Eating


(Some photos may be unpleasant for some readers. Please just look at the words.)

 

“And there’s a chance that things’ll get weird.
Yeah, that’s a possibility. “

I sat up in bed and took a look at the clock across the room. The time read 8:45 AM, not an early hour by any measure, but after an early morning shift of 4 AM the day before and followed by an afternoon of travel to the farm, it came earlier than expected.

The whiskey drinking the night before didn’t help.

“I’ve already done a couple of chickens. I probably have about four more to do if you want to take part.”

I got out of bed, put some pants on over my longjohns, along with my balaclava, or as I had been calling it, “the executioner’s hood”. Covering my eyes with sunglasses, I had not an inch of skin exposed as I stumbled out to the barn.

My friend on the farm had gotten up a couple hours earlier sharing my same hangover, sent the kids off to school, and let the chickens out into the barnyard. Tucked away on the side of the barn away from the pasture was the stump, shielding a spray of blood across the previous night’s snowfall from the eyes of the ladies laying eggs.

IMG_3569

This is it. I’m really going to do this, am I?

We walked into the henhouse and picked a sizeable Brown Leghorn from the flock, a 20 week old male destined from the beginning as a meatbird without rooster potential. There was a certain far-off look in the farmer’s eyes as he brought it to the stump, put its head between two nails, and took a single swing with his machete. It was done.

Except that it wasn’t. Head off and onto the ground, he maintained firm grip on the bird and held it along the far side of the stump as it flapped and bled out. It must have taken a good 30 seconds to a minute. It wasn’t pleasant.

We had discussed this over the previous weeks leading up to this event, even joked about it. The eventual consensus on ‘the act’ was that one person involved in discussion had no desire to kill a chicken, another had allegedly no problem with it, and I was somewhere in the middle. I stated my case for filling in wherever needed, as I know my way around knives and dead animals. I’ve visited a few slaughterhouses, and when the idea of being an assist on a Chickening was posed, it was something I felt strongly enough about to offer my assistance.

“You want to try your hand at one?”

***

I work in a model that is at its core “promoting a more sustainable and humane way to raise animals for human consumption.” What I so often see are women in fur coats looking to start an argument because we’re out of grass- fed beef tenderloin, or men who only like ‘the flat part’ of the chicken wing but estimate that they could eat about 30 of them. God help us for the Super Bowl. Despite the fact that we are acting as somewhat responsible stewards for our food, where it comes from and how we present it to our customers, there remains a fundamental disconnect between people who have the privilege of shopping at a premium and where their food actually comes from.

Why is it so expensive? Do they really feel good about buying a chicken for 6 dollars? What good does it do for them if we trim the miniscule fat line off of their boneless skinless chicken breast? The services that we offer as butchers do not always bring them closer to enjoying a quality, well-raised product but instead give customers license to, for lack of a more apt term, shake and bake. They ask you to package their meat so they don’t have to touch it, and all they have to do is take hold of one clean corner of your butcher paper package and unfurl with a flourish as their meat goes directly into a pan. You can tell who they are. They ask for the plastic bag around their butcher paper. They handle their packages by the corner like they’re reluctantly picking up their pet’s refuse. That’s not me. The more interesting the cut, I’ll be there. If you have a heritage pig, I want to eat it. If there’s a steak that looks fantastic and you can tell me about its breed and lineage? I want to eat that steak.

***

Back at the barn, I made the decision not to slaughter my own. The easy out is to say that I didn’t want to miss and have to retry, but it’s easier to say that I don’t think I had it in me. At the slaughterhouse, despite their outward casual approach, nobody takes their job lightly. With a healthy dose of understanding and in some instances reserved compassion, those involved realize that there’s a job to be done.

“This isn’t really my favorite part, either,” said my friend.

***

The Birds

The Birds

It wasn’t that I was never going to eat meat again, but my thoughts and feelings on the matter of slaughter fell on my meat case when I walked back into work the following Tuesday. As we slaughtered, scalded, plucked, eviscerated and hung our chickens to age, I came to the realization that even with a combination of a seasoned farmer and a skilled knifeman at a table, it’s hard work to process a chicken. Granted, on that morning it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit, but it wasn’t a small task. For six chickens, we spent close to an hour between the water pot and the table, plucking, dipping, replucking, spot checking, gutting. I came into this thinking that there would be a little fun, as it’s something new to add to my repertoire as a butcher. Fun ended up being the last word I would use to describe it.

Cold. Difficult. Morbid. Contemplative.

The Scalder

The Scalder

That was just the smallest part of it, too. My involvement in the fabrication of these chickens represented a drop in the bucket of what it took to raise them- the three times daily feedings, mending of electric fences, constant corraling and egg collecting. For what? In monetary terms, were these grocery store chickens, the most we could hope to get for them would be 12 dollars.

There’s the rub. 20 week chickens dressed out at 2-2.5 pounds. They were beautiful. They had full coats of majestic brown plumage, young combs, lean legs and breasts, but at best, they were being raised for a pittance. For chicken feed.

Over the next couple of days, conversation came back around to the chickens, to the industrial meat complex, and how things have gone so wrong. How people seek out a chicken without caring about the breed, how chicken is chicken and it’s all created equal.

Chicken is like bananas. You go to the store, and you find something that you like. You point at it, you pick it up, you buy it. You purchase and prepare knowing that every chicken is going to taste like chicken, or at least your idea of what a chicken tastes like. Why do all bananas taste the same? They are one variety- Cavendish. Why do all grocery store chickens taste nearly identical? They’re bred that way, to be the fastest growing, most efficient broadbreasted varieties that the smallest amount of money can buy- the Cornish Rock Cross. 16

As opposed to heritage breeds of chicken, (i.e. Leghorn, Orpington, Rhode Island Red/White), Cornish Rock meat chickens put on weight at a much faster rate than any other commercially available breed, making it an efficient yet generic choice for large scale industrial chicken producers. For the Perdue and Tyson giants, they have further hybridized this breed with their own genetic experiments- in the case of Tyson, with a chicken known as the “Cobb 500”, developed by one of their scientists around 30 years ago. Whereas in 1950, a fully matured broiler chicken would be ready for processing at 16 weeks, a commercial Tyson or Perdue chicken takes 6-8 weeks, with a case-dressed weight of 5-6 pounds.

