Monday, February 28, 2011

Toward a Sustainable Meaning of Sustainable

This morning one of my Facebook friends posted a link to a blog post at the AtlanticMonthly that had been written by a butcher who owns a shop in Brooklyn, NY. The topic of the post (how to sell offal) was interesting and the post was well written and informative. However, it was the author's bio that grabbed my attention and got me thinking about how strange so much of the language around food and cooking has become. Specifically, it read

[Name] "is the executive butcher and co-owner of the local, sustainable butcher shop"  (Source)
Trying to forget  that "executive butcher" sounded more like the subtitle for a white-collar serial killer flick than the title of a craft-businessman, I came away very unsure about what he meant by the term "sustainable butcher shop." If I narrowly define a butcher shop as a business, then the answer might be "a sustainable butcher shop is one that earns enough to pay it's bills and stay in business."  However, after digging around through some of the author's other posts -as well as posts about the author- I realized that he was probably using the word "sustainable" to refer to something other than his hopes for the longevity of his business.

Unfortunately, I couldn't discover any sort of explanation of what makes a butcher shop sustainable in any of the author's posts. But  the following reference to the shop where he trained provided a clue about where I should next look
"During my apprenticeship at Fleisher's Meats—the first local, sustainable butcher shop on the East Coast—" (Emphasis mine)
So off I surfed to the website of Fleischer's Meats where I could find nothing  to suggest that the owners consider their butcher shop sustainable. However I did find language that indicated that they desire to sell meat that is produced via sustainable farming practices 

[We sell] ONLY pastured meats from animals raised on small, local, sustainable farms

  • Our farms are local.  They are located within 100 miles of our Kingston shop.
  • Our farms maintain closed herds. Healthy, free-roaming steer are raised on the farm and NEVER bought at market.
  • Our farmers NEVER feed their animals antibiotics, growth hormones or animal-by-products; animals are raised on a strictly vegetarian diet.
  • Our steer and lamb are 100% grass-fed in season and grain-finished throughout the rest of the year.
  • Our farmers feed their animals grain grown on the farm or purchased from a local farm co-op.
  • Our animals graze on grass that is NEVER treated with pesticides or herbicides.

 I'm not at all sure if all of these characteristics add up to "sustainable meat" (or sustainable anything for that matter). But it does sound like a great model for a business that takes into account a lot of the concerns about the negative health and environmental effects of conventional agricultural foodways.

This post in Serious Eats by another Fleisher's acolyte is a little more helpful as it attempts to explain why the shop is a sustainable butcher shop

What does it mean for a butcher shop [like Fleischer's] to be sustainable? Sustainable meat carries with it the economic concerns of sourcing from local farmers, as well the environmental advantages of raising grass-fed animals on well-maintained pastures without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Even pausing to contemplate the word itself—sustain —reminds us that these policies and practices are done for the sake of long-term well being and functionality. 
Implicit in this definition are a lot of assumptions about what sort of farming and animal husbandry practices promise the fewest negative impacts on humans and natural systems. And it's by no means clear to me that finishing cattle on grass is intrinsically healthier or more sustainable (as in the least likely to collapse)  than the status quo. However, now it seems possible to venture a definition of a "sustainable butcher shop" as a shop that only sells meat that comes from animals that have been raised in a manner that minimizes negative impacts on environmental and human health. Such a definition does not make the butcher shop sustainable per se, but it does make it a place where one might buy meat that has been raised according to allegedly sustainable farming practices.

My own definition of sustainability is probably too esoteric to be of much use in the pop-cultural dialectic around how food (or anything) should be produced because it is based on some of  the implications of the Laws of Thermodynamics: No system can be sustained forever, however length of operation can be maximized by minimizing energy inputs and energy loss relative to energy outputs.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Certifying Virtue

Many of us think a lot about what we cook and eat and what sort of measurements we should use to determine whether or not it is ethically "correct" to kill, cook and eat one thing and not another. We also worry over the ethics of consuming processed foods many of which contain ingredients imported from places with environmental, labor and animal welfare laws that are even more lax than those we enjoy in the post industrialized regions of the world.

But how many of us have a clearly defined set of criteria against which to judge what's okay to eat and what is not? And how easy is it to know which products conform to our standards, especially when in many instances the people who produce and sell foods they know to be ethically compromised dissimulate, misdirect and lie?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fermented Pork Ribs

While it is easiest to refer to this fantastic looking preparation of fermented pork ribs as Charcuterie, it doesn't feel right because, having seen this compelling example of Thai naem and recognizing how many hundreds of similar preparations of fermented meats are produced by cultures where France has never exerted much influence (or where charcuterie-like dishes predate the appearance of French influence) it feels unnatural, even Chauvinistic, to stamp this with the same name that we use for things like saucisson sec and confit d'oie.

However, I don't know how to describe what this preparation is, in any other way than saying that it is an example of  Asian Charcuterie, so I suppose I'm just going to have to live with sounding like the clueless occidental, Franco-centrist I probably am.

So how cool is this?  pork treated like sauerkraut or kimchi. The pork is salted, mixed with garlic and allowed to ferment for a few days. Given the presence of raw garlic which is known to be a harbinger of Clostridium botulinium  (the cause of botulism) it makes me a little nervous that the cure does not contain nitrite. I think it might be prudent to boil the garlic for 5 minutes  before adding it to the pork, but I may be over-thinking this.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Snack Gentrification

This reminds me of why I often cringe whenever some previously humble comestible is "elevated" to the status of fad/fetish food or haute cuisine. Reasoning to follow (Maybe :) BdG

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From the Smokehouse

I just pulled these out of the smoker. Left: Guanciale (jowls) , pork chops, ham hocks: Right: Chicken breast.
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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review: Olive Garden

No, not my review of The Olive Garden but one by someone who is not frightened by the thought of eating at one of these heat and serve food factories. Let me know if you were able to watch more than a minute of this.
By the way, what the heck is an "olive garden" anyway? I thought olives were grown in orchards not gardens. Perhaps the scientists who developed this synthetic Italian dining concept, based the name on the tomato sauce plants they genetically engineered to produce canned olives.

See all Restaurant Chains reviews at Expotv