Soap Box


(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.

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.

If you haven’t read the first post about breaking down a whole lamb, here it is. I’ve moved on to more serious territory, and if you’re a bit squeamish, try to make it through as much of this post as you can. I’ll keep it light. There will be no pictures of the slaughterhouse in this post. 

If you did read the linked post from above, you’ll remember that our butchers, for the last year, have been getting in whole lamb carcasses and breaking them down for sale in our meat department. As I stated in the comments, we come from a sterile environment of meat eating. Our meats come in shrinkwrapped packages with a sell-by date, and they have neither a face, nor a name. As far as we know, it’s what’s stamped on the package that gets us to buy things. Buzzwords such as ‘grass-fed’, ‘boneless/skinless’, and ‘organic’ influence our buying power as consumers, but we never give a second thought to where the meat actually comes from.

Chicago has a long tradition of being one of the nation’s top meat producing cities. Reaching back to 1906’s The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Slaughterhouses are part of the framework upon which the success of Chicago was built.  Compared to today’s massive feedlots, ‘farming operations’, and processing plants, the smaller slaughterhouses have gone the way of the dodo, making room for centrally located behemoths dotting the landscape of America’s ‘farmland’. Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods like Back of the Yards, once bustling with trailer activity and the smell of a barnyard, now lay mostly vacant. This past Tuesday, however, our butchers were taken to Chiapetti’s Lamb and Veal processors, the last Slaughterhouse to utilize live slaughter of large farm animals within the Chicago city limits.

I could be morbid here, and talk about death, but it’s not the time, nor is it the place. This is a job that needs to be done if those who eat meat want to have dinner on the table. Those who are involved do their jobs with skill, and with a quickness and precision that most home cooks will never see. They do it because it’s necessary.

We showed up to the plant at 8:45 in the morning and waited to be called in for our tour, just as the first shift of workers was going on break. As we stood out front, out came the USDA representative, everpresent for daily operations, and in went the Rabbi to inspect the plant. We were informed that today, instead of the USDA mandated stun kills, we would be seeing a Halal, or Muslim live slaughter. This is similar to a Kosher kill, in that the animal is slaughtered with a single knife cut to the throat, and bled immediately. The knife is the sharpest I’ve ever seen, and the kill is quick and arguably as humane as the bolt method. I’ll touch more on this later.
As we waited, the trailer drove by carrying the lambs and pulled around back to the loading chute. The familiar Midwestern smell of sheep passed us over. It was no different than a county fair.

We walked into the plant, and were introduced to the man who took us first to the fabrication room. Many of the readers of this blog have seen the movie Rocky. I’ll just say that the depiction of a meat locker in that movie is true to how they actually are in real life. Hundreds of spit-ready lamb were hanging, ready for bagging for wholesale or breakdown for smaller restaurant cuts. As we watched, one of their butchers broke a carcass down for us, first breaking the hindsaddle from the foresaddle with a breaking knife, and then fabricating them into subprimal cuts of shoulders, racks, bone-in legs, loins, and denver rib racks. As 25 people gathered around his small table, he had the opportunity to do each cut twice- the first with the speed necessary to meet the quota of 1300 lamb that they go through every day, and the second time, slower to show where each cut was to be made, and how to hold the knife.

Home cooks hold their knives different than chefs, who hold their knives different than butchers, who hold their knives different than the fabricators and breakers who split whole carcasses. The mistake that most people make when they use their knives is that they use the end of the knife closest to the hilt, because it gives them a feeling of more control.

I want you to do something right now. As you’re reading, reach over and touch something. What part of your hand are you using? I’m willing to bet it’s your fingertips. I can definitively say that it’s not the first digit of your fingers. Why would you do that?  When you use your knife all day, it becomes an extension of your hand. If you treat your knife blade as if it’s your hand, the highest level of accuracy you can get is with the tip.

Sound familiar?

Okay, maybe not the best picture for analogy, but you get it. We watched as he pressed with a pointed blade directly on the bone to separate the meat with the highest yield possible. This comes from years of practice. As he cut, we saw roast after roast cranked out. The square cut shoulder became a boneless shoulder roast. Using just the tip of the knife, the cap from the rib rack was removed, and the bones were frenched, removed of any incidental meat from a two inch area at the top, leaving an ovenready roast.

Most interesting was the tunnel cut leg of lamb, where he separated the femur bone from the meat, made an incision above the knee joint, and removed the lower leg, or shank, and femur from the whole roast by twisting, leaving the now boneless leg roast intact.