Furthermore, as these chickens are raised in the industrial system, they are genetically bred with an inherent lack of attention to their physical being. They have plump livers and hearts that begin failing at 10 weeks due to rises in stress and adrenaline, but since they slaughter them at eight, that doesn’t matter, right?

Lastly, it’s monoculture. I’m not a scientist, nor am I an expert on anything, but along with lack of attention to biodiversity comes the revelation that we’re depleting our planet of the amazing natural plant and animal resources it produces, and doing so in a manner that shows utter disregard for the history and integrity of breeds of life that have existed for thousands, many times even millions of years. Seeing firsthand what a banana plantation looks like, with deep culverts and well worn gullies, and cornfields awash with half the topsoil of 50 years ago, it’s apparent that the well worn traditions of crop rotation and fertilization have fallen prey to Roundup ready hybridized varietals and salted earth cesspools of excreta where nothing will ever grow again.

***

We took the headless chickens on their last walk, so to speak, over to the scalding pot steaming by the side of the garage. A few quick dips and the feathers were loosened just enough to be wiped off or easily plucked, but it was the pinfeathers, those little quills the size of a sliver under your fingernails, that proved to be the bane of our collective existence. With the garage door open for easy access to the scalder, we stuck it out for a good ten minutes per bird, plucking, assessing, replucking, and taking our time getting the last of the nagging little bits out from under the skin. The plucked feathers stuck to the table, now covered in a sheen of blood and ice, and the minor moisture accumulated on my fingers, coupled with the temperature and windchill, left me numb, but we had a job to do.

Plucking Chickens

Plucking Chickens

An hour after the kill, we had plucked and dressed our birds, the residual tableslime to be dealt with at a later date. A neat little bowl of gizzards, livers and hearts and a plastic bag of heads and feet headed up the corners of the table, and we brought the birds in for a final bleed out in the sink.

Still not pleasant.

***

What about the killing of a chicken do I take issue with? It’s obviously a life, that of which we should consider every time we sit down to eat. I asked a friend, lifelong farm kid and backyard chicken farmer, how he reconciles the decision to kill a chicken. It seems that unless one is professionally involved, no thought is given to how that product came to be on their table. Although firm in his conviction that if a person is not ready to kill and prepare their own chicken, they probably should reconsider how often they eat meat if at all, he also brought up the more accessible viewpoint, one that I’m accepting of while at the same time coming to terms with my own ability to handle and process a live animal:

This chicken was born to sustain life. If we didn’t eat chickens, they wouldn’t be here in the first place…they’d have long gone extinct. In fact, the very existence of the domesticated chicken would have never happened had we not selectively bred them for centuries. Chickens exist to be eaten. If we suddenly stopped eating them, they would be relegated to zoos, fighting arenas, and a few people who find them to be excellent pets. Millions and millions of birds would die, and there would be none to take their place. A chicken’s sole function on planet earth is to lay eggs and then be eaten, both of which sustain life on this planet to a great extent.

Good point, there. At home, I don’t eat a lot of meat, but more and more I find myself with compelling reasons to become critically aware about what I eat. The meat that I do eat, I eat the majority of at work, where some of it is actually better for the environment (wild caught and sustainably harvested seafood) and to a lesser extent the barnyard meats. When I do eat meat from a commercial setting, I vote with with my wallet for what I want to see on my dinner plate. My favorite restaurants are those that have relationships with their farmers (Chicago’s Nightwood, to name one). Still, I find that for the future of food and what I can eat to promote a model for eating that sustains and nourishes me, with the ready access to farmer’s markets and fresh food, cutting out the middleman seems to be the best option.

***

The topic of conversation came around to the education of consumers in terms of what it takes to bring something like this to the table. You can walk into any grocery store and pick up a 6 dollar chicken, but through the process of procuring my own, I decided that I can’t in good conscience buy one. Granted, with volume comes ways to save money, but coupled with genetic engineering/large scale crossbreeding, it’s not a decision that was made with the customer in mind. Solely a business move, the idea behind the Cobb 500 was to maximize profits while moving commodities through the machine at a clip as fast as can be processed by human or machine.

So I come back to work, as I mentioned before, conflicted. Although we offer some higher end varieties of meat products, it’s the price point for most that steers them away from buying a pasture raised chicken. As we as employees are given the autonomy to promote sustainable practices and the highest quality food that the market will dictate, we’re allowed to tell the story and sample anything. Lately, I’ve been into telling the story of our pasture raised chickens, and encouraging people to try them as a whole bird rather than simply as a boneless, skinless option. They’re leaner than a conventional broiler, sometimes weighing in at 2.5-3# as opposed to 3.5-4. They’re still broadbreasted, so they look a little different than the chickens we ate down on the farm, but the taste is on the way back to what a good bird should taste like.

A beauty, ready to go

A beauty, ready to go

***

Two and a half days after butchering our chickens, we all gathered around the table for dinner. There was a giant bowl of mashed potatoes from the co-op, a green salad, and two platters full of half chickens that had been smoked on the grill. As opposed to your regulation size birds with the big boobs and bulbous thighs and drumsticks, these halves filled a plate with a little bit of spillover onto the placemat. Lean, long legs and a clean thin bit of breast meat, and a skin that was crispy with a flavor that was more than fat. The meat was moist and deceptively tender for how little fat was on these birds. The conversation died down, surprisingly after the weekend we’d had, and had I been listening, I would have only heard the odd lipsmacks and chompachompchomps of people enjoying a dinner. Together. The potatoes didn’t come out of a box. We had some leftover gravy from the last night’s turkey dinner. The dressing was, in fact, made in house, and was delicious. The chicken was amazing, not just for its flavor, but because I finally got to see and begin to understand what it means to work hard to put dinner on the table. Everything was how it should be.

***

I’ve wrestled with a lot of the words and thoughts over the week and a half since I went for a visit to the chicken farm. I didn’t want to make it seem like I took anything lightly, so I ran a lot of my thoughts by my friend, who had this to say. I think it sums it up nicely.

 

All I wanted to offer was the opportunity… It’s a hard thing to witness and a hard thing to do. But it does add to one’s understanding, doesn’t it? You already “knew” what is involved, but now you KNOW, and there is a difference.

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The last post I wrote had me zipping about town on my handsome new bike. Every one of my days off, I want to explore a new neighborhood. Today, what started as a light drizzle turned to a rain wet enough to thoroughly soak my jacket and pants. Why would I go out on a day like today? The only reason anyone else would go out: To return my library books.
Already taking a detour here. Folks, visit your local library. There are literally dozens of books to read, and if you’re like me, you can choose a good one based on title and book jacket color alone. Just get a library card. Read a book.

I had originally planned to visit Publican Quality Meats again, because I really enjoyed that sandwich. It came with a cute plastic ramekin of coleslaw and a pickle spear in a tiny ziploc bag that made me want to rinse and reuse it for more pickle spears. I’ve discovered that the fifth pocket in a pair of jeans is the perfect size for holding one emergency pickle spear.

Still, with the rain, my bike trip up north was not to be. I spent the morning indoors, making mustard and chocolates, just biding my time until the conditions were perfect. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. With my books stowed away in my backpack, I made an early afternoon mad dash on the 3/4 mile sprint down 18th street to the library.
Keep the butt on the seat so it doesn’t get wet. That was my mantra.

Surprisingly, all the bike racks were full. My bike got parked on the street, leaning up against a stopsign. I ran in, passed my books off, and went back outside again. Of course, in the 30 seconds it took me to return my books, the seat was soaked.
The ride back down 18th was ridiculous. When it rains in Chicago, everyone forgets how to drive. People parked in the bike lane (don’t do that, jerks), a woman turned her car around mid-block, cutting off traffic in two directions (don’t do that either, jerks), and horns were blaring. I didn’t want to be part of this any more than they did, and I was getting hungry and cranky from the moisture.
About two thirds of the way home, after passing Don Pedro’s, Honky Tonk BBQ, Simone’s, and countless Taquerias, I remembered the new place, the one right by the tracks. We had seen it on our walk to the Pub Quiz the week before, just a tiny little storefront with a big picture window. Tamales.
Dia De Los Tamales just opened up what looks to be a couple of weeks ago. I’ve seen them at the Pilsen Community Market, but now that they’re so close and available at any given time, it spells trouble.

I walked in, and three smiling, eager faces greeted me. Two large screens with the day’s offerings shone brightly above their steam tables and drink coolers. They had about a dozen or so different kinds of tamales, most of which I’ve forgotten, but that included Cuban Pork, Buffalo Chicken, and a couple of sweet dessert tamales.
I went adventurous. I ordered an Atomic Pork (with spicy club sauce), an Italian beef tamale (with housemade giardiniera), and a Bacon and Goat Cheese tamale (with Bacon Leek jam). Really? COME ON! I love tamales, and I’ll eat them at any time, but most of the time, they simply offer the description of filling, either pork, chicken or beef. Here, I had many different options, and in fact too many to try on my first trip in. (Yes, there will be more.)
In the couple of minutes I was waiting, the man behind the counter explained a little bit about the menu, and gave me a sample of the house made garbanzo bean side option they had available. “From a family recipe,” he said. “It’s really good.”

He proffered a spoonful with a big piece of pork in it. I tried it. It WAS really good. I packed up my backpack with my tamales and rode the last three blocks home, ready to enjoy my lunch.
There are no pictures of this meal, because to properly capture a tamale in its deliciousness is impossible. They look the same, from the wrapper down to the filling, always that same shade of brown. I don’t care. From a picture, you can’t tell if it’s dry, or if the filling is savory or sweet. I’ll tell you- it’s fantastic. All of the tamales were toothsome and light, without being oversteamed. The giardiniera was pickled and crisp, and the bacon leek jam, it should go without saying, was a bacon leek jam.

I want to take people there, namely the lady in my life. I asked if the vegetarian tamales used vegetable shortening in the mix. Indeed, they were fully vegetarian. This spells trouble. I could end up eating here twice a week for the foreseeable future.
I’ve made a huge mistake.
A huge, delicious mistake.

***
Addendum: Next Friday, during Pilsen’s monthly 2nd Friday Artwalk, Dia De Los Tamales is having their Grand Opening. To see some artwork while you eat some delicious tamales, spend your time wisely on the beautiful and culture filled Near South Side!

The day before, I’d started a no knead bread recipe, as it’s the easiest bread that I can make that doesn’t test my patience. I’d gotten some sunflower seeds from work, and added a little bit of pumpkinseed oil to the mix. The bit of sugar from the oil and seeds, in addition to the perfect bread rising temperature inside the apartment, leavened the bread to more than double size faster than anticipated. Into the oven on the hot day it went, as did a flatbread with caramelized onions and chickpea flour. A little tomato sauce topped the flatbread, and it was set aside for cutting into wedges after cooling.

***

Another thing I’d started the night before was the dessert. A big hit with everyone, and one again something that requires surprisingly little technical effort, is a profiterole. I made a choux pastry with eggs, flour, water, and butter. Half of it was given the sweet treatment, to be served with cherries reduced in a bottle of Coca Cola. To the other half, I added grated cheddar for savory gougeres. As the time ticked closer to service, I realized that cherries and cream puffs wouldn’t be enough, so I set out with a recipe for a simple semifreddo, semifrozen ice cream. No churning needed.

I didn’t want anything too complex. All I wanted was something that would be light and complimentary. The recipe was simple enough. Whipped Cream, Whipped egg yolks with sugar and vanilla, and whipped egg whites. Fold them together, and freeze in a mold. Slice and serve when set, after about three hours.

Let me pause for a moment to let you in on a couple of key points. I have a hand blender, which works well for 95 percent of the things for which I use it. It purees my sauces, makes smoothies, and whips cream exquisitely. What it positively does not do well is whip egg whites. This is due to a couple factors: 1) Human Error. PROTIP- When you are whipping egg whites, you cannot stop. You cannot add sugar at the wrong moment, or they won’t set. You shouldn’t use a glass bowl, for they don’t have sides that promote the egg whites creeping up the sides as you whip, falling into soft or stiff peaks. You can’t have even a tiny hint of egg yolk in there, or they won’t whip. Did I know any of this before I began?

