pastured meat. The best burger I've had in recent memory was at New Rivers in Providence. Blackbird Farms beef was so clean and beefy tasting, completely unadorned, I could barely speak to thank the farmer sitting next to me! I had sampled Animal Welfare Approved meats at the AWA conference in DC this year, including the wonderful Will Harris White Oak Pastures beef. That's me and Will.

5. When you eat out, support your restaurants that buy and serve local meats. Tell them and show them that you appreciate the added cost and trouble to supply you with fair, clean food.

Here's some help from our good friends at the Animal Welfare Approved organization. I'm breaking down the beef terminology so you know what you're buying versus what you're being sold. Many terms on labels are pure marketing spin, intended to convey what they know the market wants. The problem is very few terms are legally defined or regulated which is to say they are meaningless.

Food Labeling for Dummies: an excerpt

Let's take just a few examples of label terms that sound good. When you read descriptions like "natural" or "free range" you likely imagine a bucolic country setting, animals romping on green grass under sunny blue skies. That's exactly what the marketing folks behind the label want you to think. But what do they really mean?

Natural - this is actually a term that IS defined by the USDA, it just means something different than most of us would think. It has absolutely nothing to do with how the animal was raised. "Natural" applies only to the processing after slaughter. For example, a cow could have been raised on a feedlot, with routine antibiotics and growth promoters but so long as things like coloring agents were not added after slaughter - it's entitled to be labeled "Natural".

Free-range/Free-roaming - For poultry only - producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. (ed. note: "allowed access to" is a debatable term, too. Chickens are flocking birds. If you have thousands in a huge quonset hut and one door, those birds ain't leaving to go strut around on grass unless someone leads them out there.) Buyers should be aware that the type of outdoor access provided (such as pasture or dirt lot), the length of time the birds are required to have outdoor access, and how this must be verified is not legally defined and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. Crowding is not uncommon. No independent third-party verification.

 

  • for any other species - no legal or regulated definition.

 

Fine, you say, how about if I look for...

Grass fed - refers to feed, not access to pasture, or if it has been raised on feedlot and/or given antibiotics or hormones. American Grassfed Assoc has an independent third party certification process available to ranchers. AGA cert is recognized by USDA and verifies 100% forage diet, raised on pasture w/minimum 75% cover, not confinement, no antibiotics, no added hormones.

Meat purchasers seeking truly grassfed meat should source AGA certified products.

Pastured/Pasture-raised - No legal or regulated definition. Implies, but does not ensure, or certify, in any way that animals were raised outdoors on pasture. (ed. note: I tend to believe a farmer I can meet, I can visit, I can talk to at the market. I also believe we could be asking the myriad market managers to give us some information about the verification they do, if any, of the farmers' claims.)

Download the "Food Labeling for Dummies" PDF from AWA and look for their logo when buying meat and eggs. You're paying a bit more, but you're gaining assurance that the food you're buying is third-party certified, raised humanely, cleanly and by the highest standards, outdoors on pasture or range. All the standards are on their website and you can find a list of farmers and products available in your area. Transparency, farmers you can trust, third-party verification.

Simply look for the label.

 

 

Additional Resources:

Bill Marler - perhaps no one knows more about the failures in our food safety systems than attorney Bill Marler. He puts a very real face on the issue representing consumers poisoned by tainted food. Learn about the multitude of bugs waiting for you in that next burger on Marler Blog.

Maryn McKenna - author of Superbug. Maryn writes for Wired and elsewhere sharing science about infectious disease, food policy and more.

Sustainable Table - a good source of consumer information on all types of sustainable food issues.

Kim O'Donnel - author of Meatlover's Meatless Cookook: truly has meatless meals carnivores will devour.

Animal Welfare Approved - click on the label above to go to their consumer page. There you can find tools like the entire food labels cheat sheet, as well as find farmers and products you can trust. Learn what goes into their certification system and meet farmers like Will Harris.