***

It’s interesting to see how our meat gets to the state in which we recognize it as it comes to our case. I appreciate the workers who spend hours making it so we can easily make it for our dinner without much effort, but it’s important to realize that it came from somewhere. The next post I write will focus on how a live animal becomes something that these workers can use to make our trips to the store more convenient. It might not be as pleasant as this one, or as palatable, but it’s something that I need to write to get the full story out. If you eat meat, I hope you’ll find it a valuable read.

I went to the movies the other day. While there, I made the concession to purchase the food they had available at the kiosk. Like a lot of people, we realize that the price of snacks at certain places are somewhat exorbitant, raised to recoup the expenses of putting butts in the seats at the theaters. Naturally, we snuck a couple of things in, but in addition to the bags of sweets that we had, I purchased an order of Pretzel bites with movie cheese for six dollars.

I began to think about it. I looked over the prices of some of the other items on the board, and it made little sense to me that we hold a skewed sense of value for foods that are out of convenience. Wherein we would normally spend a considerable amount less for a comparable portion at home, millions of people, for a bag of popcorn that costs less than 50 cents to make, willingly shell out six, seven, eight dollars for the privilege of feedbaggery at the movies without a second thought.

Now, where I work, there is a price structure in place that is slightly higher than your average grocery store. For a pound of ground meat that is lean and grass-fed, you can expect to pay $7.99/lb. We’ve registered a few complaints in the last week about the rise in prices, especially with the price of ground bison at $9.99/lb. The fact is that the cost of raising an animal is going up. Commodity costs are higher for corn, wheat, and even pasture raised animals. It happens every couple of years. So what?

It goes back to convenience. For $7.99/lb, you get the equivalent of four 1/4 pound burgers, and still have money, even when buying the highest quality meat in the case, to buy your lettuce, tomato, and a good quality bun or hard roll. When did we get so complacent in our desires to eat right? Is it merely because we don’t want to think about making our meals?

There’s no filler in our meat. None. If you buy ground beef, it’s ground beef. There’s none of that horrible ammonia washed offal powder filler that is in something like 70% of our fast food burgers these days. You can probably find a good quality tomato, and a delicious mustard. If you end up paying a bit more for it, shouldn’t you take comfort in the fact that you’re paying a couple more pennies on your dollar back to someone who is raising an animal to be an animal and not a frozen fast food patty?

Back to the pretzels and nachos. Even in the grocery store, an entire box of pretzels costs 3-4 dollars. A frozen box of soft pretzels, if you want to get technical, costs around 5. Why do we feel that it’s alright to pay the premium for something merely because we are beyond the velvet rope of a movie theater? I don’t.

You can get an entire bag of good tortilla chips for $3. Salsa? $2.50. Cheese? $4. That’s at least three or four servings of a complete nacho extravaganza for under ten dollars, if you just make it yourself.

Soda? Any soft drink that you purchase at the movies is going to be $5 or above for a liter or larger. Even when looking at a six pack, it’s cheaper at the store. Want to know what else is less expensive, and a lot better for you? 2 quarts of orange juice. $3.99.

What everyone wants is a meal that can be made in one pot in less than 30 minutes, with a minimal amount of steps. You can make a hamburger or cheeseburger in that amount of time. You can get inexpensive pasta, chop up an onion and garlic, throw in some frozen vegetables, and add some cheese that you shred yourself on top when you’re done. Toss it together and serve. Total time? <30minutes. Total cost for a family of four? <$10. Compared to a bucket of chicken from a fast food joint, the five minutes you spend chopping vegetables is more valuable than the 15 you spend debating in the restaurant queue about what everyone wants to eat.

In addition to money, few things cause dischord more than going out for fast food. At least one person feels exasperated, because it acts as a last resort for a parent with less energy to spend on dinner plans. The aspect of ordering is always a chore, especially if you have children, who are notorious in their indecision. Lastly, nobody feels good after they eat fast food. You only feel full. Extra salt and fat make us feel not satisfied, but sluggish.

Quick- name a fast food chain whose prominent advertising color is green. Subway, right? That’s about the only one I can think of. And their slogan- Eat Fresh? If I want to eat fresh, I’ll eat at home. If I eat at Subway, there’s no way I’ll load up on green peppers and iceberg lettuce just to increase the overall health of my sandwich. Those things barely have any nutritional value to begin with. I don’t know what the reason is behind many restaurants having a logo that is comprised mostly of hot colors (red, orange, yellow). Maybe it gives the illusion of fire, of something being flame broiled. There hasn’t been an open flame at Wendy’s for years. The only reason there’s a flame broiler at Burger King is to keep the frozen patties from melting into piles of goo. Yes, goo. If you drop a frozen BK patty on the ground,it doesn’t thaw into a pile of ground beef- it melts into a puddle.