No. This is why my first attempt failed. This is why I don’t enjoy patisserie. Try again? Okay. This time, (Ugh) by hand.

After looking up the best way to whip egg whites, (use a wire bulb whisk), I cleaned and dried my bowl, and separated five more egg whites into my bowl. I added a splash of white vinegar as recommended, as I didn’t have any cream of tartar lying around. I whipped. Slowly at first, and then gradually with more speed until my arm was about to fall off.

In the kitchen, this is when having a mom around comes in handy.

“Mom, my arm is about to fall off!” I yelped from the kitchen.

“Okay, just let me know when you want to switch,” she replied calmly from the couch, not missing a word in the book.

At this point, about five minutes in, my forearms felt like, to use a comparison of Olympic size, the arms of a tired kayaker. It was starting to be downright unpleasant.

In comes mom to bat cleanup. Why is it that moms can accomplish things with far more accuracy and precision than we can? The difficult things. Like whipping egg whites. Two minutes, and she had it to stiff peaks. We folded in the remainder of the sugar, and then incorporated all our parts together for the resulting semifreddo, which was then put into the freezer.

When the last of our party finally arrived after delays at the airport, my lady, her mom, her aunt, and our traveling companion from Martha’s Vineyard, we were ready with dinner. The bread was still fresh from the oven, the chickpea flatbread had cooled and was dressed with the tomato sauce, the caprese salad was attractively arranged on the service platter, and the soup, finally chilled, was ladled into tiny espresso cups and garnished with sungold tomatoes and a parsley oil float ringing a single leaf of Italian parsley procured from the neighbor’s plant.

Bottles of wine were opened, hugs exchanged, and we were able to finally relax in each other’s company, ready for a fulfilling week of excursions, museums, food, family, and friendships both old and new.

Another summer, another vacation in the books. This year, we headed back to the East coast for a tour of Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. When we head out there, it’s relaxing, and we get to sit on the patio, pick from the garden, and when we’re on the Vineyard, head to the beach for some sunbasking and baypaddling.

This year on the Vineyard, we were in the same place, up island, away from the tourist crowds. We were travelling with the lady’s parents, were meeting more family at the house, and this year, in addition to the pup they had in tow, we met a family friend at the ferry terminal for the boat ride over. One of the things the boat had going for it, in addition to a great viewing deck up top, was the addition of clam chowder on board. Back in the Midwest, far away from the ocean and any kind of seafood that rivals the freshness of either coast, a good seafood chowder is hard to come by. This one hit the spot, and with the meerschaum spitting over the observation deck and a tallship on the horizon, I got the feeling that it would be a good week.

On the other side of the water, we drove off the ferry through the town of Oak Bluffs, down through the middle of the island, past farms, shops, ponds and town halls, until we hit the far edge of the island. Without the tourist traffic, and with a breeze swirling around the lighthouse tipped point, it was about ten degrees cooler than where we got off the ferry. The car crawled up the dirt driveway to our house, and as we offloaded our gear, we were greeted by a second car with an uncle and aunt.

We spent our time that evening sitting on the deck, watching the sailboats cruise by the beach. We ate some Long Island pizza, trucked up by the doting uncle, and relaxed with a nice walk along the beach as the low slung sun beamed onto the red clay cliffs abutting the shoreline.

Even though it was technically vacation, I’d wake up early with the coffee, and make something for breakfast. The first morning, I decided to use some fresh eggs we had purchased at the general store back in Connecticut the previous day. They had just come in from Ashley’s happy hens down the road, and along with some cheese, fresh tomatoes, and scapes, they turned into a beautiful frittata. Paired with some quick biscuits, fresh fruit and blueberry corn muffins, it was most definitely a good way to start the day.

We spent our first full day on the North Shore of the island, just a few minutes away by car. Tucked away just up the road from where they filmed Jaws, is a secluded beach with a tiny house big enough for two, and under the floorboards of the deck lay three kayaks in waiting. While a few of our party sunned themselves on the beach and patio, an intrepid three, including me, took the kayaks out to the massive sandbar just offshore, where we parked and scavenged for sand dollars.

That night, we motored over to Oak Bluffs, where we enjoyed a dinner at the Red Cat Kitchen, where several of the evening’s menu items are described as “chef’s imaginations of…” It was a new concept in Island dining, but one I’ve seen before, where a talented chef gives you the base of what they’re offering, and utilizes what they have in the kitchen to create a unique plate for a one-off run. This has both its positives and negatives, but especially when tables are filled to capacity every night, it makes perfect sense.

We had a table of seven with two vegetarians. For our non meat eating diners, there was an option on the menu that was described as “Ben’s Vegetarian Showdown”. When I looked up their menu on Facebook, which changes weekly, sometimes close to daily, I mentioned that we’d be bringing in a couple of vegetarian diners. “What can you throw down for a showdown for two hungry vegetarians?” I asked.

The response? “Plenty!”

Fair enough. We sat in a living room with a bar on the ground floor of a two story house in the middle of town, looking out at the bustle through a window filled with glass apothecary bottles. Around the table, we ordered starters of fried local oysters with  banana peppers, a roasted beet salad with goat cheese and celery hearts,  Yukon potato gnocchi with Sun-dried tomatoes and pecorino romano, a tuna tartare, and the signature dish, an Island Fresca-Fresh tomatoes, sweet kernel corn and basil in a corncob broth with shaved parmigiano reggiano and dotted with basil oil.

As the plates made their way around the table, everyone taking a bite, it became clear that there was a comfortable medium between a high class restaurant in, say, Chicago or New York, and a place such as this where the chef has unlimited creative license as well as a built in time cushion where diners, most of them on vacation, are just there to relax. I looked around the table. Everyone was smiling. Over at the bar, the bartender was tapping an unruly glass and shaker against the bar to get it unstuck, but maintained friendly eye contact and a jovial banter with the patrons while not missing a beat. The waiter was hasty, a bit surly, but also good natured on this busy night, and everyone was having a good time. The food, while not earth-shatteringly inventive, was the creation of one kitchen, and it was simple and satisfying.

The entrees came out next. There was a buttermilk fried chicken with Braised Carrots and a Vanilla Jus (weird, but it worked)with wilted spinach, Sea Scallops with sweet corn risotto, a bluefish poached in more of the sweet corn broth, and a giant plate of breaded pork chops for me.

The kicker, though, was the Vegetarian showdown. Normally, I don’t care for vegetarian options at restaurants, but this seemed like a logical solution to everything. Each person who ordered it received a small side salad, a dish of sweet corn risotto, some tempura green beans, and a few other roasted vegetables. Four or five tiny plates came out, all offering a variety of differently prepared vegetarian offerings, leaving everyone full, happy, and satisfied that what they received wasn’t a tired old piece of quiche that was kept in the freezer for the lone person who didn’t eat meat.

For dessert, even after our gigantic portions, we figured we could split a few between our table. The offerings, while standard, were done well. We had a molten chocolate mug cake and a bananas foster dish, but the hit was a panna cotta with basil oil and a fresh huckleberry compote on top. It’s the little surprises that make these dinners such pleasant experiences. I’d love to go back.

I lied. This part isn’t going to be pretty. It’s guts, and it’s blood, and it’s necessary. It’s just what I need to do to process the whole thing. If you don’t have the stomach, please don’t keep reading.

(if you haven’t read part 1, it’s right here)

The fact of the matter is that this is a slaughterhouse. A SLAUGHTER HOUSE. For however much we want to be treated with kid gloves, it’s a place where animals come to die. With that said, let’s get to the task at hand.

***

We stood in the receiving area, a cold floor with tracks lining the ceiling above us. Through a set of double doors was the kill floor, a maze of stations where it was the job of one person to do one specific task- tying the legs, removing the hooves, and yes, one guy for doing the deed. I’d visited a veal slaughterhouse a few years back when I was in school, but they weren’t slaughtering that day. Today, as I mentioned in the last post, they were doing the Halal live slaughter.

We were called in, ten at a time, and walked along the wall as we passed by a giant pressure wash conveyor belt filled with removed viscera. At the end of the line, they were dumped into a giant stainless wheelbarrow where they were then transported to yet another conveyor. There, they were separated into edible and inedible portions, wherein they were boxed and trucked out for use in different industries. The edible portions, parts such as tongues and livers, were shipped out to various markets and restaurants around the area where they would be no doubt made into patés and terrines, resold to people for exorbitant prices, which these days is justified by the amount of effort it takes to poach, puree, bake, set, and slice into a palatable dish. Yesterday’s offal has been transformed into tomorrow’s haute cuisine. In any other culture, the stomach would be rinsed and stuffed for haggis, and where many people believe that the hide and wool would be used for blankets, sweaters and jackets, the most profitable use of the hides is to utilize them as paint rollers. It might not be the most glamorous of ways to use the animal, but every part serves a purpose. The intestines are flushed, rinsed, salted and tubed, and used for casing when I make sausage.

We hugged the back wall as the fabrication line passed us by. A corpulent and silent man was hoofing the carcass as it rolled by, looking purposed in his work but cautiously detached from the nature of his business. With each hoof, he tossed it with a no look pass into the trashbin behind him.

The man before him hooked the tied forequarters to a t-bar, which he then raised to the ceiling tracks. The man before him was the one in charge of attaching the ties to the legs. Before that, the workers were removing the hides.

Five at a time, we were called back to the area where they were performing the ritual slaughter. As someone in the industry, this is something that I needed to see. I didn’t have to see it, but in order to understand what it takes to put dinner on the table, it was necessary.

The area itself was a narrow alley. In the back, next to the stunning machine, there was a small pen of sheep. One by one, they were attached by the back leg and hoisted up to about ten feet, so their necks were in line with the chest of the man doing the killing. We were in line with his actions, and as he prepared, in accordance of the Halal ritual of slaughter, he whispered a short prayer and cradled the head of the animal in his arms. With a quick and deep incision, the job was done, and the animal was dead.

Here’s the thing: It’s up for debate as to which method of slaughter is more humane for the animal. All meat that is certified by the USDA must be killed with a bolt, a quick stun to the base of the skull that severs the nervous response between the brain and the body. Virtually the same result is achieved with Halal, as the slaughter method is designed to both honor the animal in the name of the Lord and minimize suffering by a swift severing of the carotid artery. In both of these methods, exsanguination is the cause of death. The knife must not be sharpened in the presence of the animal to cause undue agitation, and the name of Allah must be spoken by a member of the Muslim faith as the animal is killed, for in that religion, the Creator is the granter and taker of life.

As we watched, it was done with before the animal had a chance to suffer. Despite the mettle it took for the man with the knife to perform this action day in and day out, he reserved a quiet connection with each animal he slaughtered as he was able to remain calm emotionally invested yet at peace.

***
I’m going to take a time out here for a minute, as this is a lot to read through for those who aren’t used to finding out about where their meat comes from. I don’t mean to be vulgar, and I don’t mean to be crass, callous or uncaring in my description of this process. This is how it is. For most, the idea of a slaughterhouse is unappetizing, as we prefer our meat sterile and without a face, but for those who work on a farm, this is nothing new. I’ve met so many people who have grown up on farms or around animals where this is their routine. If you make a conscious decision to eat meat, an animal is going to have to get killed. On a farm, there’s a good chance that eventually, you’ll have to be the one faced with the impending mortality of an animal. It’s matter of fact. With the live slaughter of animals, you need to treat them as if their lives meant something, if not to you, than to those who worked hard to raise them. For many, if they don’t kill the animal, they don’t eat. Or their family doesn’t get paid. It’s not a choice for them. It’s not even a livelihood. If you own chickens, they fertilize the soil while pecking at bugs and other farmland creatures. This, in turn, gets the grass to grow. The grazers come along, eat the grass, fertilize the soil, which, when tilled, becomes the base for an eventual bountiful crop. These days, pasture is replaced with monocultured commodity corn, and livestock that was allowed to roam is now in a feedlot, miles from wherever the edibles may be. We’re getting better with our awareness of heirloom varieties of vegetables that taste like vegetables should taste, grass fed beef and cage free hens, to name a few. Still, not everyone has access to these. Some live in food deserts, and some merely don’t have the resources, either time or monetary, to eat this way all the time. If you choose to eat meat, eat good meat. Eat something that has been raised on a farm, or buy it from somebody who has knowledge of the slaughter or where the animal or vegetable was raised. Smaller is better. Know where your food comes from.

