Monday, January 18, 2010

Doing my part to save the prairie, one dish of chili mac at a time...

Here's how it works: when you live with a vegetarian, you tend not to cook meat. I mean, it's easier for a meat-eater to eat a vegetarian meal than vice-versa, so for the last 17 years, I've more or less lost any ability I might have ever possessed to cooked a brisket, or bake a ham, or sauté a chicken breast (or whatever it is that you do with chicken breast--still haven't figured that out).

Oh sure, every once in awhile (mostly when Walu goes out of town to a conference), I go on a meat-cooking binge, almost always with uniformly dismal results. My hamburgers/chicken breasts/steaks/etc. are always dry and puck-like, and nearly inedible. It seems to be a skill that requires some practice to get it right.

The truth is, though, I don't really miss it. What I've lost in the ability to cook meat, I've gained in the invention of delicious, rib-sticking vegetarian meals. And if you think that last statement is oxymoronic, then you've only eaten vegetarian meals prepared by people who are not vegetarians (or living with vegetarians) themselves.

And mind you, I haven't stopped eating meat myself--for example, I'll sometimes cook up a mess of ground beef on occasion to throw into my own, separate pot of spaghetti sauce. It's hard to wreck ground beef, after all. Other than that, however, I let restaurants cook it for me. It's a system that has worked just fine for many years now. So why change it?

Here's why: PaiDom Meats

The prairie is a grazing ecosystem, so it makes environmental sense to have a agricultural economy that recognizes that. PaiDom does, and is making a go of a family farm operation that is environmentally responsible, sustainable, organic, humane, and free-range.

I first heard of PaiDom a few years years ago, when I got wind of people buying meat in a parking lot at a local hardware store, as if it were some sort of drug deal. I got more intrigued when I found out that one of my students, Erin Hoelting (now a former student serving in the peace corps; see her blog here), was actually related to the farm family selling the meat. I know Erin and trust her, so when she said these people are intent on finding a more environmentally sustainable approach, it sounded like something worth supporting. Even so, given my lousy track record with cooking meat, it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I signed up for the email list, and it wasn't until last week that I finally screwed up my courage to place an order.

Here's what I got:
  • 1 pound pork breakfast sausage
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 1 pound bacon (seasoned)
  • 1 dozen eggs
I skipped chicken breasts and steaks, figuring that while it was hard to screw up ground beef, finer cuts of meat should wait until I have some sense of what I am doing. (And here is the only thing I am going to say on this matter: While I am not a vegetarian, I do recognize that something gave a life in this transaction, so I'd like to respect that and not waste meat by ruining it when I cook.)

On Saturday, I showed up in the parking lot at the appointed time and Alan Birkenfeld, owner of the operation (and Erin's second cousin), was already there with his pickup truck, handing out boxes to a waiting crowd. In comparison, my order was so tiny that it came in a sack, rather than a box, but that didn't seem to matter to him. Birkenfeld was still pleasant and gracious (and younger and more "normal-looking" than I expected--for some reason I pictured some grizzled old coot; not that there's anything wrong with being a grizzled old coot...).

The meat was frozen, and I put half the ground beef in the freezer, and the rest of the order in the refrigerator to thaw, planning to cook some right away, and to separate the rest into single-sized portions to re-freeze. So far I've had pork sausage, bacon, and eggs for breakfast (not all the same breakfast) and chili mac for supper. The meat tastes different from store-bought fare: it is leaner and the pork products are not as salty. The eggs are so fresh that they stand up in the skillet like little soldiers.

I was going to take a picture to show you, but I kept eating the subject matter.

I don't know if I'll keep doing this--after so many years of not cooking meat, it feels weird and the house smells different. Still, it seems important to support this sort of effort. The truth of the matter is that this ecosystem evolved with the bison, and while free-range cattle are not a perfect substitute for them, they are closer to what's supposed to be here than a stand of cotton is. If we are going to continue to live here, we need to be paying attention to this and supporting the growth of environmentally sensible agribusinesses.

Plus, you get to buy meat in a parking lot. What's not to like about that?

And, um, I'm taking cooking tips, if you have any to share.


  1. My younger daughter has eaten a vegetarian diet since she was 13 years old, so I've become accustomed to making tasty and hearty vegetarian dishes. I, myself, could live forever without meat, but Charlie likes his 'meat and potatoes', so meat is usually on the grocery list. I like this way of shopping though and absolutely agree that we must support family farm operations before they disappear. We have friends who have a small hobby farm where they raise a few turkeys and chickens for both the eggs, and the meat. They gifted us a lovely chicken at Christmas time and the taste was so superior to anything you can buy in the supermarket -- plus, we know how the bird was fed and how it was treated. Makes a huge difference.

  2. Intriguing post, Susan. I have meatless days, but am not interested in being a vegetarian. We buy our meat, fish, and poultry locally from small specialty shops or directly from farmers/fishermen who we've known for years, and that works for me. We all have different quandaries depending on where we live, when it comes to buying/growing/eating food.

  3. This reminds me of trip we took last year with my son's godmother to pick up her hormone and drug free, free-range Thanksgiving turkey. The family raised cows, chickens and pigs as well, all treated the same way as the turkey. The most amazing thing was that all of their seven or eight children, even the toddlers had a job to do and were helping out with the family business seemingly without complaint. It was refreshing.

  4. That's a good point you make there with implications for the future of our food. Everyone going vegetarian isn't the answer: there are some ecosystems and regions which are only suitable for animals. In the UK it's our hill farming areas for example.

    My brother-in-law's last meat meal was our wedding feast 26 years ago. His wife's like you - she's had to give up meat because that's what her beloved's done.

  5. Hi Dr. T! When you told me about paidom a couple weeks ago, I searched for their products and it turns out that they also have their meat stocked at Alternative Food Co. here in tech terrace. They don't have the eggs, or at least when I went, but they do carry most of their meats. Cool huh?!

  6. Nancy--I was surprised at how "fresh" the meat tasted when I cooked it up. I don't know if that is because it is in fact fresh, or it has something to do with being grassfed, or because it is lean.; whatever the reason, it is different.

    Jodi--We do indeed have quandaries that are geographical when it comes to eating locally. I think it's important to realize that there is no "one size fits all" solution to this issue.

    Les--our neighbors have chickens, and the kids take care of them. I had to babysit them one morning a couple of years ago because the father was having surgery ad the mother needed to be at the hospital. I was in a panic, having never raised children, but I needn't have worried: the kids got themselves up, dressed, fed the chickens, fixed their own breakfasts, and then I walked them to school. Amazing. Did having some responsibility for the chickens help? My sense was that it did.

    VP--That was a point that I was trying to make: we need to grow what's suitable to an area and to support that agricultural economy. So, ironically, you could argue that eating pasture-fed beef in grazing country is environmentally beneficial.

    Daisy--you can find it at Well-Body, too. I like the whole parking lot thing, though. ;-)


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