on eating meat

Sometimes I look at a meal and it’s, you know, just food everyone eats, like Costco meatballs (I love Costco meatballs), or store-bought spaghetti with Food Lion frozen peas. Other times, so much of the food on my plate has come from us, or close to us, that I have to do a double-take. Like, seriously? All that came from us?

It’s fun to parse the mash-up of earned, gleaned, scavenged, grown, and made. For example, in this particular round of “Source Your Food”…

Stale sourdough bread from the bakery. 
Butter from our cows. 
Onions and cherry tomatoes from the farm where my son works. 
Green peppers from our garden. 
Steak from our grass-fed steers.
Scrambled eggs leftover from the diner where my daughter works. 
Cheese from our cow Daisy. 

***

Recently when I was chatting with some out-of-town friends, I happened to mention that our supply of beef is dwindling so if we didn’t want to run out then we needed to start raising a steer now. I also said I was kinda bummed that Fern and Petunia are the slow-growing hog variety of hog — I wanted sausage now. 

Do you eat a lot of meat? they asked. 

“I’m trying to eat more of it,” I said. 

“Why?” they asked.

I didn’t know what to say. Why am I trying to eat more meat? Why did they seem surprised? Why did I suddenly get the feeling I was doing something wrong? I thought about that conversation for days, trying to figure out what was going on. 

burger with homemade cheese, pickled veggie salad, and toasted, discarded bakery sourdough

And then I remembered what I’d grown up learning about meat eating: it was bad for the environment because it required more land, water, and energy to produce one pound of beef (pork, chicken, etc) than one pound of grain. Therefore, the story went, plant-based eating was more environmentally friendly. Factor in the climate crisis and in some social circles eating meat is practically unethical. And rightfully so! The meat industry does wreck enormous havoc on our environment. 

stale bakery baguette, homemade mozz, steak from us,
veggies from our garden and the farm where my son works, dressing from Costco

But there’s another side to the story that conscientious eaters who are removed from their food sources might not be aware of. 

1. Crops require fertilizer, either chemical or organic, and when animals are removed from the equation there’s increased reliance on chemical fertilizers which isn’t that great for the environment. 

2. When animals and plants are grown together on a small scale — animals and crops rotated in a symbiotic manner, manure used for fertilizer, etc — the natural give and take is actually good for the environment. 

raw milk cheeses, discarded prosciutto from my daughter’s work

Not that we’re doing any crop-animal field rotation — that’d require fencing and legit planning and we’re much too slap-dash for that. Most of our animals’ poo stays exactly where it plops.

However! The amount of calories we get from letting a single steer mow and fertilize the back field (and then slaughtering and eating it for its troubles) is far greater than what we’d ever raise in our piddly and neglected garden. Add in a cow or two and we get an even greater variety of nutrient-dense calories via the milk and cheese. (Not to mention a calf to raise for beef or sell for cash.) Toss in a couple piggies and a flock of chickens to gobble up the whey and all the garden/kitchen scraps and now we’ve got sausage and eggs to boot. 

grass-fed beef burger on a Costco hot dog bun, raw milk Gouda, discarded diner bacon, homecanned zucchini relish, tomatoes from the farm where my son works

Grass-fed beef, farm-fresh eggs, and ooo-la-la artisanal raw-milk cheeses are wildly pricey. If I had to buy them, we’d eat them sparingly, if at all. However, since we’re doing it ourselves, these food items are actually the cheaper, more economical choice. So when I said I was trying to eat more meat, what I meant was that I’m working at shedding my “meat is a treat” mentality and training myself to eat more meat because this is what we have. Our homegrown food is both a luxury and the pragmatic, economical choice. 

scavenged green beans via a neighbor, leftover steak, groundnut stew

Eating more meat doesn’t mean we’re routinely feasting on beef or no longer eating our vegetables. (If you look at one of the weekly menus I post on our fridge, you’ll notice there’s usually quite a few meatless meals.) Rather, it simply means I’m making a conscious effort to work meat into our diets more regularly.

What does this look like?

leftover diner biscuits, eggs from my daughter’s chickens, steak from our steers, butter from our cow

Grilling up a couple extra steaks and then thinly slicing the leftovers and flash-frying them to go with groundnut stew or our morning eggs. Making burgers whenever the urge strikes. Ignoring the ice cream freezer section in the store (this is hard!) and then taking the time to make ice cream when I get home. Keeping stocked in mushroom salt for big beef roasts. Using my cheese mistakes in mac and cheese and on pizza. Tossing hunks of ricotta into the pancake batter even though it’d be perfectly fine without it. 

It’s saying yes to what we have and what’s available and then building a menu accordingly. It’s shopping less and making more. It’s eating a lot, a lot, a lot of leftovers. It’s accustoming our palates to flavors that are sometimes stronger and earthier. It’s sometimes boring. It’s occasionally limiting and challenging.

mint chip

And most days, fortunately, it’s also filling and delicious.

This same time, years previous: no-hands mozzarella, perks, the quotidian (8.26.19), a big deal, on love and leftovers, don’t even get me started, atop the ruins, fresh tomato salad.