Yet somehow, you get the illusion that you’re getting a whole meal at these places, that what you’re eating is satisfying your appetite. It may be, but it doesn’t satisfy your hunger for real food, does it? If I eat, I want real burgers, real fried chicken, a salad that doesn’t come pre-loaded with precooked bacon bits, an egg, cheese, turkey, and everything else that doesn’t make it a salad. In the time it takes me to walk to the Polish sausage joint down the street, order, come back, and start eating, I can look in the fridge, throw some stuff in the oven, and sit down to relax as my food, my real food, lightly browns on its way to my plate. We eat with our eyes, I understand, even though in reality we eat with our mouths, but watching a popcorn popper at the movie theater triggers the impulse buy. The popping sound. The manufactured smell of artificial butter. It is just as easy to replicate that experience at home with real food. You have a pan. You can make some music with a sizzle, a bubbling boil, and a percussive rap of a knife blade against the cutting board. The end result, along with the sounds and smells, will give you far more satisfaction and a better sense of value than a trough of movie popcorn ever could.

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I’m just going to shop at Whole Foods for Seafood from now on. I should have known better. Sometimes, I just don’t want to spend the money for fresh fish, but you get what you pay for.

Anyhow, I wrote this letter to the Trader Joe’s feedback hotline. I’ll keep you posted as to what happens. In any case, this will be a good study on how to handle a customer who is extremely dissatisfied with their product.

I should point out- I’m not mad, but disappointed. It could happen where I work, and I’m interested to figure out how it’s handled. Good or bad, you’ll know the outcome. Here’s the letter:

***

Hi,

I was recently in your Chicago store, and I picked up a package of your Mahi Mahi Pieces. We were having family visit from out of town, and I wanted something light and summery, so I picked out fish tacos using your Mahi. I was in a rush, and the deal, for $3.49/lb seemed like a great deal. The package said “Product of Peru”. I bought one, brought it home, and threw it in the freezer. We didn’t get to eat it with family, but I’m lucky we didn’t.

We kept it in the freezer and thawed it out a few days later under cool running water, in the package.  When I opened the package, it smelled old. Very old. Not only that, but being that it was not IQF, the texture and the smell meant that they were frozen, thawed, and refrozen.

This is not a problem that affects only my package, because issues like this are not relegated to one package. If it were improperly handled from packaging to store, the vacuum seal would have been broken. Thank you for handling the product correctly.

My issue is the quality of the product to begin with. I’ve spent 12 years of my life in the seafood industry, and every once in a great while, I’d get emails from wholesalers saying, for example, that they had 3600 pallets of frozen mahi bits in cold storage on the docks in Los Angeles or Miami. It was usually product of a South American Country, and the price was usually between 49 to 79 cents a pound. This is where mahi pieces come from.

I never purchased them for my operation, because I had no use for them and my business never dealt in that volume. I never thought that they would be such an inferior product.

I’m fully aware of the steps to determine whether or not a product has gone bad, but this product was just bad enough to not throw away. In hindsight, I probably should have put them in the trash. The smell was poor, the texture was unacceptable, and it cooked up with an aftertaste that was thoroughly unsatisfying.

If you believe that this is an isolated incident, please let me know, as I’ll take my inquiries to the home store directly. I understand that a large part of your business is increasing basket size due to active sampling, but there is no way that your stores could comfortably sample this inferior product to customers and expect them to buy it. The smell alone, even masked with onions, garlic, and a Simmer sauce as I did at home, was only enough to realize that it was of poor quality, but not bad enough to make you sick. There may be some that are better than the package I purchased, but there are also some that are of poorer quality. If you believe differently, please have your crew sample the product in a way that makes it palatable, and I will be happy to change my tune. I am skeptical if only because I know the purchasing practices of large scale seafood operations, and this problem will not be fixed without a recall of all the product currently from that batch on the shelves.  I bought the mahi, without sampling from your staff, and I now know that I’ve made a huge mistake. Have your staff try it to make sure they don’t keep ‘selling extra low quality seafood’ as one of their best practices. The staff are so enthusiastic, I think they would not care to sell a product that they couldn’t stand behind. I know I wouldn’t.

