Break a leg, Bessie. No, really.

September 15, 2008 · 1 comment

At one point a few months ago I promised a thorough review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and like so many other well-intentioned ideas I had for my summer, that review never came to fruition. It’s not happening today, either; I just don’t have the mental capacity for a good book review these days. But the book has continued to be a source for thought, discussion, and inspiration in both our household and in conversations with friends who’ve read it. (Should I take a sentence or two again, now, to plead with any reader who has not yet enjoyed this read to do so soon? Does it go too far for me to suggest that I think everyone should read it? Have I disclaimed that I don’t agree with everything in the book, but that it’s still an important and responsible book to enjoy?)

The great thing about the way the book is written is that the author really does leave you free to make decisions about how much, if anything, you might want to change about the way you eat. So while we’re not raising our own chickens or buying a backyard goat (ahem… yet), we have decided to try to find a local source for grassfed beef. There is a farm nearby that sells their beef, poultry, and pork at our local farmer’s market, and I recently purchased four broiler hens, apparently a French breed that has a more equal dispersion of light and dark meat. (The hens are all still in my freezer — while the cost wasn’t exorbitant, it was enough that I feel the roasting of these hens is warranted only by a “special occasion.” At this point, though, I’ll be satisfied with the occasion of my long-awaited post-partum revived interest in cooking.) The same farm sells grassfed beef, but oh, my, is it pricey. We don’t eat vast quantities of red meat in our house, but purchasing even our relatively small requirements from this farm would require a significant adjustment to the already-panged grocery budget.

So, we’ve been talking to a guy we know. He mentioned, a few months ago, that his brother-in-law has some grassfed cattle on his farm. And apparently — maybe this is common knowledge among those of a more rurally-influenced background — when a cow, say, has the misfortune of breaking one of its legs, it has to be put down pretty much immediately. And it can’t be sold for slaughter. Which is where, according to our friend, we come in.

Now, my husband is quite the go-getter. He is rarely afraid to try anything — he just thinks that if you don’t know how to do something, you find a book, or a person, to tell you how to do it. And then you just do it. This is simultaneously a beautiful and terrifying part of his personality. One of those things I can both love and hate, all within a small span of time. So our friend tells us that we can just wait around for a phone call from his brother-in-law, telling us that a cow is down. And then we show up, slaughter the cow, get it to the processor, and the rest is done for us. They process the meat, and we end up with a few hundred pounds of grassfed beef, all for the low price of processing (about 80¢/lb, a total steal). This is all said in a similar nonchalant manner as if he were telling us to drop by the local supermarket and pick up some steaks. And my husband is thinking this sounds great — what a deal — let’s do it.

And I’m excited about the deal, too, I admit. But then I actually picture, in my head, the day the call comes. You know, when Tim hangs up the phone, and says, “Honey, I’ll be back in a bit. A cow is down,” and walks out the front door with his keys and wallet, climbing into the Subaru, off to gather our year’s worth of beef. And I start to realize that this requires the slaughter and transport of an 800-pound animal, two things which — to me — sound like things better left to people who know what the hell they are doing. So I start asking casual questions. Things like, “So, how do you think this will go down? Do you shoot it? Strap it to the luggage rack? How long do you have to get it to the processing plant before bad things start to happen to the meat? Where is the processing plant?” etc., until I think I’ve made the point that um, I don’t have a lot of confidence in this idea.

So we had a follow-up discussion with our beef connection. There is another option, one which does not require quite so much involvement from us when it comes to killing the cow. I’m still confused (a bit willingly, I’ll admit) about the details, but for perhaps double the price (closer to $2/lb) we can take our city selves out of the process. Granted, if we were truly following the spirit of Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’d kill the cow ourselves, staring it in the face first. We’d truly know our food, and be better eaters for it.

But I’m not quite there. It was hard enough to realize that, really, what I’m sitting around waiting for is for a cow to fall and break a bone. I’m no Pete Singer follower, and my brief stint with vegetarianism in college had more to do with economics and fad diets than animal rights. But, still. It does make me a little sad to think about the poor cow tripping up one afternoon and then ending up filling our borrowed deep freezer. I think that when this all goes down — if it in fact ever does — we should name the cow, and be thankful for its life (and, er, misfortune) every time we enjoy our tasty, lean beef. It will be one step closer, for us, to understanding and appreciating the source of our food.

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