Know Thy Butcher

Readers of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or those who pay attention to food, may be aware of grim realities sometimes found in the meatpacking business.  One of these realities is consolidation.  By now the industry has become so centralized that four enormous companies control over 80% of all beef processing.  The rancher is forced to accept squeaky-thin profits and little control over his product.  Employees at the packing plants, some of whom are so-called illegal immigrants, are generally worked hard and paid poorly.  If the animals could speak, doubtless they would change some things too. 


How much the consumer benefits from this system is a matter of debate.  As in all debates, it is important to understand what Wes Jackson has called the boundary of consideration.  To Paul Harvey it was the rest of the story.  What they meant is that with most things in life there are many factors to consider.  When we have a narrow boundary of consideration we may reach a different conclusion than if our boundary is sufficiently large to be honest and realistic.  In my opinion there is often an inverse relationship between the size of the operation and the boundary it recognizes and considers.  In other words, the larger the industry the more narrowly it tends to view things.


Despite many regulations and much government funding, 50 million Americans became ill with food poisoning last year, mostly due to Salmonella.  The CDC now says we have made virtually no progress in this area.  Headlines such as "Government still seeking source of tainted turkey" (Idaho State Journal 8/3/11) will continue to appear, especially when each hamburger literally contains the meat from hundreds or even thousands of cows.    
A nice contrast to the status quo is provided by the Lunt family in Grace.  Several years ago Wes gave up high school teaching to cut meat.  As with many small business ventures, this one required a financial investment and the family's help.  He also needed a fair measure of faith and a long-term commitment to the community.
Unlike the industrial meatpackers, Wes welcomes customers to his facility where they can see the conditions for themselves.  I'm pretty sure he has never proposed Iowa-like legislation making it illegal to photograph his work area.  There is, after all, nothing to hide.  When I visited a few years ago I was soon impressed by his well-mannered and helpful children.  At that moment, watching the family interaction seemed reward enough for the trip over even if I didn't get any meat for the freezer.

Summer 2011


Wood Heat

When Old Man Winter finishes circling around and settles in to stay, we always find our way back to fire.  Not the gas kind with push buttons and quiet blue flames, but scorching orange and white stuff that makes the woodstove creak and groan, warming us even across the room and serving notice to any December chill.

On paper, wood doesn't always make sense.  It takes a fair amount of sweaty work to get logs from the hillsides to the woodbox, plus there's the cutting, splitting, and drying along the way to worry about.  In spite of our best efforts at efficiency it seems like each piece is moved four or five times before it's burned.  The bark is messy, especially indoors.  And even little traces of smoke will darken a white ceiling after a few years.  There must be easier and cleaner ways to warm your toes.

But for those addicted to the flaming crackle of dry wood and the murmuring of an iron stove, these are small inconveniences.  A good fire inevitably becomes a focal point in the home, leading to rewarding conversations or deep brooding thoughts among fire watchers.  And for those who are sometimes called out at odd hours, it's somehow easier to leave knowing there will be a bed of coals waiting once the night work is done.

We justify wood fires by accepting that swinging a maul or building a proper woodpile aren't bad ways to get a little exercise.  The repetitive nature of the work allows for unwinding after a day at the office.  Some of the world's problems may even be solved while driving old wedges through the fattest most knotty pieces, or at least some frustrations can be worked out and welcome sleep can come again.  Moving and stacking wood is a job naturally suited for children, who benefit from building muscle and discipline.

If we ever need to put up that outhouse, we'll have a ready supply of wood ashes to sprinkle down the hopper.  Until then, all those good forest minerals will be spread straight over the garden for the summer vegetables.  And the woodstove will continue to be the best place for introductory credit card offers and any other mail Julie says is either too stupid or private to have blowing around the landfill.  Maybe someday I'll need that gas replica, but only when I can no longer carry in a stick of wood.

Winter 2012

The Fall of Cider

Although you would never know it now, apple cider was the most ubiquitous drink in America for a long time, maybe the most popular drink this country will ever have.  Whether rich or poor, old or young, Americans consumed cider more freely than anything else.  Children drank it cut with water.  This continued for many generations.  Cellars and sheds were lined with kegs, which were tapped for each meal.  Before apples were for eating they were for drinking.


Settlers as early as the late 1500's, finding only miserable mouth-puckering crabapples on eastern shores and islands, recruited other immigrants to bring starts and seeds from the Old World.  Yet most of their grafted starts never made it, being better adapted to different climates and soils.   


Apples don't grow true from seed.  For example, a Gala seed won't grow into a Gala tree but into some other unique variety, which will most likely bear inferior fruit.  But the colonists planted millions of seeds, and once in a while one did produce outstanding fruit.  Unique American apples were soon everywhere, with memorable names like Cathead, Northern Spy, Blue Pearmain, and Arkansas Black. Many weren't even named at all, just shared among neighbors and friends.  There was tremendous variability in color, size, ripening dates, and storage life.  Quirky flavors were common.


Because virtually every household had its own orchard, cider was easily made on site, to the tune of 15 - 40 barrels per family per year.  Apples were picked, ground up, and pressed, sometimes using horse power.  John Bunker called it the ultimate small-scale drink completely unsuited for mass production, apples being too heavy and perishable and fragile for shipping to centralized areas.  Production remained independent and family-based for about 300 years.


In the early 1900's huge influxes of German and Eastern European immigrants began to arrive, bringing with them a preference for beer and the know-how to make it.  And the newly plowed Midwestern soils were barley-friendly, unlike the rocky acidic ground of New England.  Beer fermented a whole lot faster than cider, and grain was relatively easy to transport.  Soon industrial scale brewing was underway.


When the prohibition movement came along, cider was forced underground.  Zealots torched or cut down many thousands of old apple trees and somehow managed to pass laws limiting even the production of fresh non-fermented cider to 200 gallons per orchard.  


