meat industry

Countdown to the 2014 Bellevue Farmers Market Season

Another reason to shop at the Market

Yesterday we spied this fellow in the yard. He looks a little the worse for wear, but I imagine that's because he's had to survive on grass and the neighbor's flowers alone, for the past few months. And he's been holding his little rabbity breath for the moment when my husband puts in the seedlings and plant starts, so he can gnaw them down to the roots and put some variety in his diet. Worse yet, my animal-loving daughter spied a second rabbit by the deck.

Q: What's exponentially worse than seeing a rabbit in your yard?

A: Seeing two rabbits in your yard. Because--well--you do the math.

I wonder how many home gardeners are also card-carrying PETA members...Anyway, here's hoping the plastic owl my husband put out by the pea plants last year does its voodoo again. If you have other anti-rabbit tricks, besides throwing boots or investing in a BB gun, do share.

A co-worker mentioned someone's brainstorm: this organization is raising rabbits for meat. I've only ever eaten rabbit once, and it had many little bones to pick out, but apparently they're going with raising the ginormous variety--so presumably the bones are easier to locate and remove.

Take me to your carrots. Or use me as an ottoman.

When you think how quickly rabbits reproduce, these little mammals might even give Tyson chickens a run for the money. (Tyson, according to a book I read this week, produces 2 billion eggs per year to be hatched and transported to contract farmers, who then raise them to slaughter weight.)

In all seriousness, meat is big, big business in our country, and the more I learn about the main producers of American chicken, pork, and beef, the more grateful I am that our Market offers an alternative. If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma or seen documentaries about animals suffering in the system, you know the usual reasons to feel guilty about eating conventional meat, but The Meat Racket traces the rise of  vertically-integrated meat production over the past several decades and examines its effect on rural towns and independent farmers. (Spoiler alert: the effect was not good.)

In a nutshell, producers like Tyson now own the chicken production process nationwide, from egg to slaughter to new-product development. The only piece they stay out of is the actual fattening of the chickens because the margins are so low. That piece they hand off to "farmers" under contract. The farmer takes out giant loans to build state-of-the-art chicken warehouses, they receive chicks from Tyson, they raise them, and they sell them back to Tyson. But how they're paid depends on a "tournament" system, in which the farmers are pitted against each other, with the lowest weight-gainers receiving the least money. Underperform long enough and you're out. But how can you keep up, if the tournament always favors those with the newest and most expensive investments? If you come in below average a couple times, you can't even pay the mortgages on the buildings you have. So you declare bankruptcy and sell to recent immigrants, for whom working 24/7 and sleeping on the floor by the chickens still beats the conditions from which they fled. And they take your place as serfs, until they, too, fall behind.

Discouragingly, what began with chicken production has now spread to pork and beef, with subsequent declines in animal husbandry, food quality, and the ability of farmers to make ends meet. We have our cheap meat, yes, but we lose our farmers, and counties sucked into the machine suffer from poverty, population decline, and environmental degradation. When we eat meat in restaurants, cafeterias, schools, or buy it at the store, we participate with Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, Smithfield Farms, and JBS in bringing this about.

So that's the bummer. What's the alternative? Meat raised humanely and economically sustainably, such as we find at farmers markets. Yes, it's more expensive. Farmers market meat producers do their work without benefit of growth hormones, massive economies of scale, crushing their workers, making the animals miserable, or having guaranteed corporate contracts, all things that bring prices down. Nor is it likely our farmers will ever reap government benefits or even share them more evenly with big producers, since they don't have the nearly $6 million Big Meat spends annually, lobbying Congress to protect their way of doing business. All they have is us, the growing number of consumers who opt out. To afford the meat we want to eat, we make cutbacks elsewhere, or we eat meat less often.

Just an idea this Market season (which begins next Thursday, 5/15!)...try some of the delicious and wonderful chicken, pork, or beef our farmers raise, and see if taste alone doesn't convert you! If it doesn't, well--I suppose there are always the backyard rabbits.

To Meat or Not to Meat

[Thanks for pic,!]

 I've been stricken with a curse this week: a cold has stolen my sense of taste. For a few days I still had my sense of smell, but now that's gone too. The funny/interesting bit? I can still tell if something is supposed to be sweet because that part of my tongue gets activated, but the flavor is nonexistent. Some ways to capitalize on my affliction have come to mind--suppose I set up a kissing booth, and for $25 I'd give you a big smooch and you would soon lose your sense of taste and drop a few pounds! The Kissing Diet, I could call it. And a much more pleasant way to lose weight than the stomach flu. I also thought that now is the time to eat some good-for-you things that actually taste kind of nasty. My ten-year-old suggested eggplant. I would add okra and liver to that list.

But while I may not be able to taste or enjoy my food at the moment, I still think about it as much as I ever did. I've been looking over Deborah Madison's new edition of her classic cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which I have mentioned several times on this blog because it's one of the well-stained, well-used standards in my kitchen.

As Madison points out in her introduction, it used to be that people were either vegetarian or they weren't, but now even the most Paleo-dieting carnivores are known to eat vegetarian once in a while, and no diet says you should reduce the number of vegetables you consume (unless it's corn or potatoes). Other things have also changed since she put out the original in 1997. As she points out,

Soy, for example, is not quite the star we once thought it was, and today the emphasis has shifted to fermented soy...Butter isn't always bad...Olive oil is mostly good but still not really regulated; canola oil not so much. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a bigger problem for us today, as they have proliferated and are still unlabeled. We were not eating kale salads at all during the seven years when I was writing [the original]; now they're everywhere. Coconut oil was still considered a harmful saturated fat. Now it's considered a good fat, and a very delicious one, too.

