Guess Who's Coming As Dinner? Guess Who's Coming As Dinner?
Issue 009

Guess Who's Coming As Dinner?

by Peter Rubin

February 6, 2008
It's a windy afternoon in late December, yet the three little old ladies are braving the elements to gather near us, bobbing their heads and clucking to themselves. It's hard to tell if they're eavesdropping or not. Even if they are, Paul Alward and Stephanie Turco, the couple who let the trio live on their property, are talking about them as though they're not here. "They love people," Turco says. "But they have a six-inch barrier." She reaches her hand toward one of the little old ladies, who immediately shrinks back and gobbles.In fact, the ladies aren't ladies at all. Nor little, nor old-Alward and Turco just call them that. They're not even female. They're male heritage-breed turkeys-Royal Palms, to be exact, prized less for their meat than for their foraging nature, which is ideal for keeping insects and pests away. They are three survivors of the year's 220-turkey Thanksgiving flock at Veritas Farms outside of New Paltz, New York, and while they might be meddlesome enough to earn their sobriquet, Alward and Turco keep them around as breeding toms to help sire next year's flock of holiday dinners. At $7 a pound, Veritas's turkeys are nearly six times more expensive than a supermarket turkey.What justifies the cost? Well, for one thing, they can walk around (and kibitz) freely. They eat organic feed grown locally by a nearby farmer, not institutional meal that contains the bone and feathers of other dead turkeys. At night, they sleep on ever-refreshed hay, the lower layers of which compost to create warm sleeping berths even in the dead of winter. Oh, and they can mate. Turkey fun fact: Factory-farmed turkeys in the United States have been bred to have so much breast meat that they can't reproduce without artificial insemination. The process, to read the accounts of those who have worked "AI" at turkey farms, is Hobbesianly nasty, brutish, and short. But when Alward and Turc left Wall Street jobs four years ago to buy an abandoned farm, they did it because they wanted to raise little old ladies, not top-heavy butterballs. And on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving-the busiest traffic day of the year-seven people drove up from Brooklyn to buy Veritas Farms turkeys, then turned right around and drove the 100 miles home.
A cow and her calf graze freely.
We're a meat-eating country-kind of. What we're actually eating is probably best described as meat-ish. Exhaustive commercialization of the meat industry has resulted in innumerable, well-chronicled problems at large processors like ConAgra and Cargill: disease; cruelty; and insipid flavor that bears little resemblance to the poultry, beef, and pork of 50 years ago. But Veritas Farms and dozens of small producers around the country like it are presenting an alternative."Every time we sell a pig," Alward says, "I'm refreshed by the fact that I took one ham away from the Smithfield pork company."The thing is, we're not talking about something merely "organic," and its attendant connotations of happy animals. As the organic-foods industry has exploded in recent years, some producers have resorted to streamlining methods that puncture the bucolic fantasy-organic dairy company Horizon, for example, had more than $300 million in sales last year, and is notorious for maintaining farms with thousands of cows that are confined to dry lots. More than organic, the small-farm movement is humane. It's animals are free-range, grass-fed, patiently raised; artisanal meats, resurrected from nearly extinct breeds. It can be expensive. And at farmer's markets, health-food stores, and restaurants everywhere, we're making the choice to spend a little more to eat-and feel-a lot better.The instinct, perhaps, is to call these animals "pampered," or to equate the meat with those stories of (g)astronomically priced products: fifty-dollar hamburgers, say, or pork from the farmer in Spain who is finishing a two-year curing process on a small herd of free-range, acorn-fed pigs (his "2006 Alba Quercus Reserve," available at the end of the year, will cost $2,100 for a 13-pound leg). December marked the 50th anniversary of the Bresse chicken, a protected French breed that can go for more than $110 for a six-pound male. Of course, there's more to some of these stories than meets the plate: Bresse chickens are castrated without anesthetic, and spend the end of their lives in dark coops eating a dairy-fattened flour meant to get them to the correct weight.Kobe beef is perhaps the best example of the broken link between "organic" and "humanely treated." The Kuroge Wagyu cow in Japan is extremely well marbled with fat, but those Wagyu cattle raised in the Kobe prefecture are famously tweaked to fatty tender perfection: fed beer, massaged with sake. The result is hundred-dollar steaks. Sounds like the epitome of bovine luxury, right? Not so much. A recent Gourmet investigation found that Kobe cattle are often caged in their own filth and fed beer as a means of jump-starting an appetite that has atrophied with lack of exercise. The breed may be protected, but the animal's life is far from what it might enjoy otherwise.And that, more than anything, is the divide; the small farmers who are determining the future of meat in this country recognize the need to preserve the animal's way of life. Thus, farms like Veritas, which go to great lengths to give their animals the life they were born for. At times, the farms can seem like rescue operations.
What do the animals want to do the most? What are their natural desires, and can I fulfill [their desires] and grow them for food at the same time?
Paul Alward grew up working on a variety of farms in eastern Massachusetts, and as a child was so disturbed by the veal industry that he stopped eating veal at age 10. Dairy farmers have no use for male calves, so they auction off 3-day-olds-for $3 to $6 dollars a head-to veal facilities that crate and force-feed the calves until slaughtering time. Today, he goes to auction every year and brings home five or 10 calves; he and Turco bottle-feed them twice a day, then raise them on grass for two years or more, until they're old enough to be sold to beef farmers. They're not heritage breeds, like the 35 Devon and Scottish Highland cows at Veritas; they're just regular Jerseys and Holsteines lucky enough to be rescued from a system that is in dire need of an overhaul.Turco walks me through an open barn that is essentially a rec center for laying hens (Veritas only raises meat poultry seasonally), into a sheltered side area with open stalls for the calves, who wander in intermittently from outside. One walks over to us. "Hi, Bandi," Turco says. "This is Bandar, like Bandar bin Sultan"-the former Saudi ambassador to the United States. "Just look at him. Very princely." Bandi nuzzles her sleeve in response. "Those eyes," she murmurs. "It's like something out of Disney, right?"The real question, though, is who is buying the meat? Four-star restaurants and foodies are one thing, but a sea change depends on rank-and-file consumers. Little by little, that's who's starting to come to farmer's markets. The market closest to my own house in Brooklyn is more culturally and economically diverse than one might expect. Karma Glos, who with her husband Michael runs Kingbird Farm in Ithaca, New York, says her clientele is solidly middle and lower income. And surprisingly, Alward and Turco claim that a full 10 percent of their clientele are converted vegetarians and vegans who figure that eating clean meat does more to change the factory-farming industry than eating imported tofu with a carbon footprint of who knows what. "They'll say, 'I haven't eaten meat since 1968,'" Alward says with a laugh. "I'm like, 'I hope it lives up to your expectations.'"People are clearly attuned by now to the concepts of antibiotic-free meat, of organic feed, of the ecological benefits of eating locally grown products. But perhaps more than anything, it's the humane treatment and slaughter of the animals that brings people to these small producers. "My customers ask me all the time how the animals are handled," says Glos. "I don't see the point of treating an animal really well its whole life, only to be abusive at the end. Those are some of the most important moments of their life, and it should be as calm and humane and quick and as skillful as possible." Producers either handle processing on the farm, as with Kingbird chickens or Veritas turkeys, or they seek out butchers and slaughterhouses (beef and pork sold in cuts must be processed in a USDA-approved slaughterhouse) that place a premium on keeping the animals as stress-free as possible.
The idyllic farmlands of Veritas are home to well-nurtured animals.
