Beef and the future of our food

Over the summer my travels have taken me to many growing regions of the country – places we depend on for apples, dates, lettuce, table grapes, wine grapes, beef. I’ve been busy making connections between land and farming practices and distribution models and recipes. In doing so, I realize even the forward thinking eater might not be picturing the acres of palms and their need for annual flooding in the Southern California deserts as they bite into a sumptuous Medjool.

It’s never been especially tasty to imagine all the toil that goes on behind our plate, I’ve even heard you don’t digest as well if you are upset or distracted will dining.  But this does not mean that ignorance is bliss. In celebrating delicious foods, there must be some pause given in the name of longevity. Although the industrialization of food originally brought many benefits, I have yet to meet someone who thinks the system is honky dory today. GMO seed farmers, dairy ranchers, urban farmers… the cross section of food folks I’ve talked to all seem to be saying the same thing, that the future of food and farming is in jeopardy.

There’s hope in new ideas where distribution is more localized and pricing done in a way that allows farmers the room for a “healthy measure of inefficiency” necessary for long term sustainability. But few people are aware that the antibiotics given to animals to enable a life in a multi-story box aren’t filtered out of the watershed, that herbicides like atrazine, a potent carcinogen, are still used widely even though the town where it is manufactured is one of the worst superfund sites in the Midwest, and that genetic diversity – the key to disease resistance and crop specialization for varied environments – has waned by staggering numbers in the past century. Here’s one studied National Geographic photographer’s talk about heirlooms and the loss of species. Corn, which pollinates by wind, is especially threatened. If you don’t believe me, read more about the ancient varieties of corn being contaminated by GMO strains.

Yes, its a bummer to talk about. Not so-called “dinner table conversation,” but it also can’t be ignored. I think a great place to start refining personal ideas of eating is around beef. There are slews of folks who have decided not to eat it at all because it requires too many resources, but I’m talking to the folks who still believe in good beef.

Just what constitutes good beef, though?  Doug Stonebreaker of Prather Ranch Meat Co. sells beef from Shasta’s Prather Ranch, a closed herd where ranchers are veritable cowboys and cattle rove open grassy planes, fulfilling their inherited behaviors. This way there is little or no need for medication or dietary supplements to ensure a healthy herd, and with a little organic barley enhancing the food at the height of maturity the fat marbling is consistent, ensuring a tasty end result. Temple Grandin’s insights are put to use every day at Prather Ranch. (I’m looking forward to visiting soon and sitting down for a podcast, too!)

Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley is a leader in offering “good” meat to the community, only selling beef that is raised and slaughtered within 150 miles of the shop and fed grasses from the same land. They offer transparency at every step of the process.

There are a number of other resources for beef that are given more consideration than the lot farms you pass driving down the 5, but there are considerable obstacles in the economics of it, lack of social pressures, and plain old confusion. Eating consciously has become an intellectual pursuit, and sometimes we just want to sit down to dinner.

The folks at Oliveto are hosting panel discussions to clarify some of these confusions, and making them accessible to pretty much anyone with $10 to spare. Come out Saturday, September 8th for the panel on beef, and again on the 16th for a similarly in-depth discussion about tomatoes.

I can say that even with all I’ve seen and heard about the future of food, a good recipe is still a good recipe. A table of glowing faces sharing a meal is still a miraculous joy. We do the best we can, but armed with a little knowledge and understanding we can eat better, for the long term future of food.

Here’s a little shopping guide for the Bay Area with butchers where it is encouraged to ask questions about your meat before you buy:

Avedano’s – local butcher, also homemade brisket and sandwiches, 235 Cortland St., SF
Prather Ranch Meat Co. – unparalleled beef raised with the future of food in mind, SF Ferry Building and more
Star Grocery – independent butcher in the back of the shop will chat while serving you, 3068 Claremont Ave, Berkeley
Ver Brugge – friendliest place to buy meat, almost all local, another chatty place, 6321 College Ave, Oakland
Local Butcher Shop – strictest standards, supplies Chez Panisse and Flour and Water, 1600 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Marin Sun Farms – sustainable practices are put into action right in our backyard, Pt. Reyes, Oakland, Meat CSA and more
Fatted Calf – take a whole animal butchery class or learn to cure meat, 320 Fell St., SF, and Napa
Golden Gate Meat Company – one of the leading suppliers of better restaurants, SF Ferry Building
Little City Market – old school family operation, dozens of homemade sausages, 1400 Stockton St., SF

 

cattle pasture in Sonoma in springlocal beef at a farm stand in the Catksills, NY last week

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