On the second story of the home of one of the country’s premiere breeders of Highland cattle, I was brought back into the mythical space created in the antechambers of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO. On the walls of that historic hotel, as on the walls of the farmstead we were now in, artwork adorned them that transported one to another place and time: scenes of the West in that Colorado Hotel (of Native Americans, cowboys, and sandstone monoliths burning red in the setting sun); scenes from the Highlands in this wooden loft (of glens, gray peaks, cattle, and cattle drovers). Some were sketches on weathered paper, others oil or watercolor paintings. It’s true: there was a feeling of the West in both these spaces.

Permit me to make two connections, the first between the drovers of the Scottish Highlands, who were the precursors to the cowboys of the American West. Drovers: the name given to those who herded—or drove—Highland cattle from the North to the markets in the South. As the cowboys who who would follow their lead, these were men who lived among the cattle for weeks at a time, men shaped by the terrain and by the livestock who were their livelihood. I was reminded that day of the connection between these two cultural icons.

The second connection came as a sort of epiphany only recently, but had begun to distill during my first visit to that farm in Charlotte, Michigan. On that first visit, my hosts graciously sent me home with a couple pounds of ground of Highland beef, beef which sat in my freezer for a couple of months before it was cooked up and shared amongst the kitchen staff at a local brew pub. I’ve written about that experience before [please see “A Third Pillar in the Parthenon of Beef…”], which would be counted amongst the three best beef experiences of my life—quite astonishing, really, when one considers that another of those experiences took place at a remote ranch in a mountainous valley high in the Colorado Rockies (please see “Of Mountains, Beauty, Affliction, and the Steak Dinner”). In the aforementioned post, it was told of how the opportunity to buy a quarter of this highly prized beef was granted me, an opportunity at which I jumped. This beef, incidentally, will be available for sale this Spring through Duba & Company (look for Highland Beef from Charlotte, MI). Now, for the rest of the story…

Upon picking up the order, I plucked a pound of ground of Highland beef from inventory and cooked up a burger, greedy for the flavor experience of the month before. There was no doubt that this beef was of the same stock: I recognized a similarity in the flavor of the meat, but…it was not as deep, not as rich as its predecessor. I brought some in to the same chef that had tried its precursor. “Good,” he said, “but I liked the other better.” I agreed. I decided to do some digging and contacted the breeder. The breeder explained that the beef I had purchased came from an animal that was 29 months old, while my first sample came from an animal 36 to 48 months old (compare this, if you would, to the slaughtering of cattle in as little as five months in the commercial beef industry). Then was I reminded of the adage, “Age imparts flavor.”As an imperial stout is to stout, so a more fully mature animal’s beef is to younger beef. I think now of my conversation with Scottish chef Angus Campbell, a Master Chef, who suggested that I assemble a group of restauranteurs together to have them try beef from three different animals: one harvested at 18 months, one at 24 months, and one at 36 months (respectively). This would allow them a palpable, palatable experience of the development of flavor that the fullness of time provides.

And that is when the connection was made between Scotch beef and Scotch whisky. Some of the Highland beef that will be offered for purchase from Duba & Company this Spring comes from that farm in Charlotte, MI. It is, frankly, The Glenlivet 12 Year Scotch–a most excellent place to start. The first sample of beef from that premiere breeder, by comparison, was The Glenlivet 18 Year (how cruel!). As I write, I’m drinking Muscato and just glanced down at my glass (of course, I’m drinking out of The Glenlivet commemorative glass: a Christmas gift from one of my brothers-in-law). While this connection between Scotch beef and Scotch whisky took some time (I’m a little slow), all things exquisite do: whether ideas, or Scotch, or Highland beef.

I’ve never claimed to have the mind of a scientist, but of course have read up on the nutritional benefits of eating grass-fed beef. Whenever, though, the terminology of “terpenes,” “alpha-tocopherol,” and “conjugated linoleic acids” gets bandied about, it’s all “blah, blah, blah” (which, in addition to the above cartoon, also brings to mind Bob Loblaw from Arrested Development. It might help to say “Bob Loblaw” aloud, to yourself. Good stuff, that.) Nevertheless, despite all the technical jargon I think I’m able to get the gist of it. No, this post isn’t waxing eloquent the nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef. Rather, there’s this one idea–one concept–that I’d like to explore concerning grass-fed beef which has become for me something of a metaphor for how to better navigate this life.

The solitary idea that has become a metaphor for life is the relationship in grass-fed beef between Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids, Omega-6s, generally considered a “bad” fatty acid and Omega-3s, generally considered a “good” fatty acid (more on that later). The relationship between the presence of the two fatty acids in beef that is considered good is 4 (or lower) to 1. Conventional grain-fed beef has a ratio of 14 to 1 while grass-fed beef has a ratio of 2 to 1. (Higher ratios have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, obesity, and auto-immune disorders.) But here’s the the rub, lest one gets down on fatty acids: they’re essential to human body. It seems I’ve read somewhere that they’re considered essential for brain growth, development, and functioning. It’s not about eliminating them from the diet, but finding them in the right ratios. And it seems that nature provides them in the proper proportions. In other words, it’s about the Golden Mean. It’s about the right relationship between things. And therein lies the metaphor: life is, in part, about finding the right relationship with every good thing.

