When I was in France a couple of years ago, we shopped in the local ville most nights. it was more expensive than going to the big Carrefour warehouse store, but it was much more convenient and we liked the idea of supporting the local economy. Plus the butcher was loquacious and fun to visit, and despite his heavy Provencal accent, after a few days, I began to understand him and could converse a little. It was a lovely store — not only cuts of meat, but any number of prepared foods as well, and if you wanted to buy hamburger, say, the butcher took a piece of chuck, and ran it through his grinder right there in front of you. There was also a picture on the display case of a very proud-looking farmer and a great big Charolais steer. The ear tag and accompanying caption made it clear that that lovely beast was currently in the display cabinet in front of us.
I’m sure there are a lot of squeamish types who would be apalled to know that the beef they’re buying for dinner not only had a face, but had that face, a face they’re being introduced to shall we say on the top of the butcher’s counter, but I thought it was fabulous. That was a great-looking animal. The person who raised it was proud of his work. Someone knew the source of the meat and was willing to stand up for it. In contrast to most of the beef in America, that’s shipped off to be fattened on corn in manure-soaked feedlots, then slaughtered anonymously, cut up in an industrial fashion by workers who are being rewarded only for speed, not for skill, I found it hugely reassuring that in that little shop in Rognes, the butcher knew the beast he was selling.
Because I live in the middle not only of ranch country, but in a part of ranch country where there are organizations like the Corporation for the Northern Rockies who are working to help ranchers get out of the industrial food system and market clean grass-fed meat directly to customers, it’s not hard to source most of my own meat. I drove out about a week ago to visit Becky Weed at Thirteen Mile Ranch, and bought a box of lamb for the summer.
I bought “half a lamb” which essentially means I got one leg, one rack, and then an assortment of chops, shoulder and ground lamb. If you buy in bulk it’s cheaper, and I always like the drive out there — Becky’s place is on the north end of the Gallatin Valley and it was a beautiful sunny spring day, the fields were all green, the mountains still had snow on them, and Becky’s fields were full of the most adorable tiny lambs who were bleating and gamboling and doing all the stereotypically sweet things that lambs do.
I had no qualms about being there to buy one to eat.
They were cute, but they were also livestock. We’ve bred sheep over the millenium to feed and clothe us, and Becky runs a great ranch — I knew the lamb I was buying had a nice life in those fields, and that it didn’t die in some anonymous slaughterhouse. It was a lamb that was treated with all due respect, that was ranched sustainablly. It was a clean transaction, as far as I was concerned and now I have enough lamb, along with the antelope and elk that Parks gave me last fall, to feed my friends at barbeques all summer long. I’m lucky because I live in a part of the country where it’s easy to buy local meat — I could have just as easily have bought a box of grass-fed beef from Ferry Creek Ranch up the road, or pork from Miller Pork, also right here in Livingston. And then there are my friends Matt and Heidi who run Matt’s Meats, our local butcher shop — we keep trying to get Matt to carry more organic meat. He’s skeptical about the cost differential and he’s not working with much margin himself, so it’s difficult, but we keep asking, and figure that if enough of us ask, eventually he’ll believe that it might work.
Because it is more expensive to eat clean meat. On the way out to Becky’s I stopped at Costco. I needed a couple of things — garbage bags, lemons, pyjama bottoms — and there in the case was New Zealand lamb for 3.99 a pound. I was driving nearly an hour to buy local lamb at 6.60 a pound. Yes, the imported lamb was cheaper, but what’s the real cost of buying it? What does it cost us as a society to ship meat half way around the world to sell it cheaper than the local product? And what do I know about that leg of lamb? Who grew it? How? Were the lambs treated well? And why would I want to support a farmer on the other side of the world at the expense of my neighbor?