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Friday, March 7, 2014

You are What They Eat

Eating is essential to fuel our bodies. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica digestion is, "[the] sequence by which food is broken down and chemically converted so that it can be absorbed by the cells of an organism and used to maintain vital bodily functions.

Animals eat the food, break it down and absorb the nutrients and other properties. What they eat goes into their system. You eat the animal, break it down, and absorb the nutrients and other properties. What you eat goes into your system. It is not as simple as this, but it is something to think about.

Past the basic impact on our body, performance, and nutrition, there is another important factor in the diet and care of animals we eat. And that factor is the flavor. The flavor is impacted by the feed and the breed of animal. 

I grew up eating the standard, conventionally-farmed meats. These were highly available and could easily feed our family. They were seasoned and baked, pan-fried, or stewed. The ingredients and spices added the flavors. The meat was the protein and not much more.

Then I  moved to the Midwest. Meat from smaller local farms was available to me. Since I was close to the source, marketing, distribution, and shelf-stability were less of an obstacle to get to these meats. I was able to start getting meats fresh from the farmer. 

Through my experience with the smaller farms, I learned that meat could have rich flavors I never associated with this type of protein. The farms I get my meat from do not seem as concerned with having a neutral product and large production. They are concerned with the treatment of their livestock. They are concerned with providing a rich and healthful diet for the animals, so we end up with a rich and flavorful product to consume. The flavor of the feed comes through in the final product.

I remember the first time I got pork from Welcome to My Garden in their shop in Chesteron, Indiana. It had a unique flavor to it. I could not place it. It was not gamey, but it was earthy. I just really could not describe it, everything I tried sounded wrong. I was used to bland pork spiced and sauced up for flavor. I finally asked the farmer about the flavor. (Direct communication is another perk of farm-direct meat.) It turns out the hogs that season had kale and other greens thrown into their feed, along with acorns from the nearby forest. That was it! The pork was green! It was like a side of kale with my pork. That depth in flavor added to the meals I cooked with this meat.

It makes sense though. When the hogs are eating bland corn, soy, and other grains, you get an end product that is bland. Think of eating oatmeal with no sweetener, that kind of bland. But if you have a hog eating a mix of grains, greens, along with whatever they can root up on the property (grubs, leaves, and weeds), you get a complexity of flavor.

Last year, NPR's The Salt reported about specialty animal feeds in Avocado-Fed Pork? Why Animal Feed Is Going Gourmet. It provides a glimpse of what small farmers are doing to formulate the feed for their animals. 

"[Escobedo] and other farmers even take custom feed requests. Case in point: One restaurant shaped a special meal around a single hog that the Escobedos fed avocados (along with the peanut-based feed) for the last 6 weeks of its life.

'The meat was soft and delicious,' Escobedo recalls. 'It was the most delightful dinner I've ever eaten.'"

It's the flavor and overall characteristics of the meat that is the draw. The meat is tender. The fat (if you can find any) is generally softer and melts as you cook it. It is less than you would find in the meats from fattened up livestock. The pork is not greasy, the beef is lean, the chicken is meaty. The fat, when you do get it, melts in your mouth. It is as rich and flavorful as the meat. The fat from the bacon, duck, and chicken are good for pie crusts, kinish dough, and to fry up eggs for breakfast. 

The local farmers also have the flexibility to experiment with the breeds of livestock they raise, which impacts the flavor and other characteristics of the meat. They do not have factory-farmed, genetically-tailored livestock for consistency. You will find a consistency from feed and raising practices, but each animal is unique. They might raise heritage birds or newer breeds. They may stick to a pure breed of hog, or they might mix it up with cross breeds. They might go with smaller breeds of sheep, in favor of flavor over high production. The local small-operation farmers I have had the pleasure of meeting are a creative group with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Not all farms are created equally, but the farms that I have found in Indiana and the surrounding areas have left an impression on me. They are small-scale operations providing a flavorful product that meets my needs. Whether you are seeking an organic food source, looking to reduce your environmental footprint, or supporting humanly-raised livestock, smaller, local operations can be a good resource. Just do your research and know your farmer.

This month, I will be writing about the meat available at Welcome to My Garden. They are a farm out of Kouts, Indiana. They have a storefront in Chesterton, Indiana and participate in the Chesterton European Market. During the year they sell their fresh vegetables as available, along with the meat from their small-scale farming operations. They experiment with feed for the well-being and flavors of their animals. They experiment raising breeds for the excitement of it. All with an eye toward sustainable agriculture, strong principles, and continual improvement. With their farming operation, they share their products with the public. I will write about the packaging, the quality, and the preparation of the standard and more unique cuts of meat.

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