How to eat a politically correct steak


Ever since I read Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, food shopping is a lot more difficult. Besides the fact that finances are tight–for us and most of the people we know—I am acutely aware that how we spend our food money really can make a socio-ecological difference. Suddenly, I feel a lot like the young, political eater I used to be when I was a University of Massachusetts undergrad.

Though my days as a life-long, political vegetarian are over (I was an anemic and sickly vegetarian), I am perfectly willing and able to stop eating certain things because they aren’t good for the local economy, the environment, and—ultimately–for me. But what, from a culinary point of view, will all this political eating mean for my tastebuds?

Pollan’s book suggests that if consumers purchase local and direct from the farmer whenever possible, they not only taste a much better and healthier product, their food dollars will enable local grows to thrive and compete with big conglomerate farms that take all sorts of ecological shortcuts with chemical fertilizers and price gouging (thanks to governmental subsidies). So if I pay a little more for a gallon of milk from a family owned dairy, Pollan suggests, I’ll not only be healthier, I will be sending a message to the big dairy conglomerates that hormones, drugs and poor treatment of animals in order to make a cheaper gallon of milk, just isn’t worth it.

But just because I shop at Whole Foods a couple of times a month doesn’t mean every food dollar can enact positive social change. Though the packages on the perfectly maintained shelves of Whole Foods may say “organic” or “free range” or “all natural”, doesn’t mean they’re the best choice for the environment or my body. To be a good, political consumer, I need to be mindful and pragmatic before every purchase.

Though it’s easy to be an armchair liberal or conservative, it’s another thing to be hold a firm political position in one’s daily life.

A carnivore’s dilemma

Being a mindful and political shopper is difficult. I have to consider all sorts of questions. Do I really need to buy tomatoes shipped in from Holland if there are local farms that can sell them to me fresh off the vine at the farmer’s market? Should I forgo my menu and buy a line caught fish or should I stick to my shopping plans and get a farm-raised, color pellet-eating cousin? Can I afford the extra money to buy meat from a cow that’s free range and grass fed or should I pack up my political standards and save twenty bucks and eat one that’s been raised in a tight pen and forced fed a diet of grain–a diet it was never meant to eat?

Political eating

After spotting Gourmet Magazine’s cover photo of a grilled steak covered in roasted cherry tomatoes, I started planning a dinner party with some friends. I purchased cherry tomatoes, garlic, parsley and mint at the farmer’s market. Unable to make it to the neighborhood butcher in time, I ventured to my local Whole Foods at 3rd and Fairfax.

The meat counter selection offered a handful of choices: various organic beef cuts ($14.99/pound and up), free range grass-fed beef loin ($31.99/lb), and free range grain-fed (90% grass fed and 10% grain fed) organic Porter house ($27.99/lb). Based on the criteria of my political eating (force fed, pen raised beef is not an eating option), however, my choices were definitely limited.

For pure politics, I purchased almost 2 lbs of the 100% grass fed beef loin steak. For culinary and economic purposes, I saved a few bucks and got almost 1.5 lbs of the partially grain fed porterhouse (Neiman Ranch 90% grass fed and 10% grain fed beef). As I watched the butcher wrap up my steaks, I wondered, with some guilt, how significant that 10% of grain would be to the quality of the meat. Had I just let ten percent of my political ideals slip away? Maybe.

Side by side taste test

As the steaks cooked side by side on the grill, my husband and I talked with our guests about the politics of eating. We shared stories of Alice Waters, the Edible School Yard, the Center for Food Justice, Slow Food, Michael Pollan and think about it later chef types (Anthony Bourdain on any episode of No Reservations comes to mind). But when the steaks were finished cooking and were ready to serve, we carefully closed our eyes and tasted.

Bite for bite, both steaks were delicious. Granted, the two steaks were different cuts (and, to be fair, both were prepared slightly differently–the grass fed cut was cured with a salt/spice rub and the Neiman ranch was rubbed only with kosher salt), but both garnered equal amounts of praise.

The 100% grass-fed beef loin (or beef tenderloin) was incredibly tender and velvet-like. The taste of the grass fed loin was both juicy and moist.

The Neiman ranch (90/10 grass/grain fed) Porterhouse, was a meatier steak. It was also quite juicy and at times had much more flavorful morsels, thanks to the meat’s occasional marbling.

When polled, most of the table had a hard time deciding which steak they liked more. Considering the biased side-by-side tasting, it was clear a rematch was needed.

Stay tuned for an upcoming rematch…

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

4 Comments

  1. White On Rice Couple
    July 18
    Reply

    Great comparison and commentary Brooke. I’ll have to have Todd read your post and have him comment later. He grew up on a cattle ranch.

    Obviously he loves his beloved beef and has eaten Turners grass fed beef from New Zealand and recently bought some grass fed from a local purveyor here in Modjeska canyon. He’s also eaten his large share of grain fed too and I know he has his opinions on this.

    We’ll be back later, but in the meantime, your pan seared cherry tomato and steak dish look great! I’ve been staring at the Gourmet cover for the last month, wondering when we’ll be making it. Just gotta wait for the rest of our garden tomatoes to ripen!

  2. Mark by Chocolate
    August 3
    Reply

    This is quite timely. I use locally grown, smaller carbon foot print, grass fed beef. Organically grown, to boot. It’s some of the best beef I have ever eaten and you know I have eaten beef in many states and countries including Hawaiian grass fed beef at some great restaurants on the Big Island. Hualalai Grille was one of the places we ate. Merriman’s the other. I forget the other ones.

    I BBQ it People don’t like grass fed as much as they like feed fed. All my lamb that i use is grass fed, people love it, not always the case with the grass fed. But you know, if we tell them it’s grass fed, they chow down on it. Funny thing perception.

    I was a vegetarian for many years. When I moved to Mexico, I gave it up. I like eating meat. Yum.

    I love your blog.

  3. Mark by Chocolate
    August 3
    Reply

    PS I have a friend, Damien, who grows his own food for his restaurant, Basement Bistro. How’s that for fresh though during the winter, you get wintered veggies. He buys EVERYTHING locally if he doesn’t grow it. He makes his own prosciutto, butter, does his own butchering. Everything. He picks his own mushrooms. The guy is a phenomenon.

  4. I enjoyed your post. If I may, I would like to suggest my farm web site.

    Sumas Mountain Farms is the only producer of 100% certified-organic, lifetime grass-fed & finished beef in the Lower Mainland of BC (near Vancouver,
    Canada). We also offer chicken, eggs, pepperoni, jerky, salami, sausage, farmer sausage, steak and more.

    Because our beef is 100% grass-fed & finished, the quality of the meat is exceptional, and the flavor is unsurpassed. Plus, it is more

    nutrient-dense and packed with healthful Omega-3’s than conventional beef, which is healthier for you, your family, and the planet.

    Please visit http://www.sumasmountainfarms.ca/ for more information! We have plenty of recipes for you to try.

    Thanks.

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