When my buddy Ben first planted the seed of starting a blog, it was with the idea that it would chronicle a quest to find the best meat that was being raised. If you’ve been following this blog, you may be under the impression that what we’ve found is that Scottish Highland beef–and Highland beef alone–constitutes superior beef. Not so. While it’s true that the mythic appeal of Highland cattle is strong (even irresistible), there are other breeds of cattle that are stand-outs in the world of heritage meats. When Saveur Magazine released in the 2010 Chefs’ Edition a Top 100 list of chefs’ favorite food trends, books, tools, restaurants, etc., a heritage breed of cattle was counted among the ranks. That breed? The Red Poll. It was the search for Red Poll beef that led to us having to wrestle, for a second time, with questions regarding the core identity of this Company. Here is the first part of that story.
It was the Wednesday a week after Thanksgiving that I pulled up to the two-story white farmhouse about 20 miles southeast–as the crane flies–of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rolling hills, woodlands, and farms were all accentuated by a sun that danced through the trees this warm day on what ought to be the cusp of winter. Here I would spend the morning (and a good portion of the afternoon) becoming acquainted with my hosts, two farmers that I have since come to regard with the utmost respect. They are to Joel Salatin (of Food Inc. fame) what Plato was to Socrates. They are true purists in the world of animal husbandry and grass-fed beef (though I’m not entirely sure they’d feel comfortable with either of the comparisons). A visit to their farm felt like stepping onto the “set” (“set” used here ironically) of Food Inc.: something, I thought, of what it must be like to visit Salatin’s Polyface Farm. In fact, the very genesis of this homestead began when one of Salatin’s books was thrust into the hands of a retired English teacher one Sunday after services. Resonating deeply with Salatin’s message of a return to normalcy, of a life lived connected with the good earth and affirming of natural rhythms, something was sparked and this farm was born.
There were many memorable moments that day, one of my favorite being when I referred to their farm in the plural only to be corrected that, no, they had only one farm: that was work enough thank you very much. I met with flocks of chicken and sheep, herds of swine and cattle. The pigs, in particular, are raised in such a way as to be Certified Humane, a designation given by an independently-funded national organization whose standards are among the most rigorous–perhaps the most rigorous–in the industry. I learned that pigs’ tails curl when happy (good to know since a pig always looks to be smiling). It’s the heritage pork that is the crown jewel of this farmstead. They told of how when the culinary staff at Zingerman’s of Ann Arbor, MI, sampled pork from various farms, theirs was the unanimous favorite. Their herd of cattle, Red Poll numbering among it, was a short drive away. In the midst of this herd we stood while they plucked apples out of our hands. I left with a deeper appreciation for the formidable challenges (even precariousness) of life on a small farm. The drought that racked Michigan last summer put more than one family farm out of business (I find myself praying often the same will not happen again this summer, alarmed by another unseasonable warm Michigan winter which, last year, wiped out our apple and cherry crops).
On the day earlier this month that our Family buried our grandmother, the farm gave me a call to inform me that one of its beef animals was now finished and would be going to slaughter. Did I want a portion of it? While I would have immediately jumped at the opportunity, thing was, it was 75% Red Poll instead of being a pure-bred. The animal, therefore, could not be marketed as heritage beef. Now, had the Red Poll been bred with another heritage breed, no problem. So I followed up with a question, “When would a pure bred animal be available?” Maybe not for another two and a half years. Yes, there were some pure Red Polls that we going to be calving but the traditional farming practices employed by these purists–all grass-fed, no growth hormones, etc.–mean a good two years (if not more) before the animals have grown to that healthy weight that yields superior-tasting beef. It was an animal raised as well as–if not better than–other animals that qualify as heritage beef, yet it could not be designated as such. The opportunity to acquire such beef was not lightly thrown away. And yet, if it was acquired by Duba & Company, we would need to grapple with the question of its identity, one that seemed to be put to rest this summer with its decision that we would be merchants of heritage meats (please see the series A Quest Begins with its two parts and epilogue: Part I, Part II, and Epilogue). Since I, too–like these farmers who were offering me this golden goose–have strong purist leanings, the struggle was bound to be very personal…
Part II of “An Offer I Couldn’t–or Could–Refuse”, will appear next Thursday, February 7, and will conclude this two part series.