“Humans don’t consume antibiotics every day to prevent disease and neither should healthy animals.” (Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports)

 The above quote was shared with me today. What interests me most about the quote, however, is something that most people who read it will simply miss. To see it, let’s go behind the scenes to the board meeting of a regional heritage beef association.

It’s a meeting that took place last Fall on a brilliantly warm Saturday afternoon in the environs of a newly constructed barn. Maybe 10 or 12 were in attendance, all of them farmers, along with myself who was an invited guest. One of the farmers, who apparently had found a niche in the organic market, shared with the group that antibiotics and vaccines were never given to his animals–a required protocol, I’m given to believe, for a product to be labeled as organic. One of the other breeders, a veterinarian, maintained that the judicious use of antibiotics and vaccines is a tremendous boon to the integrity and health of the herd. In fact, not to do so would be “unconscionable”.

I left with an appreciation for the differing points of view that are present in the slow-food movement of which these farmers certainly are a part. Both farmers would agree with Dr. Rangan’s statement. And though it’s true that heritage breeds have developed a natural resilience to illness and disease through natural selection, they can still become ill. And when they do, some farmers–in fact, most of the heritage farmers I’ve met–turn to modern veterinary medicine. It’s the use of prophylactic antibiotics that are not used by heritage breeders: the routine, daily use of antibiotics that one finds in a feedlot setting. Their use is simply not needed on these robust, healthy animals.

My father-in-law worked for a Chicago butcher whose customers claimed he had the best beef around. The secret? Two weeks of dry-aging. Some of the finest steakhouses in the country boast dry-aged beef, wearing it as a badge of honor. But what’s all the beef about dry-aging?

Old world, artisan butchers dry-age beef, lamb, and pork for two reasons. First, it tenderizes the meat. Second, it concentrates and develops the flavor like a fine wine that has matured over the years. The process involves placing meat in refrigeration, exposed to the air, for a period of days or weeks. The other way meat may be aged is through wet-aging which allows meat to tenderize in Cryovac packaging. Wet-aging, unlike dry-aging, does not do much (if anything) to enhance the flavor of meat (though it does tenderize it). Unlike dry-aged meat, wet-aged meat does not undergo water loss or shrinkage, which is part of the reason dry-aged meats come at a higher premium.

When shopping for meat in the grocery store or butcher shop, when ordering a pork chop, steak, or lamb shank in a restaurant, how does one know that it’s dry aged? The same way that one knows whether meat is pasture-raised, hormone-and-antibiotic-free: nine times out of ten the retailer or restaurant will advertise it as such.

Temple Grandin helped revolutionize the commercial beef industry when she engineered more humane methods for the slaughter of cattle. An autistic women, this very condition is credited in helping her to understand bovine behavior patterns that inspired her designs. She came to mind this week after we placed our first order for heritage pork. In Mark Schatzker’s book on steak, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, he writes about the time he spent with Temple Grandin. Two excerpts from the book are particularly relevant as we ready ourselves to introduce a line of heritage pork in the coming weeks leading up to Easter.

The first excerpt concerns the time when Grandin became aware of the declining quality of American meat, a realization that was made by an experience with heritage pork:

“She first noticed there was a problem with meat when she attended a banquet some years ago and was served pork from a heritage breed of pig. ‘The hotel tried very hard to ruin it,’ she said, ‘by keeping it under a heat lamp all day and letting it get all dried out. But it was still absolutely delicious…’ Not long after, she visited a client who was raising genetically modern pigs with giant, fast-growing loin. ‘Though as hockey pucks,’ she said…’Quantity and quality are two opposing goals,’ Grandin pronounced, neatly diagnosing the central problem of today’s meat industry. It didn’t matter how quantity was cranked up—hormones, genetics, drugs—there was always a price to be paid in quality,” (249).

The other excerpt deals with contrasting human responses to the slaughtering of animals and highlights a most stunning paradox:

“Grandin has written that in large slaughterhouses, it’s important to rotate jobs so that the same person doesn’t end up doing all the killing. It can be unhealthy, she explained, to be around death all the time. ‘These people get warped,’ she told me. ‘They get nasty to the cattle and they have to be removed.’ As we stared at the grazing cows, I was reminded of Fleurance and the happy hours we spent together on the pasture. I thought about her death and remembered how unexpectedly reassuring and positive it was, for me at least. It still pleased me to think how stress free her beer-and-apple-filled last day was, and that surprised me. I mentioned the experience to Grandin. ‘That happens all the time,’ she said. When people raise an animal and kill it responsibly, they find it uplifting, apparently. ‘I think you can also get too far away from death,’ she observed. What people are getting too far from is nature, she believes, explaining that people in big cities are particularly susceptible. They have no connection to the meat that sits on Styrofoam trays on supermarket shelves. The mistake that vegetarians and vegans make, she told me, is that they confuse death with suffering,” (251 – 52).

When in two to three weeks’ time we receive our first shipment of heritage pork, I will be assisting in the butchering of one of them. This experience will be a first and, I’m sure, represent another step closer toward a deeper connection with nature and the food we eat. In addition, the heritage pork that we will be selling through our virtual storefront will boast a week of dry aging before it’s butchered. I’m very interested to see to what degree this will affect the already wholly pleasant flavor of heritage pork, a flavor that was the topic of last week’s post.

The mercury read minus five degrees Monday morning–a jarring way to begin the month that observes the passage of the vernal equinox (here in Michigan, our memories are not too short to remember that two years ago we were treated to 80 degree weather this very month). The sun on this day, however, was as brilliant against the snow as the air was frigid, and I squinted in its glare as I drove to the small farm which sits across from the St. Joseph river in south-central Michigan. In the warmer months the river appears to idle in front of the farmstead, a characteristic that lends its name to the farm.

The purpose for coming here was to meet the couple who runs the farmstead and to return with samples of their their Red Wattle pork. The swine are named for the wattles that dangle on either side of their necks, protuberances that–so far as we know–serve no function: external appendixes, if you will (please see the above photo). The origins of the breed are mysterious. They were discovered in the 20th century, wandering the woodlands of eastern Texas (which, I suppose, makes them the perfect for barbequing).

Having read that the pork from this heritage breed is tender and flavorful, I was anxious to try the chops that were sent home with me. Rubbing with olive oil then sauteing them in a pan to about a medium-well temperature, we found the meat to be tender indeed. Further, it tasted like pork plus. What I mean by this is that it had all the characteristic flavor of pork but the meat presented a most unexpected and wholly pleasing flavor that reminded me of the ocean (and I don’t mean fishy). Instead, it brought me right back to some of my favorite Scotches: the Islay Scotches which are imbued with the flavor notes of salt water air. That’s what I got from our maiden voyage with Red Wattle pork: the mellow, meaty flavor of pork along with the notes of fresh, salt water air. And how I long to return to the sea (in the form of a thick chop of heritage pork)! Perhaps the idle river that winds its way through this Red Wattle farm is one of its tributaries.

(c) Dartmouth Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation