ETA: Please pass this on if you read it, agree with it, or think that other people need to hear it. Retweet it, repost it, put it on facebook or link to your own blog. I just got a little passionate, NETWORK style about this article.  I appreciate the time, and thanks for stopping by.

I picked up a copy of the Stranger the other day. If you’re not from around here, the Stranger is Seattle’s weekly, similar to the Village Voice, Chicago Reader, etc. featuring the advice columns of Dan Savage. That’s how you know it.  Anyhow, front page news had the headline “Mystery Meat- How Organic is Bill the Butcher?”

Ooh. An intriguing expose.

I read through the article, (linked at the bottom of this post), and had an immediate response. I’ve worked in some level of the chain of supply for meat for about fifteen years, ranging from being the guy who checks in the locally produced lamb to the guy who sells you your bacalao. I’ve gone through meat cutting classes, and have a decent grasp on what makes a good cut of meat. Certainly, through my tenure in the industry, I know what it means to be a decent purveyor of quality product at prices that reflect what kind of meat it is that you’re getting. Online classes to discuss the quality, source, and importance of sustainability of fish were always at my disposal. So what’s my beef with the beef?

In the article, a few things stood out.

(T)here’s one thing Von Schneidau and Owens won’t share, and that’s the names of the putatively organic ranches that supply the shops.

Bill the Butcher’s marketing and in-store signage explicitly state “Certified Organic and Natural Beef, Lamb, Veal, Goat, Cheese, Fish, Chicken, Pork, Game” (its website says “only locally sourced and ethically raised meat”). When asked, butchers at two locations said, “Everything in the case is organic.

And the most damning of all condemnations, a response in the article from one of their own purveyors of chicken:

The chicken farm is the one source that Bill the Butcher is forthcoming about: Dog Mountain Farm in Carnation. David Krepky, co-owner of Dog Mountain, says, “Yeah, I told them not to use the word ‘scavenger,’ because they’re not.” The chickens are kept in an indoor/outdoor pen and given feed to supplement whatever bugs and grass they find in the outdoor part.

Dog Mountain Farm’s chickens are highly regarded, sustainably and humanely raised heirloom chickens. But Bill the Butcher’s butchers also claimed that the Dog Mountain Farm chickens were certified organic. “No,” says Krepky, “they’re not organic. The organic feed comes from Canada, and it’s like twice as expensive.” Are they certified natural? “Nope,” says Krepky, “neither. They’re just good chickens.

How is this fair to people who want to sell ethically raised meat? It’s not. It is misleading by the person who you are supposed to trust to keep your family healthy. When you go to get a haircut, you trust the barber to make you look good. When you go to the bookstore, you trust the recommendations of who is selling you the book. Buying your food should not be like buying a car. Why should you have to do the research on where your food comes from? It should be there in black and white. If it is organic, prove it. Show me. Tell me where it comes from, what it eats, how it’s raised. If you’re charging premium prices for a supposedly premium product, I expect you to be able to tell me what kind of grass your grass fed beef is pastured on.

They don’t even do that:

When asked which ranch a flank steak came from and what the cow ate, the young butcher at the Woodinville store replied, “Well, it’s not like I can ask this steak where it came from, you know. But I can tell you that everything here is local and organic.”

Come on. This is appalling to me. How on earth can you possibly employ someone who is as inept at their job as this? Where on earth is this an accepted practice, to be mediocre about the product that you sell? Yes, you can tell us where the steak came from. What you cannot do is exactly what you just did. You cannot say that this piece of meat is organic.

You can say it’s all natural. You can say it’s “beyond organic”, whatever that means. You can even say it’s organically raised or fed, but you cannot say that it is fully organic. The pastures, the grain, the conditions of the soil, the proximity to contaminated sources of clean, untainted drinking water? All of these have bearing on whether or not you can truthfully sell something as what you purport it to be.

On to the fish- there is no way that you can certify a fish organic in the United States. Such a classification does not exist, adhering to the rules set forth by Fish and Game, NOAA, USDA, etc. Show me which pond, which lake, which river you’ve certified organic, and then drink out of it to prove to me that it is fully safe. The closest we can get to Organic fish certified to United States standards is to have an accompanying seal of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent third party organization who does testing to ensure that a wild caught fish is harvested in an ecologically sustainable manner, one that is least detrimental to the environment (dragging, minimal bycatch, etc.), and a method and cap for the season that is not counterproductive to the continued flourishing and cyclical repopulation of the species. Even though it’s also designed as a marketing ploy with the extra added cache of being able to put it on your product and jack up the prices, they do their research.

Bill the Butcher?

According to Owens and Von Schneidau, some of the meat is USDA certified organic and some is certified natural—a certification monitored by ranchers themselves, not the USDA. Then some is what Von Schneidau calls “beyond organic”—certified as neither, but “grass-fed and sustainably ranched” and personally checked. Von Schneidau says, “My specs to [the ranchers] are ‘x, y, z,’ and we get as close to that as we can to call it ‘Bill the Butcher.'”

The thing is, this in itself is utter noise and PR nonsense, designed to put the customer at ease. Still, they go into no depth as to what X, Y, and Z actually happen to be. When I sell a fish, my X is that the fish must be purple, the Y is that it should have sharp pointy teeth, and the Z is that it should taste vaguely of the sea. It’s a crazy sounding analogy, but it’s my prerogative how I’m going to use it to sell my product. If those were my criteria, would you really want to buy a fish from me?

Neither would I.

***

There are so many things that I want to say about this, so many wrongs that need to be righted. Their staff needs training, badly. They need to be more honest with their customers relating to how they are marketing their product. Right now, all they’re marketing is themselves as a high end butcher for a high end clientele. That is their niche. Having worked that angle on a larger scale, I can tell you that their business is relying on the fact that the pseudo-educated consumer will ask a bunch of regurgitated questions that they’re supposed to ask but have not the wherewithal to fully comprehend the answers to. I’ve been guilty of misleading customers before, sometimes based on what I’ve been told to tell them, but also because I know that they won’t have the patience to check it out on their own. Shopping at one of these places and assuming that you’re getting the best quality food should be a right. People treat it as a privilege accompanied by whatever luxury car they’re driving. It doesn’t matter so much to them that the food quality is paramount. You take home a piece of 40 dollar per pound cherry leaf wrapped bleu cheese, your dinner guests are going to know that you take your food seriously, but it will never get past the superficial level of the Ooohs and Aaahs that your cheese plate receives as you serve it alongside your bottle of trendy Croatian reserve Tempranillo style wine drink.

People see the price tag, they see the words organic, and they go crazy for it. It’s an Adult Pokemon Syndrome. It’s de rigeur. Those who can afford to shop organic do, but many of those who don’t have a strong desire to feed their family something healthy, and see an organic roaster as a small indulgence. Small home cooks who like doing something special every once in a while, they’ll purchase a bison steak, or farm fresh eggs, but not on a daily basis. There is a small, yet passionate and everexpanding group of conscientious consumers who are just as inquisitive as I about the transparency in their food supply. Jill Lightner, a Seattle food writer, is one of them. She writes:

“It’s what a consumer should expect. It’s impossible to tell whether a label means something without a consumer devoting an absurd amount of time… This is exactly why transparency in sourcing is the only thing that matters. If you know the ranch, you can visit the ranch, see the animals, and ask questions. If you don’t know the ranch, you’re relying on a marketing department.”

By this point in time, if you know me and my food buying, cooking, and eating habits, you know this: I try to purchase locally sourced ingredients. I try to use fresh produce, organic when I can. When I can’t find locally sourced stuff, I try to purchase from a locally owned small business at the market. I can’t always afford the nice vine-on tomatoes, so I get the conventional romas. I can’t always afford to get a 6 dollar dozen of cage free brown eggs at the creamery, so I’ll save that small indulgence for when I want to make a great fresh pasta or a delicious omelet. Eating fresh food should be a right. I want to know where my food comes from. I shouldn’t have to ask you.

***

So what do I do? How do I resolve this problem that I’m having with this guy’s meat? I don’t usually buy it, so there’s no harm in saying that I won’t shop there. So I’ve got that going for me. Still, I need to take the initiative and find a new place to feed my curiousity and quench the seething fire that lives inside my belly that wants to cook all of Bill the Butcher’s steaks to a crisp.

Prior to the publication of this article, I was speaking with a coworker, and he asked me if I’d been to the new butcher up on Capitol Hill. He’s one who gets equally excited about food. There’s usually something delicious cooking at his house, whether it’s simply a good dinner, or something thoroughly out of the ordinary, such as veal sweetbreads and grilled tuna collars.

“Which one?” I asked him?
“Just a little place up off of Pike Street.”

I thought about it for a second, and then gave it not a second thought until yesterday. I yelped for a Capitol Hill Butcher, and came up with Rain Shadow Meat Company on Melrose. Brand Spanking new, I recall that their butcher was also showcased in last week’s Stranger Chow Bio (linked at the bottom), and he went by the Butcherly name of Russ Flint.

What a great way to introduce yourself to the world. “Russ Flint-Butcher”. Such a great title for your meat guy.

We don’t eat meat much over here. That’s not to say that it’s taboo. I’ve been encouraged to buy more meat to satisfy whatever carnivorous urges I may have, but I cook what I know we both will eat, so a lot of times, that’s either fish or vegetables. I do feel healthier eating like this, and I think that it’s wise to vary your diet, so with that in mind, I took a stroll over to the Melrose building, just a block from our old place.

It was a beautiful day, and I thought to myself as I walked over, “This is what I should be doing with my time off, all the time. What better way to spend an afternoon?”

I spent about fifteen minutes walking down the sunny side of the street to soak up the nice bits of sunshine that we have going for us here in Seattle. These times have been few and far between, but it just happened that it was ideal for my little sojourn down the hill.

I got there about three P.M., across the street from Bauhaus coffeeshop, and there, where used to sit an empty warehouse, was a huge one story, gutted space with sliding windows on the front to promote an open air atmosphere.  As I walked in, the space was nearly vacant. There was a large open court in the center, flanked on the right by a butcherblock cheese shop, The Calf and Kid, and on the left by a 15 foot case of meat. There was Rain Shadow.

Two guys were busy with an old school hand crank sausage press, linking up country style breakfast sausage for the case.  I was acknowledged over the counter, and let them keep on linking while I checked over the wares.

It’s a spartan case, maybe four or five small porterhouse/t-bones, a little ground lamb, some gorgeous pork chops, and a fryer/roaster or two. And the hangar. Three six to eight oz. hangar steaks, perfectly trimmed, on their own individual pieces of butcher paper.  On the other side, the breakfast sausage, some lamb crepinette in caul fat, house made duck confit, slab bacon, farm fresh eggs, poussin, a larger game hen, smoked hocks, everything you could want, just in small quantities. And on top of the counter, huge soft pretzels. Very tempting.

I took the hangar. Every item had a label that said what farm it came from. They utilized the duck that they weren’t going to sell. They ground their own meat for sausage, and spiced and stuffed it right there. I walked around the corner, and this was exactly what I was hoping for.

There was a window into the meat cooler. You want transparency? You want an honest butcher? How about these guys? Every piece of meat was on display, complete with the name of the farm stamped right on the package. There were hanging pork bellies being cured for pancetta, a standing rib roast on a meat hook, and a grinder with the grinder log hanging on a hook in plain sight. Awesome.

I don’t remember where my hangar steak came from, but I do remember that it had a name. At least, the farm did. Painted Something, Thundering Hooves? I was just happy to know that I could see that I was getting what I wanted out of my butcher. And it wasn’t even that expensive. I paid $3.80 for a hearty hangar steak, and across the way at Calf and Kid, they were no less accommodating. I walked over, and the ladies were talking about roommates and boys, according to one. “That’s alright, keep on doing what you’re doing. I’ll flag you down,” I responded.

I like shopping at my leisure, and being honest and full in my explanations. In order to prove I’m serious, I like to ask about a couple of things in the case, but before I could, one of the women came over and passed me a patty paper with a spreadable cheese on it.

“Try it. It’s a great burrata. Just done up a few days ago, so it’s not quite ripe yet, but it’d go great with apples.”

I tried it. She was right. It would. I had some pickled ramps at home (remember those?) and I’d read an article about a recipe utilizing them with a ricotta mint crostini with a little fresh olive oil. Simple, seasonal, delicious.

I asked her about the ricotta, and she instantly went over to give it the sniff/taste test. It was getting down towards the bottom of the container, and she said she’d been tasting stinky cheeses all day, so she might not be the best judge of the cheese’s body.

“It’s on the last day. You still want it? Here, try some. See if you can use it.”

She passed it over to me, and it tasted great. It was a sheep’s milk ricotta from Black Sheep dairy, one with a very low salt, and it tasted so much more creamy than any other store bought stuff.

“Yeah, I’ll be using it tonight.”

“Just give me three bucks. I’ll get you a nice scoop.”

What? Really? I’ve done that at the fish shop, giving the friends and family a little nod, but she was so forthcoming with her honesty that it was equally as refreshing as that one bite of cheese.

Nice. Got the steak. Got the cheese.

I wandered to the back corner, where there was Marigold and Mint. It was just a tiny shop, with some alliums, a few bedding tomatoes, and a stem case. I had heard the proprietor call out to the meat stand earlier.

“Russ, if you have anyone who wants fresh vegetables, I just brought some in from the farm.”

Score.

I checked it out. She had three flats, one of multicolored radishes, another with flowering broccoli rabe, and the third with stark white baby japanese turnips.

I asked her a little bit about where they come from.

“Oh, these are from my family farm, Oxbow Farm in the Snoqualmie Valley. I was a bit late this morning because I was digging them up. It’s all organic. I think I’m going to go $3.25 a bunch.  You can be my first customer for fresh produce.”

Yes, I sure can. And I was.

I asked how the turnips were.

“They’re pretty sweet. You can just sautee them or roast them, but don’t cut them in half. They tend to dry out pretty quickly if you do. These are the first of the season, so they’ll get a little bit more flavor in a couple weeks, but these are still really mild.”

In total, I left with one steak, four fresh eggs for an omelet, a scoop of ricotta, and a bunch of beautiful turnips. What a dinner I would make. I spent my walk back pondering what I’d do with my turnips.

I had some shallot at home, and some balsamic, and some honey. I sauteed them for a few minutes until they were almost tender but still firm, and then added a splash of balsamic and a drizzle of honey. I tossed them around for a minute or two, and let them rest and absorb a little bit of flavor.

Next, into the pan with the steak. I marinated it in some balsamic, sliced garlic, some olive oil, salt and pepper, and fresh thyme for about an hour. Once again, just a quick sear in the pan was all it took. About two to three minutes a side and five minutes of rest later, I sliced into it, and it was a perfect rare, still cool on the inside. Any steak, I’ll try to go Medium Rare, but with a hangar, a great rare sear is perfect.

With the ricotta, I added a little salt and pepper, some olive oil, and fresh chopped mint. I put it on top of some baguette slices, and topped each one with a pickled ramp. It was a satisfying local meal.

With it, I had a Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and a glass of homemade ginger ale with a sprig of that fresh mint. On a day like yesterday, nothing proved a more satisfying way to end the day.

***

So where does that leave me? First, away from Bill the Butcher. I don’t necessarily have a problem with people and stores that sell random cuts of meat, as that’s what we’ve all grown up on. There is a sticking point, though, when I find out that I’ve been lied to by the people I trust. I hate hucksters, snake oil salesmen, and anyone who promotes their business as above their consumer, gauging their knowledge over that of their customer, and realizing that there’s a buck to be made. That rooster doesn’t crow in my backyard. How many times will someone have to call them on their lies before they fix what is inherently wrong with their prematurely implemented system of business as usual?

With Rain Shadow, Calf and Kid, and Marigold and Mint, these guys are doing all they can to make their small businesses thrive, and for what it is worth to you, for your health, for your mind, and for the sake of your community, go shop there. Make someone’s efforts in selling quality, honest product worth their time. They’re there not out of fitting the mold of every other shop. You can tell that there’s a passion, and a real personal investment in addition to all the hype of a marketing ploy such as the one presented by Bill The Butcher.

As the Paul Shaffer Orchestra once said (sang), “Know know know know know know know know your cuts of meat.”

Baby Japanese Turnips

Seared Hangar Steak with Balsamic Honey Glazed Turnips

Ricotta and Mint Crostini with Pickled Ramps

The Offending Article:

http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/mystery-meat/Content?oid=4040872

The Butcher Who Saved My Dinner:

http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/chow-bio/Content?oid=4040855

Rain Shadow Meats:

http://www.rainshadowmeats.com/

Calf and Kid’s Blog:

http://calfandkid.blogspot.com/

Marigold and Mint:

http://www.marigoldandmint.com/

Advertisements