D'Artagnan, a Newark, New Jersey-based company that is one of the pioneers of humanely raised meats, sends its pigs to a facility in Illinois that uses a low-stress system based on sequestering pre-slaughter pigs in a set of slowly revolving doors. "This is the first time ever I saw pigs being killed and not shrieking, because they didn't realize it," says Ariane Daguin, a co-founder and the president of D'Artagnan. "There is no reason you should be brutal to animals when you don't have to. It will bring bruises; it will bring adrenaline and bad hormones in the muscles." Stress can hasten the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine into the animal's bloodstream, which can result in a buildup of lactic acid, causing the meat to acidify too quickly after slaughter. It can result in meat that is pale and exudative.When I was 18, at a freshman-orientation barbecue at college, I bit into a hamburger. Despite being the child of vegetarian parents, I had long before cultivated a healthy (and also very much the opposite) appetite for the drive-through section of the food pyramid. But when I looked at this burger, I saw nothing that made me want to take a second bite. It was monochromatically brown-gray and tasted exactly how it looked. It was the last red meat I would eat for 13 years.Over the next couple of years, I phased out poultry and fish as well. As a college student eating in Sysco-supplied dining halls, this wasn't a tough thing to do. But my vegetarianism was never a stance borne of philosophy. It wasn't that I was opposed to people eating meat; it was more that I personally found it distasteful. After nearly a decade, though, I started eating fish again. Health, I told myself. Protein. It's good for you. Chicken came next. And then, a couple of summers ago, I reached across the table at a restaurant and speared a piece of steak off my wife's plate. It surprised me, but not nearly as much as it surprised my wife, whose eyes widened to the size of porterhouses. To be sure, it was the description of lush, pampas-grazing beef on the menu that helped sway me. I was one of many people horrified by Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's bestselling 2001 book about the commercial meat industry. To hear Ariane Daguin tell it, though, my return to the fold was preordained. "That's why they are here on Earth," she says in a French accent that betrays her native Gascony. "If you believe there is a God, and you taste a very good meat, there is no way that this animal was made with that taste so that it could live without us tasting it." When she and her partner George Faison founded the company in 1985 (she has since bought out his share), it was to bring foie gras production to the United States, but they immediately branched into game and free-range chicken. "The only thing I knew from my region of France," she says, "was that to have something tasty on the plate, you need to raise the animals really well, with natural food, with plenty of space, with fresh air, with pure water." (D'Artagnan raises ducks for foie gras, a process whose humaneness is marred by two weeks of force-feeding, which put her at the center of a brouhaha in 2005 concerning the banning of foie gras in New York City.)
Their original plan was to open retail stores as well, to sell prepared foods made with game, but the restaurant industry came knocking. "We arrived exactly at the time when young chefs started to come out of the CIA and Johnson & Wales," she says, referring to two of the country's premier culinary schools. "They wanted to do things the way they learned it when they traveled in Europe, and they couldn't find the same ingredients here." Twenty-two years later, D'Artagnan's annual revenues have grown from $120,000 to $50 million, and it supplies many of New York's high-end restaurants.The bigger one gets, of course, the more difficult it is to maintain the animals' standards (to wit: Horizon). And so providers like D'Artagnan and California's Niman Ranch, two of the larger natural-meats producers in the country, long ago adopted a cooperative system, in which a network of small farms is contracted to produce small batches of livestock for the larger company. Additionally, both created a loyal clientele based on traceability and transparency. The companies' websites include everything imaginable about their operations, from the living conditions of various stocks to biographical sketches of farmers. Niman goes as far as to publish its complete protocols for raising beef, lamb, and pork, which range from permitted feeds to requirements for cattle pens.There are gradations, however, and the practices of a relative behemoth like Niman, which enjoyed revenues of $100 million in 206, are only the beginning. To many small farmers, Niman is little more than a good start; its list of permitted feeds, for example, includes corn, anathema in the old-world farming community ("grain is poison for cows," Turco maintains). Exclusively grass-fed cows produce meat that by all accounts tastes meatier: woodsier, more filling. Corn feeding naturally leads to fatter cows, which enables factory farms to bring them to market up to seven months earlier than grass-fed cows, but it also has public-health implications. Pasture feeding has been repeatedly linked with lower counts of the harmful E. coli strain O157:H7; in a 1998 study by Cornell University, cows fed hay for the five days before slaughter had 80-percent lower levels of the bacterium. A recent study at Kansas State University found that cows fed distillers grain-an ethanol byproduct-had twice as much O157:H7 in their hindgut as cows not fed the product.