Despite the fact that this plant slaughters, on an average day, 1300 lamb, it is something that a handful of people can do in a shift. It is not a lowlying, faceless kill floor in the middle of nowhere. The largest slaughterhouse in the nation is Smithfield Pork Producers, in Tarheel, North Carolina. With over 5,000 workers,  they employ 100 times the labor that I saw working the lamb line. This mass production of poorly raised, ill-groomed meat is why when I do buy meat, I stay away from what I don’t know. The smaller the operation, the more control they have over the quality of meat and caliber of the workforce who they employ. On family farms, it’s even simpler. Fewer people in the mix equal better quality control, and a better understanding of how meat is supposed to be handled and raised.
***

I think that’s what I got out of this. If you’re going to eat meat, know where it comes from. Know that with smaller purveyors and a decent amount of care, the quality of the meat you choose to purchase and prepare will ultimately be higher. With those who put a face on the actions necessary to bring your food to the table, whether it be animal or vegetable, comes the knowledge that what you’ve chosen to eat and purchase was at one point an organism of the earth. Seeing this process from start to finish has given me a further appreciation of where my food comes from and the effort it takes to make it presentable.

Respect what you eat. Respect the jobs of those who raise your food, and those who do the things that you won’t. When you eat your chicken tonight, or your hamburger helper, or even your vegetable burger, know that all of these things came from somewhere, and if you’re buying it from a market, that it took the labor of many hands and the fortitude of many workers to provide you with dinner. Your dinner took a lot longer to make than the thirty minutes it took to cook it on your stove. No matter what you choose to nourish yourself with, know that it came from the earth, and in the name of whomever raised it for you, it’s there to fill you up. Don’t take your food for granted. It took a lot of work to get it to your table.

That’s the whole story.

Living in Chicago in the midst of groups of friends working in the theater and restaurant industries, I’ve been fortunate to come across many opportunities over the years that have enabled me to enjoy some of the best nights out I could hope for. Keeping abreast of the trends in both is not an easy task, nor is it something that I can always indulge in, as a good meal or night at the theater is difficult to indulge in on a regular basis without breaking the bank of this working stiff.

It’s more of a special occasion thing- something to savor. When we go out to dinner, actually go OUT, I want to make sure it’s something that is meaningful and fulfilling, and that the experience is something that justifies making the effort to provide maximum enjoyment and value. If we’re out to dinner or at a show, the last thing I want to do is spend the money that I earn on an event  that I leave feeling unsatiated.

There are hosts of dinners and dates over the past few years that have been recalled as successes. Since I’ve returned to Chicago, the game has been stepped up. We’ve enjoyed our fair share of meals cooked together with friends, had evenings where we made homemade pasta as an activity, and explored Farmer’s Markets with family, making a summertime feast. The dinners out that we have shared have been documented and memorable, and we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy evenings at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass thanks to our connection to those in the business of theater.

This past weekend was the opening night for Lookingglass’ show “Cascabel” at the Water Tower Works in downtown Chicago. I had been hearing about it for months, and was more than excited to go. A collaboration between Lookingglass and James Beard Award winning celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill,  the show was billed as an ‘unforgettable theatrical adventure [including a] sumptuous gourmet Mexican feast, world-class circus acts, and a tantalizing love story.’ 

I’ve been to Frontera, and I’ve done his other upscale restaurant, Topolobampo, and while I have enjoyed them, selling Mexican food as fine dining has always been a head scratcher to me. Comfort food? Yes. Fine dining? It remains to be seen. Much of the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been more about flavors that blend with the help of time, rather than your typical French-influenced fare that is finished a la minute. It is within the structure of what we have been fed as diners that we expect quick-fired service and five minute flavors that pop when they hit your palate.

From conception to execution, Rick Bayless made it implicitly clear that it didn’t have to be that way.

***

We arrived at the theater and milled about in the lobby. As we met with other excited theatergoers, we were greeted by costumed servers offering margaritas. As expected, the margaritas that we received were not your garden variety TGI Friday’s blender drinks. These were Rick Bayless margaritas. Uniformed waitstaff circled through the crowd holding trays of tiny spoonfuls of green chili guacamole with king crab, and a liquified queso fundido looking like a poached egg atop a sauce spiced with the flavors of chorizo.

When it was time, we made our way to the seats in the balcony, giving us a view of the stage and main floor. The central action of the play took place in the kitchen and dining room of a  Mexican boarding house. Bayless was there, back to the audience and moving deliberately between his prep table and stove, preparing dishes that would become themselves sensory plot driving characters in the story. At our tiny two person table, we had a bamboo plate with a green leaf package with popcorn spilling out the sides and a note that instructed us to be patient and wait until instructed to open.

Hm. Okay. Surely nobody minded if we nibbled a bit at the popcorn.

The set-up for the show seemed simple enough, and left all the performers to do what they did best. It was light on acting, heavy on performance, specifically that of the circus-arts variety. Tony Hernandez, an Artistic Associate with Lookingglass and Las Vegas based performer, conceptualized an evening of individual acts of daring acrobatics, contortionism, and quick change artistry interspersed with a show that awakened the senses and passions of performers and audiences alike.

As the house lights dimmed and the show began, Bayless was hard at work as the new cook in the kitchen, plating a dish that looked similar to what we had been poking and sniffing for the better part of 30 minutes before the show began.  We enjoyed appetizers of pork belly, grilled zucchini and huitlacoche on burnt toast, along with small wafers with jellied stars made from beets with whipped cream cheese and mushroom, explained to us as “from the cook, and he apologizes for burning the toast. The red item in front of you is not cherry jello, but it’s really good. You’ll like it. ”

The characters began to filter onto the set, and took their places at the table. Like any other family or close knit group of people, there was the usual bickering.  As the food was served, the maitre’d and de facto emcee for the evening introduced himself to the audience with a bit of banter, and invited us to open the presents in front of us, but not to taste immediately. He gave us an embellishedthree count, upon which we were instructed to deeply inhale the aroma of a pristine tuna ceviche. It was unique and a way to get us more in tune with all of our senses as the show went on. We were then instructed to take a bite.

As his overt silliness and the action of what was happening onstage faded into the background, there was a break in the action as everyone both onstage and off enjoyed the first course. I noticed that it possessed more balance than a homemade ceviche, and was much more delicate than the shrimp ceviche I had made two days previous in a bout of inspiration upon securing the tickets. There was sweetness from the passionfruit, and the flavors on the plate had been inactively blending and cooking in front of us the entire time we were sitting there engrossed in the show.

Over glasses of wine that we sipped as the action resumed, we saw two characters overcome with the flavors and passion of the dish itself, and the scene took flight as the tiny actress playing the daughter grabbed ahold of the chandelier and was lofted to the ceiling of the theater where she and her partner performed a trapeze act both impressive and unmistakeably seductive. I don’t know how I came to this conclusion, but it might have been when her flowing dress was ripped off to reveal a pair of polka dotted bloomers, much better suited for a high-flying act.

As the show continued, the wine and beer flowed, and a few more circus acts followed. Hernandez, a high wire performer, utilized a clothesline hanging in the corner of the theater as a tightrope, removing his sweaty clothing from a night in the kitchen and changing into a new outfit, one hanging on the line, complete with suspenders and a button-up shirt. A tiny young woman just passing through the boarding house for the night, after eating the food, took to the bath, wherein she performed a balancing act of contortion and hand-standery. An act like this defies description, but in awe of both her physical strength and how sensual she was able to make her performance, the audience was left with their mouths agape, salivating for what came next.

It was at this point in the show where we got the backstory that we were looking for. The proprietress of the boarding house, having mourned over a romance lost many years ago of a cook whose food instilled in her the sustaining passion of life, had not eaten a bite since. It showed. The actress who played her was a Spanish Olive Oyl who was nothing more than a string bean, lithe and limber. As the everpresent classical Spanish guitarist on stage strummed, she sang a mournful song from a second story balcony. Downstairs in the kitchen, the cook was preparing a dish that brought back a feeling in her soul long since forgotten. As she sang and mourned, the smell of chiles and searing meat permeated the air that was already thick with lingering aromas and pheromones.

It’s to the credit of Bayless that he plays off of the senses of the audience while they sit, eat, and watch the show. He’s not onstage to wax poetic in a monologue, but in the conception of the show, he is always onstage and comfortable in his movements, and he is as equal a player in the show as those who flip and fly through the scenery. He knows where to add the right ingredient to the mix to evoke reminiscences of memorable meals or feelings, and as a natural in the kitchen, going about his business with such precision, he does not draw too much focus away from the spectacle of the evening’s events. It’s a truly rare glimpse that you get as a viewer, seeing someone so skilled at work, yet with all else going on, you’d almost never know he was there.

As Bayless cooks, the you get a real-time update of how things come together. You may think you smell the sesame seeds toasting, and get a whiff of that sauce coming together. As you smell it, so does the proprietress, who recognizes the smell as the mole poblano that her long lost love made so many years before. In addition to the audience participation as goaded by the maitre’d and the actors playing the gardener and his wife whose talents can best be described as “Mouth-Banana juggling”, the line between viewer and active storyline participant is all but erased thanks to the sense of smell.

When the dish came to the table, we inhaled again as Bayless, the cook, begged and pleaded with the Señora to take a bite. Although we were engrossed in what was happening onstage, it didn’t look like many people wanted to wait for her. We took our first bites, and it was revelatory. Everything that we had smelled was there. Sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos, the beef, the chiles, all of the spices, and the smooth chocolate that gave the sauce a satin texture. A few minutes before, we watched him chop a bunch of black kale, and tucked underneath our beef tenderloin was a little pile of braised black kale. We all knew and could clearly see that he wasn’t cooking our food directly. We might have just forgotten that there was a kitchen in the back making all of our food. If we can see it, we know it’s happening.

As we ate, we saw yet another amazing duo of gymnasts, who performed a routine of flips, handstands, drops, and the female standing on her partner’s head. Yep. Right on that dude’s head. Yow. This reminds me of another great thing about this show-the pacing and plot points are spread out so you rarely have food in your mouth when it falls open in utter disbelief. Which it does. Quite often.

As the story progressed, the proprietress finally ate something and got a torrid case of happy feet, leaping to the center of the stage and giving a feverish flamenco dance atop the table. Flourishes and Dervishes never had it so good. Let it be known that if you want to convey passion with a distinctive Spanish/Mexican influence, get someone who’s really good at Flamenco. That’ll do.

The story was resolved! She ate! Her passion for food, life, and love, it was rekindled! As the theater celebrated with Oaxacan chocolate cake with a blood orange espuma and giant pastel communion wafers, we were entertained once again by the gardener and his wife, who in addition to juggling bananas with their mouths were also quick change artists, yet another unexpected and unique talent to add to the ever-growing list of new experiences for most of the audience. The gardener’s wife went through about three different changes, and the gentleman even got one stunning reveal of his own.

The show wrapped up quickly, with the cast dancing their way into the night and the audience left to finish their drinks and enjoy the tipsy company of a hundred other satisfied diners and theater patrons. Normally, a banner event like this wouldn’t be my scene, but for those who dine out and enjoy the theater on a regular basis, the ticket price, that of a hearty night out at any number of Chicago’s finer restaurants, is not overvalued. For a night of first class food and entertainment, it proves like the silken molé that blanketed my steak that a slow-cooked mixture of ingredients yields the most flavorful of results.

With Lookingglass Marketing Director Erik Schroeder and Chef Rick Bayless

It’s been two weeks since the last post, and I’ve been working every day but one of them, so there really hasn’t been a lot of downtime to sit, write, contemplate, etc. Still, I make time to cook. Since the Valentine’s Day post, I’ve had a birthday, and one of my gifts from my lady was a present from Turntable Kitchen.

