By Meredith Leigh
(New Society Publishers 2015)
All recovering vegetarians have their reasons for returning to meat—some simply needed meat for energy and iron, others could not resist the lure of crispy, fatty, salty, heavenly bacon. Meredith Leigh remembers clearly the moment she reverted to meat after nine years of vegetarianism and two years of veganism. While traveling after college, she learned that it is a gesture of friendship in Vietnam to place food in a companion’s bowl. In a rural village one evening, a woman named Loi placed a piece of water buffalo—from an animal she had raised and slaughtered personally—in Leigh’s bowl. After gratefully eating the buffalo, she began to wonder if there was a more ethical way to eat animals. Since then, Leigh has done a complete 180, becoming an expert in raising, butchering, and cooking animals.
Leigh gives four main tenets for ethically eating meat, and not all of them are easily accomplished for the consumer with limited time and resources. One, the animal must enjoy a good life, enduring little stress. Two, the slaughter must be performed humanely, rendering the animal completely unconscious before killing it. Three, the animal should be butchered properly and efficiently. Finally, the meat should be cooked to maximize the whole animal, thus honoring the life of the animal.
Leigh’s handbook gives a step-by-step guide, with photos, on how to butcher chickens, cows, lamb, and pigs. The list of butchery equipment is long, and breaking down a whole cow is likely impractical for many readers. Still, it is a fascinating read for discerning eaters.
Leigh gives practical tips on purchasing meat, explaining how to navigate the maze of unclear labeling. She writes that even if the animal was fed USDA-certified organic grain, it may not have died a just and clean death. Her best advice is that if you can’t raise your own meat, try to purchase it directly from a community member who has raised it. And accept the fact that you will pay more than supermarket prices. Although the price of ethical meat may seem expensive, it’s usually a fairer price than supermarket meat, which is heavily subsidized—and along with those cheap prices looms the specter of antibiotics and other health risks, and a probable poor quality of life of the animals. You can make up the difference by learning how to utilize the cheaper cuts to their fullest, most delicious extent.
Leigh includes recipes that lovingly employ all parts of the animals, right down to the bones. Her prose on beef is particularly effusive. On stock, she writes, “Oh, beef bones. I love them. Rich stock is just one reason why. If you don’t know what to do with beef stock, I’m very sorry for you. Here are just a few ideas: braising, marinating, making sausage, drinking warm when ill or when not ill, making sauces, soups, and stews. Cooking grains. Cooking vegetables. Its uses just do not end.”
Many recipes are simple while others are quite complex, piquing the reader’s curiosity with unexpected flavors. Earl Grey Braised Lamb Shank with Herb Dumplings combines bergamot and saffron to brighten earthy lamb. Lime Cream Curry Lamb Sausage with Dosas and Raita begins with whole spices that are ground with both lean and fat lamb parts. Chicharron with Apple Butter and Cilantro Crème Fraiche makes use of pig skin while headcheese involves boiling an entire pig head and a trotter (a pig’s foot). Breakfast Scrapple with Arugula, Eggs, and Maple uses pork heart and liver, along with pork trimmings and bacon ends for a plethora of porky goodness.
Although some of the more obscure animal parts might make us squeamish, this is only because we have been conditioned to find ribeyes succulent and sweetbreads (special pig organs) and trotters less appealing. Leigh’s thesis, though, is that to truly eat animals ethically, we must endeavor to lovingly prepare and savor each and every meaty bit.
By Barry Estabrook
(W.W. Norton & Company 2015)
Does this mean I’ll have to give up eating bacon?” This was the question on the lips of Barry Estabrook’s partner when he set out to research and write a book on the pork industry in America. It is also the question that keeps cycling through the mind of the reader as Estabrook recounts his journey through pig farms large and small, slaughterhouses, and science labs.
A modern-day Upton Sinclair, Estabrook approaches the industrial pig farming business with an even hand but with a healthy dose of skepticism. Indeed, there are unsettling moments in the book that would make any conscientious eater think twice about eating pork—or perhaps any meat.
For example, the sheer number of pigs it takes to supply America’s tables with cheap chops, sausages, bacon, and pork roasts takes a major toll on the environment. Several chapters of the book are devoted to the waste produced by pigs. In middle America, where most factory pig farms are located, residents are plagued by the noxious odors exuded from the “farms” which house thousands of animals, cheek-to-jowl, in tiny crates that don’t allow them to turn around. To make matters worse, pig farmers spray liquefied pig excrement on crops being grown for pig feed, thus slinging the stinky mess through the air. Estabrook recounts the story of a Kansas City law firm that specializes in nuisance class-action suits. Sadly, industrial pig farmers simply regard such settlements as the cost of doing business, and have thus far refused to take measures to clean up their act.
Another major woe of industrial pig farming is the rampant use of antibiotics. Because factory farmers pump their pigs with low levels of antibiotics to ward off infection and increase growth, antibiotic-resistant diseases like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and salmonella have been on the rise. Despite many recent scientific studies proving that halting the use of antibiotics results in dramatic drops in the frequency of superbugs like MRSA, the conventional wisdom in industrial pig farming is still that using low levels of antibiotics is the best strategy to maximize profits.
Then there are the requisite slaughterhouse horror stories. Pigs are legally required to be stunned or anesthetized before being turned upside down and having their throats slit, but Estabrook recounts many violations. Because of human error, pigs are sometimes still conscious when they die, raising obvious concerns that they experience fear and suffering.
As if that weren’t horrifying enough, there’s the human cost to consider. Estabrook tells the story of Ortentia Rios, who worked in a slaughterhouse in Milan, Missouri, until she became physically incapable of doing the intense physical labor. Her duties included removing knife blades from conveyor belts of meat as it passed by quickly, which had been deposited there by “de-boners” who came before her on the conveyor line. Even worse, she was assigned to arrange meat on the conveyor just before it entered a slicer, her hands and fingers narrowly escaping the sharp moving blades all day long. When a co-worker of hers was killed after falling into a meat-blending machine, the resulting OSHA report termed the accident a “fatal laceration.”
The number of Latino immigrants working in meat-packing plants has increased drastically in recent years. Estabrook writes that U.S. citizens have left for better, safer jobs so that, horrifyingly, Mexican workers in the United States generally are nearly twice as likely to die on the job than are citizens.
Though Estabrook spends considerably more of his word count relating these atrocities of the industrial pig business, he does include a note of hope. There are many ethical meat purveyors in the United States, such as Niman Ranch, that eschew the use of antibiotics and crates and guarantee that animals are humanely raised and slaughtered.
Estabrook ends his pig tale with a traipse through an idyllic 150-acre farm in the Ozarks where Russ Kremer raises 1,200 hogs. Estabrook reports seeing pigs freely roaming in and out of barns, exploring rocky ridges, and even frolicking—yes, frolicking!—in fields and woodlots. Along with 33 other small farmers, Kremer created the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative, which requires that its members forgo feeding animal by-products and administering antibiotics. The group supplies D’Artagnan (a New York gourmet food purveyor) and Whole Foods Markets with pork products, proving that small, sustainable, and humane pork producers can turn a profit.
Estabrook says that consumers have the power to support such ethical and humane operations with our wallets. He writes, “My partner and I still eat bacon. We’re just a lot more choosy about where we get it.” ✜
Molly Kincaid is a Tucsonan who is obsessed with tinkering in the kitchen and reading cookbooks. Her favorite foods are, paradoxically, kale and pork belly.