It’s probably obvious by now that we are not vegetarians by any means. I actually did abstain from red meat for nearly 5 years during my idealistic youth (high school and college) for “ethical” reasons, but was converted back during a Christmas visit to my Italian grandparents who served meat three times a day. My now husband, then friend, took me out for my first post-vegetarianism steak when I got back to college after the winter break. I was ecstatic to finally be able to order In-n-Out burgers with meat, and jumped back into omnivorism with barely a second thought. Fast forward nearly a decade, and my renewed interest in healthy, sustainable food led me to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’d already sampled local, grass-fed meats from local farmers markets on occasion, but wasn’t fully committed to paying the higher price on a regular basis. Pollan’s book and my subsequent research set the ball rolling and we now strive to eat only grass-fed, pastured, hormone-free and preferably organic (and GMO-feed free) meat. I still have a little omnivore’s guilt when eating lamb or veal (cue cute baby animal images), but I was inspired to hear local sustainable agriculture hero Bev Eggleston speak at a Slow Food dinner last year about his own conversion from Berkeley vegetarian to pig farmer. As he explained, to solve the problems of conventional meat production you have to participate in the process and use your dollars to vote for sustainable solutions.
Why Grass-Fed, aka Pastured, Meat? Without getting into the complex and hotly-debated issue of whether grass-fed cows fart more than feedlot-cows (yes, there are real scientists researching that!), there are true health benefits to grass-fed meat. Plus, you avoid supporting “Confined Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs or feedlots), which are essentially concentration camps for animals and which I am sure you have heard about elsewhere. (If not, read this, this, and/or this.) Other benefits include:
- Grass-fed meat is higher in vitamins, especially vitamin E and D, which only comes from exposure to sunlight.
- Grass-fed red meat is leaner, lower in fat and calories than conventional, and higher in better fats (Omega-3s).
- Grass-fed means no genetically-modified (GMO) corn or soy feed, reducing the amount of corn byproducts (pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc.) you consume. (You have seen King Corn, haven’t you?) – health benefits via Eat Wild.
One thing to note about grass-fed meat is that in much of the U.S., it is a seasonal product. Alice Waters reportedly turned down EcoFriendly’s meat for her Inaugural dinner event because it was not available fresh in January. In the winter, animals can’t always graze outdoors so be sure to ask your local vendors what they’re feeding in the winter months — ideally, it will be organic feed they grow themselves. If it is entirely grass-fed, you’ll probably have to buy it frozen. Just defrost it gently in the refrigerator and be sure not to overcook (medium rare is ideal), as leaner grass-fed meat becomes tough if overcooked.
Where to find grass-fed meat: The first place to look for local, grass-fed meat is your local farmers markets. Visit localharvest.org to find a market or ranch near you; Eat Wild‘s state-by-state grass-fed directory can also help. At the grocery store, ignore the meaningless “all natural” label and choose organic if you can, but ask the butcher if they carry any grass-fed brands. (If not, ask them to consider it!)
Grass-fed Meat in DC/NoVA: Joel Salatin’s Polyface, featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma, is right here in Virginia, and you can purchase their meats through their buying clubs. Bev Eggleston’s EcoFriendly co-operative is created in the Polyface model (Bev worked with Joel before branching out on his own) and is the gold standard for family-farmed, pastured meat in the area, with many of DC’s and NYC’s top chefs relying on EcoFriendly meats (including Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve and Todd Gray of Equinox). Other smaller, family-owned farms are represented at nearly all of our local farmers markets. I’ve personally sampled and recommend the following:
- Babes in the Woods, (Dillwyn, VA); rare-breed, forest-fed pork; at Old Town Alexandria, Clarendon and Charlottesville Farmers Markets.
- Cibola Farms (Culpeper, VA); buffalo, pork, beef, goat, chicken; available at Dupont, Penn Quarter, Mt. Pleasant, Kingstowne, Burke, Falls Church, Reston, Dale City, Mt. Vernon, Fredericksburg Farmers Markets.
- EcoFriendly (Moneta, VA), beef, pork, lamb, poultry, rabbit, Arlington/Courthouse and Dupont Farmers Markets.
- Fields of Athenry (Purcellville, VA); lamb, beef, poultry; see website for drop-off locations.
- Hilldale Farm (Palmyra, VA); organic chicken; at West End Alexandria Farmers Market.
- Smith Meadows Farm (Berryville, VA); beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, goat; at Chevy Chase, Courthouse, Columbia Pike, Del Ray, Dupont, Falls Church, Glover Park, Palisades, Takoma Park Farmers Markets.
- Smith Family Farm, (Gainseville, VA); beef, pork, poultry; at Burke, Kingstowne, Occoquan, Palisades, Vienna Farmers Markets – and on Twitter!
Local (NoVA) Butchers:
- Let’s Meat on the Avenue, butcher shop in Del Ray, VA, selling hormone-free grass-fed meat, much from Virginia’s Fauquier and Loudoun Counties, including Ayrshire Farm‘s organic, heritage-breed chickens.
- Organic Butcher of McLean, McLean, VA.
And look for the Spring issue of Edible Chespeake, with a cover story on buying beef directly from the farmer.