For one reason or another, I’ve been eating a mostly vegetarian diet for the last several months, and I was really looking forward to getting back to some high quality, delicious pastured and grass-fed meats. Everyone who thinks about food at all approaches the problem of eating meat from a different perspective. Some go vegan. Others think cheese and eggs from factory farms are okay but killing animals is not. My own approach to this is that meat production and processing when done humanely on pasture by small-scale organic farmers is the most sustainable, healthful and ethical answer to the problem of getting the requisite amount of protein in my diet. Protein from animal sources (as opposed to plants) is critical to me because I have juvenile diabetes. Animal proteins reduce my insulin requirements and delay metabolism of carbohydrates without adding extra carbohydrates the way grain or legume sources do. A balanced diet is the only diet for my particular body.
There are some other low carb protein options, but each comes with its own serious downside. Soy based proteins come wrapped in plastic from 1000s of miles away and carry the risk of high levels of phytoestrogen exposure if over-consumed. (Read, if this is your only protein source, you are overconsuming). Plant monocultures are also devastating to the ecology of any place, and you better believe that even your organic tofu, soy milk and seitan come from monocropped sources. It is not hard to imagine that many animals whose destiny was never someone’s plate (butterflies, birds, fish, fungi, bacteria, worms…) die from the production of a serving of wheat, rice and other grains.
Eggs and cheese have their own ethical problems. Chickens in factory farms are tortured, imprisoned and poisoned for their eggs, as are the cows and calves that produce the milk and rennet required for your industrially processed cheeses. The humane slaughter of a chicken for a meal is way more ethical in my mind than eating eggs or cheese which were extracted through the living death of animals. Locally produced eggs and cheese usually don’t have these issues but this is an expensive option at $15/pound. I have also found that a steady diet of eggs and cheese also wrecks havoc on my cholesterol levels. Strangely, a diet of varied pastured meats, including a lot of bacon (go figure) puts my good cholesterol off the charts and my bad cholesterol in the basement. I volunteer to be a research subject should anyone want to find out why. But I think I know why. When grains form the basis of a diet, it often leads to high cholesterol levels in you or the critter who is eating them. Pastured beef cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens often subsist solely on grasses, legumes and other forage, and so have very low levels of cholesterol themselves.
The killing part is still a thorny issue for many. Having been raised on a farm where my playmates became dinner more often than not, and coming from a long line of farmers who did their own butchering and processing after giving their animals a beautiful life and ultimately a purpose to provide for them, makes this a less abstract issue for me. I don’t want to eat my dog or my horse, but they aren’t in my life for that purpose. When I bring animals to my farm with the purpose of having them perpetuate my chain of being, it seems that the only way forward is to give them a natural and humane life and death.
I trust that the farmers who raise meat for me give their animals this. I also know that no one was exploited or poisoned to produce this food and my money goes to the farmer who did this for me, not to some nameless faceless corporation. I also know that small-scale diversified pastured animal production fits beautifully in a variety of ecological niches here in the U.S., and cows, goats, pigs and chickens are often beneficial to diversity and health in many ecosystems. This food also comes from somewhere in my immediate geography and this has benefits beyond the environmental. I boost the local economy and foster social relations at the same time I lower my carbon footprint. I can’t do that with grains, not here, not anywhere (only exception is Minnesota with wild rice, which may be the world’s most perfect food).
Since my body won’t have my diet any other way, I choose this path with my eyes wide open. I give thanks for the sacrifice of the animal who provides me with life, and offer my best love, skill and care in the preparation and consumption of the food, knowing full well that I have taken life for my own. It is a sacrament dedicated to life, not just a meal.
This week, I bought a pastured chicken from Greendale Farms. It was my first taste of chicken in 8 months, and I had plans for all my favorite meals. First I roasted the chicken rubbed with a garlic-herb butter that I made myself from local cream. Then I made stock from the bones and made a sweet potato and kale chicken soup for the freezer to be pulled out when I don’t have time to cook. For lunch, I had leftover root vegetables and chicken slathered in gravy from the pan drippings with some steamed local baby broccoli heads. Tonight I am making chicken and wildrice hotdish—a favorite of mine from childhood. One chicken, four different recipes; at least ten different meals. One chicken, one thriving farmer, one local place, one intact ecology. One chicken, one sacrifice.
I won’t convince anyone already convinced that their way is right, and that is not my intention. It’s just one answer to a multitude of questions about how we do this thing called life. For me and my life, this is the answer and the way for me. Come over for dinner if you want to join me.
Think well, live well, be well.