Meat – Not Grains – To Live Sustainably

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Written by: Shannon Hayes

A girl doesn’t grow up farming the mountainsides of the Northern Catskills without becoming deeply acquainted with her meat.  For centuries, my economically impoverished community, rooted in the tail end of Appalachian culture, depended on grazing livestock when all other farm implements and technologies failed.  The steep-pitch of the fields rendered them impossible for crop production beyond subsistence gardens, as did the 11 months of frost.  The winding roads made us improbable candidates for modernization, and thus the agricultural industrial revolution passed us over.  Subsistence farming, centered around livestock, was how the families in my town survived.  The month of November meant deer carcasses hanging from front yard trees, slaughtered pasture-fattenedbeef and lambs cut up for the freezer on kitchen-tables, and outdoor smokers preserving the pork harvest.  As a child, I learned that meat was more essential to my survival than money.

Thus, it didn’t sit easy with me, as I grew into adulthood and an ecological consciousness, to see my family and neighbors, living close to the land, being implicated for America’s myriad troubles:  for producing saturated fat that supposedly made the nation obese, for raising livestock that were supposedly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and for producing a product that, by virtue of is price in comparison to lentils, was regarded as cost prohibitive.

As a result, I spent a number of years studying these issues and earned a PhD in sustainable agriculture before returning home to resume the livelihood handed down to me from three generations of my family.  By the time I re-joined the farm, I was keenly aware of the false myths implicating animal fats for heart disease, and of the role grassfed livestock farming plays in environmental stewardship  (you can read more about that here).  But as grassfed producers, we continued to hear complaints in the media that our products were too expensive, and that while our farming methods were more responsible than our factory-farming counterparts, there could never be enough meat produced sustainably to satisfy the American diet.  According to mainstream media reports, our food was nothing more than an occasional luxury.

But mainstream media never worked with me in our on-farm cutting room, where I witnessed the mountains of waste generated with every butchering session, because the American diet has limited itself to steaks, chicken breasts, burgers and an occasional roast, completely overlooking nearly 30% of every Animal we harvest, because most Americans are not interested in cooking with the bones, the skin, the fat or the organ meats.

And mainstream media, in evaluating the costs of grassfed meat in comparison to conventional grains, or even organic adzuki beans, fails to account for the unseen expenses.  Legumes and grains, touted as the ecological and economic saviors of our modern times, seem cheap on the store shelves, but they add up in many other ways: from the ecological implications of monoculture crop production, for the inflammation disorders they provoke, for the insulin demand they place on our bodies (any type I diabetic who must pay for their own insulin can assure you that cooking with grassfed meats and bone broth is far cheaper than cooking with grains), for the health care expenses that ensue as a result of their consumption.

Meat, particularly from grassfed farms,  is possible in times of ecological and economic crisis.  Indeed, it is one of the most sensible dietary choices we can make.  However, mainstream media is not entirely wrong.  The typical American meat-based diet is extremely wasteful.  If we are going to have a meat based diet that isn’t centered on grains and legumes, we need to change how we go about it:

1.      Make full use of what is there. As I mentioned already, 20-30% of every animal that moves through our cutting room goes to waste, because most meat customers will not make use of the bones and fat.  Piles of bone and suet are often sent to the compost heap, to the delight of the local coyotes, because we often only manage to sell chops and roasts.  But animal fats, when rendered, are cheaper than butter and olive oil, and perform better in the kitchen for frying, sautéing and baking.  They are far superior to the loathsome hydrogenated oils associated with heart disease.  Bones, boiled into broth, are less expensive than canned broth or wine for braising, taste great as a filling warm beverage for breakfast or as a snack or light meal, and can form the base of an infinite number of inexpensive stews, soups and casseroles.
2.      Increase the nutrient density of our food.  The prevailing habit in this country, when eating on the cheap, is to select foods that are inexpensive and filling:  Rice.  Pasta.  Legumes.  Potatoes.  Grains.  If you are curious about the true costs of these foods, carry a glucometer for a week and test your blood sugars on a grain and legume-based diet.  Or add up the costs of the inflammatory and digestive disorders they stimulate.