8 Comments

  • Thrift at Home

    Love this pragmatic approach. I prioritize local food over organic or cheap (although responsible producers and buying in season usually also include those factors, too!). We buy our beef every fall from a farm a few miles away that has a circular system – not sure that’s what it’s called – where he raises the hay for feed, breeds and raises his own cattle, rotates pasture, and does it again.
    Factory farms are such a problem. Wish Americans could purge the idea that bigger is always better, that progress means getting bigger. I know that’s only one factor is keeping small “circular” farms, but really, there is little support for farmers who farm like that because we are always pushed to get bigger as a mark of success.

  • Elva

    I am so happy to see a post that expresses encouraging words about responsible meat eating. I do raise grass-fed beef and lamb on my farm, and I do this because I know it provides a great life for the livestock, healthy meat for my customers, all the while building organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon, and providing land for many forms of wildlife that happily coexist with the grazing ruminants. I am so very tired of hearing that meat is ruining our world. Perhaps FACTORY RAISED meats are ruining our soils, rural communities, and adversely affecting the health of our people, but not meat that is raised on farms that practice managed grazing systems.

  • carol

    One of the points that’s often missing from the dialogue is monoculture vs. biodiversity.
    It is true that the inputs to create a vegetable based meal are, in raw terms, lower.
    And it’s also true that, in a well-farmed wheatfield, we go from road allowance to road allowance– not even from fenceline to fenceline. Big equipment is the way to make farming profitable: and you need that turning radius. Bigger fields. There is no economic reason to leave the hedgerow as a buffer. So nowhere for the little critters to establish homes. No room for the hares, mice, porcupines, gophers etc- so nothing for those cunning coyotes, foxes, or gliding hawks to eat.

    Pollinators have feast and then famine, as everything blooms, then ripens at the same time.

    It can be quite a desert, in a way, when you think about it.

    Couple this observation with the observation that not all land is suitable for farming (even dryland, no-till), and it seems apparent that there’s a good argument to be made for meat farming.
    Carol S-B

  • Becky R.

    I am a meat eater as well, but those of us who eat meat should be aware that the longest lived people in the world eat very little meat. Meat can predispose you to inflammatory and chronic diseases. I am going in the other direction at my house. We don’t plan on giving up meat, but we do eat much less than we did in the past. Older people do need a protein boost, but it doesn’t have to be from meat. There are lots of sources for protein. No shaming here. I love a cheeseburger!

  • Miriam Allison

    Check out Buzzard’s Beat, http://www.buzzardsbeat.com, for an insider’s view of raising beef ethically, and with the good of the planet in mind. She’s active in social media, check out her webpage for where to follow her. She’s often posting about the benefits of a well-run farm/ranch and how today’s farmers and ranchers are doing their utmost to protect the environment, which in turn protects their livelihood. She and her husband are ranchers in Kansas. She speaks from the perspective of what used to be considered a family farm, although given the size of their operation, they’re classified as commercial. But they are NOT operating in the wasteful manner depicted by those who would condemn all meat-eating as bad for the environment.

    From my personal experience, growing up as a farmer’s daughter, I agree with your statement about crops requiring fertilizer. Plus, every time a farmer has to go over his field – tilling, planting, fertilizing, etc., through harvesting – means another trip around the field with a tractor and/or combine, plus wagon/truck during harvest, using more fuel, creating more emissions; not to mention all the water needed for irrigation. That’s kind of the opposite of the climate-change friendly picture the never-meat crowd likes to portray.

    I envy the circle of suppliers that you’ve built up for your food sources. My husband and I have gotten a late start, but we’re working our way closer to what you have. We’ve lived in towns or cities our entire married life, but that’s no excuse for not growing a few veggies on the deck or putting a raised bed or two in the yard. We’re also starting to source local farmers for our meat supply for confidence in knowing the source, cost-savings buying in bulk, and using less fuel to haul the meat to our freezer.

  • KC

    It’s incidentally also good to adjust when you get older to a higher-protein diet for longevity (… admittedly, a fair bit older than you are yet). (fat and cholesterol, not so great, but bodies really like protein, especially for making repairs!)

    (but yeah. “Use what you have” is often left off the layers of conventional environmental wisdom, but it’s actually… kind of important? Even for those who don’t have external forage or garden or meat-growing options, using up the foods you buy instead of throwing them out makes a difference – but it does make a bigger difference when you have non-purchased food sources available!)(and “eat less meat” is also structurally different advice to people who are eating 4oz+ of meat at nearly every meal vs. people who are already eating a lot of meatless meals)

  • Beth

    I have two hunters in my family, so we have a stockpile of venison in the freezer and eat more meat than I would naturally prefer, I think. It’s free-range, organic (mostly) meat, and only costs us time and any processing. My husband does the butchering and we grind most of it, but do get some sausage and jerky made occasionally. I have some anti-hunting family, but my husband’s answer is always better on your plate than through your windshield – and it’s a good point. They only hunt what we can use, and we share with neighbors when we can.
    Oh, and we have a flock of chickens for eggs. They get all the scraps including from our neighbors farm stand, and I’m totally spoiled on good eggs now!

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