Staying connected to family and friends requires only a few clicks on a computer, tablet or phone. But how do people stay connected to the land and the food they eat?
Grocery stores usually indicate where their produce is grown, and, with few exceptions, it’s an eye-opener to realize how little of the food available is actually grown locally. It didn’t take long for the American consumer to become enamored with relatively inexpensive fruits and vegetables that appear in stores year-round. And at local restaurants, patrons enjoy the chef’s artistry with all ingredients, not just items produced locally.
Then, Americans started asking themselves about the quality of the produce and living conditions for the animals that end up in the butcher’s meat case.
Those who grow their own food know that tomatoes fresh from the vine taste like, well, tomatoes, and fresh asparagus is actually sweet. Food connoisseurs know that strawberries from a local farmers’ market have the thick, juicy flavor missing from store-bought berries. People are learning that locally grown food tastes better, and that when animals are raised in humane conditions, the meat they provide is of a higher quality.
Hearing the chef and farmer talk of this connection sheds greater understanding on the process for consumers.
Farm to table restaurants: the farmer
One definite advantage to a farmer working directly with a chef or cook is that both parties get input into how animals and plants are raised and sent to market.
“Our pigs live outside,” says Mark Baker, from Baker’s Green Acres in Mason, Michigan. “They get to use their noses to dig through the dirt, which they are designed to do, to get to roots and tubers.” Baker says pork is normally dark red when the animal is raised outside in the sunlight; pork turns white when pigs get no sunlight or exercise.
“We raise our cows for 180 days of fun in the sun. We move them every day to a fresh pasture,” Baker says. “Their coats are shiny. We use noninvasive fencing because the cows are happy where they are, so they don’t try to escape. We provide a stress-free life for our animals.”
Meat is best when processed at certain times of the year, something confinement operations don’t necessarily need to take into account. “We kill our beef in early winter,” Baker says. “Fat, which adds flavor to the beef, migrates to muscle at the beginning of winter to keep the animal warm. Early spring is the worst time to harvest animals because animals flush the fat out of their systems in April.” The Bakers prefer to provide 4-year-old cows, 8- to 9-week-old chickens, and 6 1/2-month-old pigs to their customers. Chickens raised on an industry farm are processed at 4 1/2 weeks, and pigs are processed at 4 1/2 months. “Younger animals do not have the depth and flavor profile that older animals have,” Baker says.
Additionally, rushed production and weight gain results in unfortunate side effects like joint damage and the inability of the animal to support its own weight.
As chefs experiment with whole-animal cooking, the quality of the entire animal is important. “The fat from our pigs is really flavorful,” Baker says. “Local chefs request lardo, or back fat, that they cut thin and serve like prosciutto.”
Last year, the Bakers offered a class on butchering to 25 chefs from around the country. “Chefs want to know how to cut their own meat so they can prepare the cuts they want,” Baker says.
Farm to table restaurants: the chef
Believe it or not, some chefs are looking at ways to use the whole animal in their recipes, finding it a challenge to connect restaurant goers to the whole animal.
Trevett Hooper, chef at Legume Bistro in Pittsburgh, plans to dedicate an area to butchering whole animals in his new kitchen.
“One of the reasons we are moving towards more whole-animal cooking is that I want to have more control over the butchering process,” Hooper says. “We’ve had problems in the past having meat processed to our specifications.”
Hooper studied sustainable agriculture in college. “I’ve been aware of the environmental, social and political issues associated with factory farming since 1997,” he says. “Once I learned about the dark side of our country’s conventional meat industry, it was hard for me to ignore it.
“I also think that working with whole animals helps us be more connected to our food. When meat comes in boxes, it’s easy to start thinking of the meat as a ‘product’ instead of something that came from a sentient being. I think working with whole animals evokes a greater respect for the animal.”
As farmers offer food that is available at a particular time of year, chefs provide seasonal menus to take advantage of the bounty. “We prepare a seasonally driven menu because it is a better way to eat,” Hooper says. “Our patrons love the changing menu. In this modern world, most of our daily activities are divorced from nature and the seasons. I think people crave a connection with things that are real, which is why seasonal menus are becoming more and more popular.”
Connecting farmers, chefs and consumers
In this more direct production and business model, farmers often deliver their products themselves and provide food at the height of its flavor. Baker says he can afford to keep animals on the farm longer since he directly provides the product to his 15 local restaurants. “It is important to me to interface with my chefs,” he says. “If there is a problem with packaging, quantities or butchering, I can make changes. I partner with my chefs. If they run out of something on a Sunday afternoon, I stop what I’m doing and run them what they need.”
Hooper says that dedicating space and labor for whole-animal cooking allows him more opportunities to work with local farmers. “I like to talk to the farmers I’m buying from, or even better, go to the farms and see what is happening,” Hooper says.
When consumers stay connected to their food sources, they are able to enjoy safe, tasty and high-quality food. Growers stay connected to the land and the seasons, and they are able to provide food at the height of its flavor. It’s not a huge stretch nowadays for people to enjoy the meat and produce at a favorite local restaurant that comes from a farm only a few miles away. And if they close their eyes, maybe they can taste a hint of clover and summer breezes.