Instead of “eating cheap” by using cheap foods, my family eats cheap by increasing the nutrient density of our meals.  And the key to increasing the nutrient density lies in those lovely under-utilized resources I mentioned above:  the bones and the fat (organ meats are good, too, although there are less of them).  Animal fats are satiating, and they are sources of the fat-soluble vitamins, which enable our bodies to make more effective use of the minerals we ingest.  Bone broth is high in proteinaceous gelatin, minerals and electrolytes.  This makes it an especially healing food with hydrophilic colloids that attract your stomach’s digestive juices to the surface of cooked food particles, aiding in digestion.  The gelatin in the broth also helps the body make more efficient use of protein.  Thus, if you can’t afford to buy a lot of meat, broth helps to maximize the nutritional benefit of any protein you can get.   By using these ingredients to increase the nutritional density of our foods, our bodies are satisfied on less.  We are able to go a long way on less food.  That keeps our food prices down, our pharmaceutical prices down, and it helps to make sure that the existing local food resources can be stretched to accommodate a whole lot more people.  And finally,

3.      Re-use the food, recycle the nutrients.  Those little bits of hamburger left on my daughters’ plates taste great when added to broth with some vegetables for a soup.  The tiny amount of leftover chicken will be just the right amount when added to a frittata.  The leftover veggies can either be added to soup or added to the broth pot, along with the carrot tops, kale ribs, and onion skins that can be saved up from a week’s worth of cooking.

Food waste is more than just a carbon emissions and a landfill problem.  It is an economic problem as too many families discard valuable nutrients, then repeatedly spend money on fresh ingredients.  By sending food to a landfill and failing to compost whatever scraps remain, we also fail to replenish our soils. When our soils are nutritionally deficient, so is our food.  When our food is nutritionally deficient, we aren’t sated, our food costs go up, and our health care costs go up.  Whatever is left on the plate after a meal should go toward another meal.  If it cannot be re-used, it needs to be turned back into soilby way of the compost heap.

If we can change the way our nation consumes food, everyone stands to gain.  Our lakes and rivers will be cleaner, our health will be more vibrant, our farmers will be fairly compensated for their labors, our soils will be more fertile, and there will be ample nutrition for everyone.  And little farms like mine, nestled away in the mountains, will resume their place as vibrant contributors to the local economy, nourishing the bodies and souls of our neighbors, as well as many future generations of farmers.

This article was based on Shannon Hayes’ newest book: Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously.  Hayes is the host of Grassfed Cooking.com, works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York, blogs daily at www.ShannonHayes.info, and is the author ofThe Grassfed Gourmet, The Farmer and the Grill, and the controversial best-seller, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.

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  1. Fitness Wayne - Paleo and Exercise
    November 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Great article. I have been meaning to start making bone broth but honestly I have no idea where to start. Where do I even find bones and do I need grass fed bones? I still am not ready to eat organ meats. When I have tried heart in the past it was so chewy and weird.

    • Corrie
      November 16, 2012 at 7:56 am

      You have THE perfect opportunity to get into stock-making coming up next week! Make turkey stock! It was the very first stock I ever made, about a decade ago, and it turned me into a “bone saver.” My entire extended family now asks, “are you saving the bones?” before they scrape their plates after dinner at my house.

      Here’s what you do: First thing Friday morning, break up the carcass and put it into a big, tall pot. Fill the pot with cold water, just enough to cover the bones (you may need to weigh them down to keep them submerged. I use an inverted steamer basket, the type that opens up like a flower, and put a plate on top.) Put the pot on the stove over high heat. As the water heats up, “stuff” will begin to float to the surface, grab a big spoon, scrape it off and discard it. You may skim the surface as often as you like, eventually the accumulation of “stuff” will slow down. Don’t boil the stock, simmer it. Reduce the heat and find the sweet spot where 3-4 bubbles come up to the surface in a five second period. You’re going to let the stock simmer ALL DAY. I’ve learned that it’s best to wait a couple hours to add the other stock ingredients because they get in the way of the skimming process, and it doesn’t take nearly as long for the simmering process to extract their flavor. So, after a couple hours, add a couple bay leaves, a tablespoon of peppercorns, a bunch of parsley, and a small bunch of fresh thyme, a couple of carrots cut into two or three pieces, a couple celery stalks cut the same as the carrots (you can leave the leafy tops on. OR, in the spirit of this article, save all the leafy tops and less desirable trim from the celery used in other parts of the Thanksgiving dinner and use THAT in your stock), and a couple of yellow onions, cut into quarters, skin intact (adds color to the stock).