It's these changes and more that she takes into account with her revision, as well as adding "dozens" of new recipes, while retaining old favorites. Just be be sure, I checked on some of my old favorites: pico de gallo, granola, Greek salad, lentil minestrone. All there! And now there's "Wild Rice Salad with Dried Cherries and Fresh Pomegranate Seeds" and "Quinoa Salad with Mangoes and Curry Dressing." Oh my word.

This is the perfect cookbook to lay hands on as we go into Bellevue Farmers Market season, and you wonder what to do with that beautiful vegetable you bought. Some of Madison's recipes are complicated--yes--but many, many are not, and I've made plenty of the not-complicated ones and even some of the complicated. As with the original cookbook, there are sections devoted to each particular vegetable, in addition to mixtures like salads and soups and gratins and pastas.

My husband claims he just goes on the internet if he wants to find a recipe, and I do that too, but I must say, I will never get rid of my foundational, reference, tried-and-true cookbooks, and this is one of the few on my shelf. I highly recommend.

Meanwhile, the omnivores among us might be interested in this interesting article on meat production from Modern Farmer:

Check the original article so you can see details!

While meat consumption has actually dropped some in the U.S., it's still on the rise in developing countries, and chickens and pigs are more on the upswing than beef and lamb because they are more easily factory-farmed. More factory farms means increased demand for feed grains like soybeans, "which will have to double in yield by 2050." Yikes.

Even meat-lovers like me will admit it's going to be tough on the animals and tough on the earth if everyone on the planet wants meat every day. Maybe we could all "meat" in the middle? Say, eating meat 3-4 times per week and vegetarian 3-4 times? In which case, be sure you grab your copy of Deborah Madison's book!

Armchair Eating During Polar Vortices

Chicago! [Pic from]

While most of the rest of the country got sucked into the awesomely-named Polar Vortex , we in Washington State suffered no worse than a stormy Saturday, some power losses, and continued fretting about how bad this ski season might turn out to be--all of which was forgotten and offset by the Seahawks playoff win.

But the rest of the country has been on my mind, in true armchair fashion, because I've been continuing my foodie reading. Another trip to New York City might be in order (my last run-in involving Hurricane Sandy notwithstanding), because I just enjoyed

If you enjoyed Mark Kurlansky's THE BIG OYSTER, chances are you will like this book, a history of New York City through its food traditions. Author Smith casts a much wider net (obviously), and the extensive ground he has to cover results in some passages reading more like a bibliography or reference book than a narrative nonfiction history, but there were still many interesting ah-ha moments and curious anecdotes to make this a worthwhile read. Who knew that early public markets in the city carried all sorts of game, including raccoons, possums, and groundhogs? That, as early as the mid-19th century, foreign visitors already remarked on how quickly Americans gulped down their food and took off again?

I especially enjoyed the discussion of various immigrant groups and their culinary contributions, as well as the passages on food carts and the rise of tenements. Reminded me of 97 ORCHARD (which gets mentioned) and that childhood favorite ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY, about a turn-of-the-century Jewish family living on the Lower East Side. Henny's pickle gave from just such a street vendor as Smith describes.

(Note: I received this book as a galley from the publisher and assume final edits will still be made. Caught a couple funny mistakes: "ninetieth" for "nineteenth," "yolk" for "yoke," "governor's" for "governors," "muscles" for "mussels," "Sumptown" for "Stumptown.")

New York figured again, as well as frigid Chicago and the greater Midwest, in

I really enjoyed this book, with its historic, well-balanced discussion of Americans and their precious meat. We want lots of it, we want it cheap, we don't want to smell it or think about it, and we don't want to feel guilty about it. That about sums it up.

Who knew that farmers were finishing livestock on corn back in the 18th century? That larger and larger feedlots and slaughterhouses located far away was deeply appreciated by Old New Yorkers, so they didn't have to deal with smells and manure and actual animals herded through the streets? That Big Meat got bigger and bigger after WWII because we were trying to feed the world, and to do that we had to be super efficient and keep those costs down? That vitamin B12, derived from an antibiotic, was considered a wondrous discovery for pigs, because it helped them put on weight fast, thus keeping those costs down and increasing production?

Ogle does a great job explaining how things got the way they got--there were good reasons, and it wasn't all about Greed Greed Greed. I was sorry to be reading a paper copy from the library because I couldn't highlight all my ah-ha moments.

Lucky middle-class folks like me can afford the luxury grass-fed beef and pastured meats, but, as Ogle points out, how long can the gravy train keep rolling, if everyone starts to want guilt-free meat and cheap food, but fewer and fewer people want to produce it? Moreover, legislation guiding our food production is now largely swayed by folks who have never set foot on a farm.

WA State is fortunate to have so many farmers and smaller farms still around. Because of our local farmers market, I have spoken with people who raise my food, and I have set foot on several farms, but I recognize this is part of my lucky middle-classness.

Anyhow, a good, insightful read which I recommend for those interested in food and food history.

In the meantime, Go Hawks! Hopefully this time next week I'll be posting some Superbowl party recipes...