Meat by the Box

Meat by the Box

I’ve been meaning to write about this article, BACK TO THE RANCH: Consumers are going to the source for pastured beef, pork, poultry and eggs in the SF Chronicle food section since it came out (which to my horror, was a month ago). Anyhow, looks like more and more families in the Bay Area are buying meat directly from ranchers — I’ve written before about knowing your meat, and my astonishment that most Americans are totally freaked out by this idea. When Patrick and I lived in the Bay Area we talked about finding someone to buy a side or a quarter of beef from, and Patrick’s friend Kiwi Paul the Stonemason turned out to be a great source of real eggs, but we never quite got our act together to buy meat. It is a little tricky. You have to know a rancher, or know someone who knows a rancher. Perhaps now with the internet, and organizations like our own local Corporation for the Northern Rockies who can help you make the connection, it’s a little easier, but I doubt that if Patrick and I hadn’t had a grandmother with a farm, a grandmother who always bought a share of a steer (or who in recent years has traded beef for pasturage — yes, those black angus out there lolling under the old elm trees are going to be next winter’s dinner) that it even would have occurred to us to look for meat by the animal.

And no one’s making it any easier. When we were kids, my grandmother kept her meat in the meat locker at the little store in town.

It was an old-fashioned general grocery store (which I think
originally belonged to my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, Mary
Mackin who came over from Ireland and who, family legend has it,
purchased our farm with money she made selling illicit potcheen out the
back door of said store). We’d go into town in the afternoon and pick
up a package of beef, wrapped in butcher paper from her shelf in the
locker, and some milk, and if we managed to cajole her, a piece of
candy for each of us. Those days are long gone, and now, if you want to
buy meat by the animal, or share of an animal, you need an extra

My freezer is probably my favorite thing I’ve bought
since I moved into this house. It allows me to put up greens from my
garden to eat all winter (blanch, squeeze out as much water as
possible, vaccuum seal and freeze), and to buy, in my case, lamb in
bulk. I don’t eat a lot of beef, so despite having a couple of good
sources of grass fed beef around here, I haven’t bought a box of beef,
but I do buy half a lamb once or twice a year, and the past couple of years a friend has given me elk and antelope. I’ve been driving out to
Bozeman to Becky Weed’s Thirteen Mile Ranch to
buy lamb, mostly because I can buy it from her already butchered and
packed, and I can also buy half a lamb instead of a whole one. I just
don’t eat/entertain enough to get a whole lamb. The Mighty Hunter gets
lamb from a rancher he knows — every summer he rounds up a few lambs
and takes them up to the slaughterhouse in Big Timber for himself and
three or four other families.

One of the things I love about
buying meat in bulk like this is that you have to actually think about
what you’re going to cook. Sure, you always get a couple of prime cuts
— chops or leg or the like — but you also get some oddball things.
Lamb riblets, for example, or more ground meat than I’ve ever really
cooked with before. The same is true with the game people give me — I
have a lot of ground venison and elk and antelope in the freezer. It
means you have to be creative — in my case I got some Greek and Mediterranean cookbooks to learn to do interesting things with kofta and kebabs (Diana Abu-Jaber’s terrific The Language of Baklava was a great source of recipes). The other thing is that because everything is frozen, you have to think ahead
a little bit. This works if you’re a person who finds food and cooking
inherently interesting, and it helps if like me, you work at home and have a little more flexibility. But I think the most important thing is that somehow, we have to learn to be people who like to cook. I find it relaxing and social
(chatting in the kitchen is one of the great joys) but from what I can tell watching even Rachel Ray’s new talk show, a lot of people find cooking a chore, or a mystery, or difficult somehow. One of the nicest
things about dating the MH is that he likes to cook too, and is
interested in food and food sourcing and gardens. It’s not that we eat
gourmet all the time either — we had a delicious but very easy spaghetti with sausage and some red peppers the other night, for example, but we both believe in cooking dinner,
and that eating together is important.

I worry that as a
society we’ve somehow wandered so far away from the idea that cooking
and eating together is an interesting and pleasurable endeavor. How
did we become a people who have allowed the industrial food complex to
convince us that pot roast cooked in some factory out there, then
sealed in plastic and left in a meat case for who knows how long is
superior to a pot roast cooked at home with ingredients one knows, for
people one loves. I realize folks are strapped for time, and that if
you didn’t grow up with parents who cooked, that it can seem daunting,
but it seems to me that we’ve invariably lost something when we’ve
become a society in which a person, confronted with a piece of meat and
perhaps some vegetables from a garden, doesn’t know what to do with

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