      The first couple of hours require the most attention, but now that the other stock ingredients are in, you can kick back and relax the rest of the day, while enjoying the incredible aroma that’s filling your home. Just check every once in awhile to make sure the stock is still simmering, not too slow, not too fast.

      At the end of the day, at say, 8 pm, get ready to strain the stock. I use another large pot (hey, if you’re going to get into stock-making you’ll be thankful to have the proper equipment). I put it in the sink with a large metal colander set over it, suspended by its handles. I line the colander with several layers of cheesecloth that’s been rinsed in cold water (if it’s already wet, the stock passes through it easier). Place a folded kitchen towel or hot pad on the counter next to the sink. CAREFULLY transfer the pot of stock to the side of the sink and set it on the towel. Remove the plate weight, but leave the inverted steamer basket. Use a pair of tongs (two points of contact is better than one) to hold the steamer basket down, keeping the stock ingredients in place, as you slowly tip the stock pot over to pour the liquid through the cheesecloth-lined colander, into the other pot. BE CAREFUL OF THE STEAM AND SPLASHING STOCK!!!

      Now, for food safety’s sake, you need to get that stock chilled as quickly as possible BEFORE you put it into the fridge. Here’s where living in the north can actually be handy. In Montana, I often stick my stock outside overnight to cool in the winter, sometimes right into a pile of snow. But, another option is to leave the pot of strained stock in the sink, fill the surrounding sink area with as much ice as you’ve got (plan ahead and make extra, or make a couple big blocks in bowls), and then fill that area with cold water, too. Stir the ice water and the stock every now and again, and the magic of conduction will have your stock cool in just a few minutes. Now, cover the stock and refrigerate it overnight.

      The next day, you will have a pot of turkey jello with a layer of fat on the surface! Skim off the fat, and reserve it. You can use the stock as is, but I like to reduce it to concentrate the flavor. I put it back on the stove and boil it until it’s reduced by half. Now, add veggies (broccoli, kale, leeks and mushrooms are some of our favorites), and simmer to cook them, then add leftover turkey meat and heat it through. Season to taste. Oh, and add back in that reserved fat ‘cus we’re not fat-phobes. You don’t want to boil the stock hard with the fat in it because it will break down and make the stock muddy.

      I honestly think that I enjoy the turkey soup more than Thanksgiving dinner itself.

      Now that you’re initiated, you will look at bones in a whole new light. They’re worth their weight in gold! I save up chicken carcasses in the freezer until I have enough to make a large batch of chicken stock (parsnips taste great in chicken stock, instead of carrots). I freeze containers of stock for future soup, stew and sauce recipes. Freezer space an issue? Reduce your stock way down before you freeze it, then add water to dilute it when you go to use it later on.

      Have fun!

  2. Kyle Klingman
    November 15, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Fitness Wayne, the easiest way to make bone broth is to buy whole chickens. Consume the chicken, save the bones, voila. I’m not sure about grass-fed vs. conventional when it comes to bones but I would just assume you should stick with grass-fed bones. I certainly haven’t gone with anything but grass-fed. Go to local farmers markets. See if there are any meat vendors there. For example, here in Tucson, a number of vendors at farmers markets sell soup bones as well as many other cuts of meat. I’m not sure how you prepared the heart but don’t give up on it just yet. Try preparing it in a slow cooker. I did this just last week (grass-fed of course) and it tasted almost exactly like a roast. Delicious! Give grass-fed beef liver a shot, as well. It’s really not as bad as you might think and the nutritional content is virtually unparalleled.