Even after prohibition ended, cider making never recovered.  While barley can be grown in one season, it takes ten years for a standard apple tree to fruit.  About this time the cider barrel became a symbol of backwoods Americana. 


In a nutshell that's how the quintessential American drink faded out.  In its place we now have apple juice, in all its insipid sweet yellow pasteurized glory.  Lacking taste to recommend itself, and mostly made in China, it can proclaim its biologic sterility even if it has a touch of arsenic. 


But there are a still a few intrepid orchardists and scattered fanatics that spend time each fall making the real stuff, filling their freezers and casks with that tart historical brown turbid nectar that nourished and hydrated so many of their ancestors.  For them, at least, no standardized juice will ever do, especially if it is filtered and cooked and made from apples with industrial names like Nova EasyGro, Delcon, and Splendor.

Fall 2013

Black Pigs and Speckled Beans

Working on a pot of baked beans last fall I felt a familiar disappointment with the requisite bacon.  For years I’ve skimped on pork.  Too many reservations about tight cubicles crammed with highly specialized incompetent pantywaist psycho pigs given pellets and antibiotics by gowned workers.  The whole scenario was disturbing enough that I pretty much gave up on pork products with the exception of a little bacon for flavor now and then. 

Twice we bought fair pigs.  Each was a disaster -- so much fat we could hardly find the meat.  This puzzled me because I’d read somewhere that modern pigs are typically so lean they may even be missing some flavor.  But the 4H program rewards kids on one measure -- pure poundage.  And competing for the heaviest animal in the shortest time leads young farmers to the bakery where they stock up on old Wonder Bread and Twinkies.  So in retrospect the lousy meat had a logical explanation.

Still, I wasn’t quite ready to raise my own.  Hadn’t laid out a dedicated pigpen with shelter and water, nor had I found a good feed source.  Because I was reluctant to have any meadowland uprooted and turned into dirt, I figured pigs would need perpetual strict confinement.  And I was doubtful too about finding any decently hardy pre-industrial hogs for sale here in the hinterlands of Idaho.   A farmer in Maine mentioned that she had traveled to Missouri to pick up her heritage sow.

But the Jacob’s Cattle beans wouldn’t let me alone, so I slowly worked through the contingencies.  And when I finally truly rooted around in the swine literature I learned that some breeds are preferential grazers.  Given enough space and adequate grass they leave the soil alone.  For me that was the critical revelation, because without enough summer rains in our high valley to reliably establish new seed, I’m a little obsessed with maintaining intact sod.  I don’t need any more digging beyond what the ground squirrels and badgers already do.  And a pig that would take a fair portion of its forage from grass sounded like a step in the right nutritional direction.

So we found a few Large Black pigs. These long-eared, long-bodied hogs are a relatively rare breed from SW England.  Although in 1900 they were one of the most numerous of the English pigs, they eventually became critically endangered.  Apparently after WWII when most American hogs were moved indoors the Large Blacks chafed in confinement.  Uninterested in becoming city pigs they refused to cooperate.  And they matured slower than some modern breeds.  So they were marginalized and almost disappeared.

But as country pigs go the Large Blacks are superb.  They are true grazing pigs, thriving on grass and respectful of fences.  Protected from sunburn by their dark skin and hair they are tolerant of heat and cold and do well even in rugged conditions.  Having retained valuable instincts, the sows are naturally careful, dedicated, and able mothers.  The boars I’ve seen are friendly and docile.  Litters tend to be large and the pigs are known for longevity.

Next to dogs, they are the most exuberant and self-confident animals on our farm, certainly the most vocal.  They love their people and aren’t shy with strangers.  Hearing footsteps or a noisy bucket they pile out of their snuggly straw nests and come running.  And when the food is dropped they dive in with ambitious gusto, making winter feedings a true pleasure for both farmer and pig.  Lately I’ve wondered many times why I waited so long to get them.  Their presence somehow made our place seem a little more complete.

Eventually, as the biggest pig matured we scheduled a date with our friend Wes, who also happens to be a mobile butcher.  He arrived late one winter afternoon.  To make the job cleaner we had withheld food for 24 hours, which seemed like a long time for a pig's growling stomach.  As the pig snorted and happily buried his nose in the bucket to break his fast, Wes placed a single shot to the head and in one quick continuous motion handed me his gun, jumped over the fence, and plunged a long knife deep into the heart.  Hot blood found the snow.  We pulled out the small bowel into a bucket.

That night we rinsed the casings, turning them inside out and sliding them into salt water to soak.  The next day I scraped off the mucosal layer, leaving the collagen underneath.  The peach-pink ropy casings got salted again and packed in the fridge to await sausage making.    

Wes ran the fat once through his grinder and set it aside in all its glistening slippery white glory.  From there the rendering was simple, requiring only gentle heating in the oven, then pouring though cheesecloth into mason jars.  We got just a titch under five quarts of beautiful creamy lard .  I thought of giving a couple of pints next Christmas, but must make sure we have enough first.

Unlike the dry cardboard texture and minimal flavor of most modern pork, this was a whole different animal.  It seemed the contrast was even more dramatic than that between home grown beef and its alternative.  The thick chops easily sliced with one or two passes of a straight knife and minimal pressure -- none of the usual hacking and sawing with a serrated instrument.  And the cut edges were clean and straight instead of ragged.  Juices dripped.  The marbled rose-tinged meat had a rich earthy flavor we had never tasted before, generating comments like "wow, I think pork is my favorite meat!"

 With the bacon curing it will soon be time to soak some Jacob's Cattle beans and bake them, bringing us full circle.  It was, after all, a craving for those wicked good beans that finally plunged us into this rewarding and overdue endeavor.  

Spring 2014