For those small farms who choose to keep their cows totally grass-fed, it's as much an issue of zoological authenticity as taste. Glos speaks of "a natural lifestyle." "It's a funny way to put it," she allows, "but it's about making sure that they can perform the activities that they would naturally want to perform. What drives a pig is they want to root. That's a pig's favorite thing in the world. What drives a cow is to graze, so they should always be on grass. What drives a chicken is to scratch and peck, so they should be able to do that. So when I'm setting up housing, that's the question: What do they want to do the most? What are their natural desires, and can I fulfill [their desires] and grow them for food at the same time?""For hundreds of years," Paul Alward says, "there were certain breeds in certain areas that thrived under certain weather conditions or on certain food. Then in a matter of 40 or 50 years, confinement factory farming cloned most of those breeds out. They found a few breeds that can eat corn and stay in confinement and not fight and put on weight fastest, and that's all that mattered. So we tried to take breeds that fit in with this area we're in. Give them quality food, clean water, sunshine, grass, and let them take care of themselves."
To have something tasty on the plate, you need to raise the animals really well, with natural food, with plenty of space, with fresh air, with pure water.
For cattle, that means Scottish Highlands and Devons, breeds accustomed to harsh winters who sleep under the stars year-round. It's not unusual to see them in the middle of a snowstorm, a foot of snow on their back, perfectly content. Pork comes from Gloucestershire Old Spot and Large Blacks, two breeds that the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists as "critical"-they each have an estimated global population of less than 500. The Large Blacks at one point were down to a single herd, maintained by a farmer in Mississippi, but online communication among like-minded farmers allowed the breed to be slowly expanded into 10 small herds around the country. "They're great mothers," Alward says. "They don't need to be crated in a farrowing crate, and chained in for six to eight weeks while they nurse so they don't roll onto their babies." The Old Spot was originally an orchard pig; for centuries in England it was raised to glean off the unharvested apples-so from September to February, the Veritas pigs stay on a diet of similar rich local produce: apples, pears, pumpkins, even cider pressings.
The end result of a happy life can be served very rare.
It can sound oxymoronic: raising animals with such care, only to dispatch them after a determined amount of time. And in Glos's case, it's doubly so. She was a vegan and PETA activist in her younger days, and didn't actually eat meat until she began farming it herself. "I made profound leaps in understanding," she writes on the farm's website, "when I stayed up all night to help a tired sow deliver piglets in to the world...and when I killed my first chicken, by my hand, for my food." To slaughter animals that you raised yourself, to send Bandi to a beef farmer, involves some serious self-evaluation and preparation. "You're on the floor," Stephanie Turco says of the days their rescued veal calves leave the farm. "It puts you in a very different place."As we continue to walk around Veritas, Turco disappears momentarily into the barn. When she reappears, she places two warm objects in my hand: eggs. As if on cue, a rooster standing near us crows. As she describes the sight of a cow lying under a shade tree with three chickens on its back, eating flies, her earlier comment about Disney echoes in my head. When I was child, this was my impression of where animals came from: peacefully coexisting, calm, clean. Somewhere along the way, as I grew older, I dismissed that idea as a fantasy, as a...Disney ideal, I suppose. So to see it now, exactly as a child would describe it, is jarring. I mention as much to Turco. "That's not an accident," she says. "Why is it that we see photographs of all kinds of other things, but we never ever see how animals are raised? They don't want you to see. I'm not a crazy conspiracy theorist, but they really don't want you to see it. Nobody could eat it if they saw."She's absolutely right. But after visiting Veritas, the opposite also holds true. That night, my wife and I eat an early dinner at the same restaurant where I'd taken a bite of her steak the year before. This time, I order one of my own. It's a locally grown flat iron. It's neither pale nor exudative. It's slightly gamey, my wife says, but it tastes clean to me. I've seen its life. I respect its death. And I feel okay.
Peter Rubin is an editor at Complex magazine. His writing has appeared in GQ, Details, The New York Times, and Vibe.Photographs by Catherine LednerFarm photos courtesy of Veritas Farms
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Guess Who's Coming As Dinner?