  3. Barb, RHN
    November 16, 2012 at 12:21 am

    With all of the recent “Meatless Monday” hype going around, this article is very timely and very well written. Thank you!

  4. Susan
    November 16, 2012 at 9:26 am

    I have a phd in agricultural economics and have been wanting to do some kind of macro analysis of land use for grazing versus crops to examine the implications of wider adoption of paleo nutrition. I tend to think that eating more nutrient dense foods will ultimately reduce the footprint from food production. I suspect with climate change, we’ll have a lot more grazing land and a lot less crop land in North America anyway!

  5. Victor Dorfman
    November 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Damn skippy, Shannon!

    I hiked the Catskills last summer and man…what a breathtaking locale. No wonder NYC has great water coming from that pristine reservoir!

    Anyhow, I totally agree with you that skimping on quality of food doesn’t really save any money in the long run. Poor quality food tastes worse, has negative health impacts and so what if you save a few bucks? What’s the gonna matter when you’re 60 and health is FUBAR?

  6. Kim Chase
    November 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I can’t encourage every one to buy “Long Way on a Little” enough! I bought it about a month ago and her insights on leftovers and broth alone have probably more than paid back the cost of the book. Shannon Hayes is a hero of mine. How great to see her and Robb Wolf teaming up!

    Fitness Wayne, try heart in a stew. It has a wonderful texture when cooked slowly.

  7. Diane
    November 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Here’s an easier way to make bone broth:
    Buy soup bones from the butcher. These are typically joints that have been sawed in quarters and have a lot of cartilage. Dump the bones in the crock pot. Add some water, salt and perhaps a little wine. Let it go overnight. In the morning, fish out the bones. Since I live in the city I have to throw those away. Fish out the meat and cartilage. You can eat that for lunch. Set a small strainer over a jar and ladle the soup into as many jars as it takes. I use old spaghetti sauce jars and can usually fill 2 and a half or 3. Put the jars in the fridge. A layer of fat forms on top as it cools. You can remove the fat and use it for cooking. You’ll end up with very plain, clear broth that you can then drink as-is or use in soups. I find the plain, unseasoned broth makes a more versatile product that I can spice up however I need later. But typically I just drink a cup as-is in a mug.

  8. Keith Laurie
    November 21, 2012 at 10:16 am

    I once visited a country abattoir in an undeveloped Island in the Caribbean and was interested in the waste products. They sell the bones for broth and most interesting they boiled the cattle hides removed the hair and made a delicious soup or boiled the skin in dilute lime juice and produced a popular dish called Souse . i tasted it it was great but not very nutritious . However I have since added some hide to my bone broth and it becomes like jelly and absorbs the taste of all the seasonings.
    In the Islands there is no market for the Hides as no leather is produced . In fact they make an Ox Tail soup or stew and do not remove the skin and actually leave a large piece attached to the tail
    Try it you will be pleasantly surprised .
    Keith Laurie Barbados

  9. pixel
    November 27, 2012 at 2:50 am

    Ill gladly dispose of that excess fat and bone for you! i love eating roasted marrow and gobs of fat and drinking bone broth.

  10. eema.gray
    November 29, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    We have a local butcher who sells beef knuckles for about a buck fifty a pound. He sells chicken backs and necks (mixed bags) for less than a dollar a pound. After 72 hours in a crockpot, a beef knuckle falls apart and is pock marked with holes, truly an amazing sight. “Stock” so firm that I can turn a canning jar upside down with no more than a wiggle. Never been much a fan of steaks and chops myself, I prefer roasts and cuts with bones in them because then the bones can be turned into stock, doubling the amount of nutrition I get for my money. Practically jumped for joy a few days ago when I saw that wal mart, of all places, is carrying tongue, cheek meat, tripe, oxtail, and liver now. Who woulda thunk?
    Post thanksgiving and have a quart of rendered goose fat I’ve been using for nearly all my cooking. It’s amazing, marvelous stuff. :-)

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