It’s a gift basket, if you will. In it, there are three recipe cards, a themed ingredient, and a 45 record of music that corresponds to the theme of the dinner itself. This concept has been explored earlier with our dining, as in the CRUX undersea themed dinner set to the music of Isis.  For this box, the themed ingredient was a small sachet of smoked paprika, and the record was a 45 from the band Thousand. Included were recipes for roasted young carrots dusted with smoked paprika, a honey greek yogurt sauce and fresh chopped mint, white wine mussels with white beans and fresh parsley, and a pear and rosemary galette. Also included were small invitations to dinner for friends, if you so chose, and a heart shaped tool that you could snap in two with prongs at the end for scooping out the mussels from the shell.

Feeling a wave of hope for trying new recipes, I scoped the fridge to see what we had available. The recipes themselves seemed fairly simple. We had some dried zolfini beans that my mom left at our house from her most recent trip to Italy, and aside from picking up some basic staples, we had plenty of items there for a great start to the dinner.

About a week after my birthday, I was at the store, and I saw that the mussels were on sale. Perfect. The next day, I brought my recipe cards in, and it said for two, 1 pound of mussels would be sufficient. That’s never the case. I bought two pounds, knowing that 50% of the weight was left for shells. I bought a bunch of young carrots with greens that I’m planning on using in the next few days for another project, and a few different herbs, along with a nice bottle of table white.

At this point, I should note that the postcards themselves have highly styled and presented yet not entirely unattainable platings of their corresponding dishes. Although slightly intimidating, it gave me something to shoot for.

There’s something to be said for presentation. As I’m currently 85 posts deep into this blogging thing, I never know if I’m repeating myself, but presentation is a key component of the appetizing factor of a meal. Unless your meal is sloppy joes, where the smell and intoxicating hunger pangs take over anything that you could visualize, how your food looks on your plate often has as much to do with your enjoyment as how it tastes. If it comes to you looking like a hastily assembled mess with no eye catching contrasts between the color of the food and the plate, you’ve already started on the wrong foot. If it looks nice, and this goes for dinners out, at home, and especially served to kids, you’ve already passed the first round. Looks great. Then, smells great? Yes? Great.

The first dish was rather easy to assemble. Toss some young carrots in olive oil, salt, pepper, and smoked paprika, and roast them at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, turning once. While they’re in the oven, take 1/3 cup of greek yogurt and whisk it together with honey. That’s your sauce. Chop fresh mint for garnish, and serve on a bed of wilted spinach. Fast and easy. Boom. Roasted.

My big problem in cooking these days is beans. Dry beans. They never cook how I want them to. I’ve soaked them, quickboiled them, boiled them long, slow cooked them (that takes two days from dry. I don’t advise it), and everything else that you can imagine. Fortunately, the recipe told me to soak them overnight, then boil for one hour in two inches of water, uncovered, adding more water if it looked like they were running dry. In addition, it told me to salt the beans at the end, not the beginning, and that they should taste creamy after about an hour. They tasted good, but not creamy. I let them go for a little while longer, and then drained them, setting them aside for the mussel cooking part of the evening.

I sweat some minced garlic, as they recommended, in butter. I added a few sprigs of parsley and the now cooked beans, sauteed for a bit, and added two cups of my dry white wine. At this point, for my binder of a themed ingredient, I would have chosen to add another pinch of smoked paprika to tie one dish to the next, but it didn’t say that on the card. No paprika added.

Put the mussels in, covered them, let them cook for a few minutes until I could hear the click-clack of opening shells. Giving them a shake, I turned off the heat and let them rest for a minute or two.

When the time came to assemble the dishes (I didn’t make the pear and rosemary galette because as you may know, baking is the bane of my existence), I grabbed a bowl for the mussels, scooped them out, and threw a generous handful of parsley over the top. After that, I poured the liquid into the bowls, bringing out the green in the parsley with just a little bit of heat.

When all was said and done, I had two dishes per person. On the first, in the foreground, is the roasted carrots. We reacted similarly to the flavor- it was delicious. The smoked paprika complemented the sweetness of the carrots. I only want to buy those carrots from now on. The mint was fresh and crisp, the sauce was light and not overbearing, not to mention exceedingly simple, and the spinach, which they told me to wilt in a dry pan with nothing else? Well, it was just spinach, but it was good.

The mussels were alright. I’ve made them many times before, and for the novices out there, this may have seemed like a good recipe to start with, but the wine never fully cooked off. When I do mussels, I use vegetable broth and maybe a splash or two of white wine, but never two cups. Making it, or a similar recipe, in the future, I would substitute with 2 cups of broth rather than wine, so as not to feel so lightheaded after eating.

And as for the music? It’s difficult to put music to something that you hope people will enjoy eating. We put the little 45 on our record player and plopped the needle on side one. Not terribly thrilled.

“Does the singer have a speech impediment?” my lady asked.

I was too busy eating to ever really notice, but what I did take from it was that the music itself wasn’t really my cup of tea. Ah, well. It’s novel of the Turntable Kitchen to use this opportunity to expose people to new music, but somewhere in there, they had to know they’d meet a guy like me. However, it’s interesting to note that they have a broad target audience- those who love music, those who love food, and those who have a collective love of both. My position is somewhere in the mire of the last descriptor, but they put forth a valiant attempt to get me to enjoy my dinner.

Did I? Yes. Did my lady? Yes. Once again, dinner is about the total experience, and having a tiny turntable spinning a record while you eat simply yields yet another topic of conversation over which you can enjoy the company of your fellow diners. For the next experience with these recipes, I’m going to amend them to suit my tastes, along with the music. In that they are in the business of influencing the musical and culinary palates of those who choose to dine with them, Turntable Kitchen’s Musical Pairing was a success, and the same goes for the gift itself. Through introduction to new avenues for cooking and overall enjoyment of a meal, I’ve broadened my horizons, and have taken what I’ve learned to further shape my endeavors in the kitchen the next time I attempt a new recipe that we can savor together.

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