One of those relationships that has become a theme lately is that between work and leisure. (I will quickly add that it’s been a theme because of the nagging sense that I gravitate toward an unhealthy relationship with work which, it seems to me, busyness is the symptom.) Two opposite errors, in fact, seem to have taken root in contemporary culture: laziness and busyness. Reading now a refreshing philosophical treatise on Leisure as the basis of culture, it makes the case that a solitary and fundamental error lies at the root of both laziness and busyness (busyness defined as “work for the sake of work”) and raises a provocative question: Do we work so that we might have leisure or do we have leisure in order that we might work? Of course both work and leisure are necessary, but they are not mutually exclusive: there can be an aspect of work present in leisure, say that of planting a garden or playing a musical instrument. Conversely, there can be an element of relaxation brought to our daily activities and in our place of work.

Our first date was at the Farmer’s Market. Of course, we didn’t call our rendezvous a “date” at the time, but that’s what it was. I called it “shopping.” And it’s true, I was there to shop. Grocery list in hand, it was a mission to buy exactly what was needed and in the precise amounts for the recipe I was making. Before I met my wife, you see, I approached cooking (and the requisite purchasing of ingredients) something like a German approaches bridge-building: namely, as an exercise in precision. I was a good cook, but an exacting cook. If a recipe called for Gorgonzola, bleu cheese would not do. On those occasions when I cooked with my father, a chef, I was horrified when he would suggest that I dispense with the measuring devise and “estimate a teaspoon.”

Why this comes to mind now may have something to do with the meeting this morning with a business consultant. I had brought with me the work I’ve been doing these past couple of weeks on retail pricing charts for Duba & Company’s inventory (it’s one of the last things that needs to be in place before we can open our online storefront). His concern was over there being too much time and attention given to computing costs, weights, and measurements (“estimate”, was his advice). A case of analysis paralysis. Unless you’re dealing with pharmaceuticals, building an airplane, or space travel, close is close enough. In other words, “simplify!”

Rocket

Somewhere in the past couple of years I’m happy to say that–in at least one area of my life–I have (my wife takes credit for it). I’ve discovered the joy of showing up at the market without much by way of a shopping list. I’ll take a walk around to see what’s in season, what’s being offered, and to look for inspiration, waiting for something to present itself. And it does! There was the time last August that I walked away from the Rockford Market with the ingredients of a fresh, simple, but brightly flavorful lunch of blackberries, smoked white fish, rustic bread, and a smoked onion marmalade. Later that same month, after visiting the Fulton Street Farmers Market, my wife and I left with a picnic basket of mealy crackers, farm fresh cheese, chutney, and–after one more stop–beer. We toted the makings of our lunch to the top of Pyramid Point where, on the bluff of this sand dune, we enjoyed the contents of our basket while looking out over the lake that lends Michigan its name (or maybe it’s the other way round).

Maybe in these recollections I’m looking for a kinder, gentler approach to accounting. Maybe I can’t wait for the warmer weather that brings with it a bustling Farmers’ Market. Or maybe it’s time to start laying plans for a summer vacation (but not, of course, laying holiday plans in the manner of that infamous German-American vacation planner, Clark Griswold).

Vacation

We sat around the dinner table, next to the wood burning stove, in the farmhouse at Two Sparrows Farm (Lowell, Michigan). This was last month, in the month of March, and it was still very much winter here. My wife and I were with Dan and Whitney, friends of ours and the founders of Two Sparrows. As the wind buffeted the old house, our conversation turned at one point on the very real challenges faced by those looking to start a sustainable farm in 21st Century America.

Our hosts grabbed my attention by observing that, traditionally, Americans spent 25% of their income on food; we now spend 10%. On the surface, this seems like a very good thing. But the cause of the lower food costs is, presumably, the direct result of factory farming: Model-T industrial structures applied to produce and livestock (economies of scale and the like). There is a tradeoff for lower prices. For one, there’s a compromise in flavor (the produce and meats produced in such a way, frankly, lack taste). For another, one could argue (and I do) that it lacks nutritional value. Then there are the ethical questions that arise when we treat animate objects (vegetation and animals) as if they were inanimate objects.

The real obstacle to starting a small, family farm–our hosts helped us realize–is the great difficulty of affording farmland. Unless one inherits farmland, one must buy it. Easier said than done. The new farmers, looking to purchase land, must  compete not only against large agribusinesses who’d like to acquire more farmland but large agribusinesses backed by federal subsidies. Such entities can pay as much as three times as much as the individual family.

I believe that we are seeing things beginning to shift, gradually, in the direction of sourcing our foods from small, sustainable farms. It starts, appropriately enough, at the grass roots level: by making small–but incremental–changes to the way we buy and eat. We take steps in the right direction by spending our hard-earned dollars on the more nutrient-dense and often more flavorful food provided at our local farmers’ markets.