I do like a variety of products that you carry, but I will not be purchasing seafood, and will be scaling back my excursions to your stores until I am satisfied that the quality problem has been addressed and resolved. Please let me know what steps you are taking to ensure that no mahi mahi pieces of such poor quality will go out to customers again. If you assure me that the product issues have been addressed, and I take your word, buy it and find out that it is in fact still the same D-grade fish, my business will be going elsewhere.

Thank you for listening. Please alert me to any steps being taken to fix this problem.

When I was growing up, we didn’t get sugary cereals. We had Cheerios. Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, and Honey Nut Cheerios if we were lucky. One of the things I do remember about the breakfast table is that on the side panel of each box, and at the end of each commercial, they’d show a picture of a completed table, saying that my cereal was part of a complete and balanced breakfast when served with juice, toast, and milk.

Of course it is. They said the same thing about Froot Loops. If you have anything with whole grain toast, fresh squeezed orange juice, and fresh milk, you have most of your bases covered. What nutritive value could you possibly get from a bowl of Froot Loops? Remember how they also said that they had up to eleven essential vitamins and minerals? Yeah, they don’t make that claim any more.

I wanted to put some kind of picture in this post, but I can’t even find a picture of the 1980’s balanced breakfast if I google it. This is what you get when you look for ‘balanced breakfast’:

THIS is what you get. Look at all that fruit!

A bowl of breakfast cereal, properly measured out, does not yield a single serving. We are always so amazed why we remain unhealthy, sluggish, tired, unready or willing to face the day. We forego a banana or an orange, the glass of orange juice, and end up putting milk and a hell of a lot of sugar into our coffee in the morning. Our best modern day attempt at a balanced breakfast looks like this:

Five servings of cereal

3 servings of 2% or whole milk (not skim, as the recommended daily allowance suggests)

3 cups of coffee in a travel mug

five tablespoons of sugar

No toast

No fruit

Don’t get me started on Pop Tarts. If we go to a coffeeshop, a Panera, a Starbucks, anyplace where we can grab a pastry and a coffee on the go, our health rapidly declines with each visit. Muffins have chocolate chips. There’s smoothies and blended coffee drinks with whipped cream toppings and bits of toffee that are not smoothies at all, but milkshakes.

You are having a cupcake and a hideous milkshake for breakfast.

They have something called a Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino® Blended Beverage at Starbucks. Most people figure that for the money, the largest size gives the best value. It also has 670 calories. That is more than an entire head of lettuce, and with an amazing 129 grams of carbs (1/4 lb of what? Sugar?), it gives you more than just a caffeine buzz.

Everything now comes with garnish. Chocolate shavings and whipped cream appear on your drinks. There is cheese and meat on your salad, not to mention way more creamy salad dressing than you’d ever need to make something taste good. If you order something with skim milk, you get a funny look at the counter. Most people, when asked what they look for in a coffee, respond with the same basic answer: a Rich, full bodied dark roast.

Really, what they want is a weak, watered down coffee essence with a lot of milk, a lot of sugar, and a lot of froth to make it seem light. That’s not a coffee drink. That’s a dessert.

What can we do? If you’ve got to have your coffee fix, make it yourself. Coffee has caffeine, and if that’s your thing, just do it straight. Don’t have a coffee with fancy frills. Dumb it down with skim or 2%, pouring it into your cup, along with a metered amount of sugar, before you pour your coffee in. That way, you know exactly how much you’re getting. The trick that a lot of coffee bars use is offering the milk and sugar for free, knowing that we will taste and adjust the flavor with as much milk and sugar as it takes to dull it down and make it palatable for our delicate, yet refined coffee drinking sensibilities. What we end up with is normally a half a cup of half and half, and at least 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar, if it’s coming from a free flowing sugar jar. At that point, does it really even matter what the coffee itself tastes like? For however long they spend procuring the beans from just the right bush in Ecuador, roasting them to just the right degree for optimal flavor, don’t you think you owe it to yourself to taste the subtle, nuanced hints of your ridiculously expensive cup of sugarmilk?

Don’t get decaffeinated coffee. If you want something decaffeinated, drink water. Drink something else. Same thing with cola. If you want something without calories, don’t drink diet soda. Drink water. Don’t drink a Hazelnut coffee for breakfast- That is just gross. Treat yourself right. Remember that our country is one of convenience, but convenience often, and in fact almost always replaces our need to treat ourselves and our bodies right when it comes to nourishment. Don’t just grab and go with your food. Take the time to sit and savor, even if it means just relaxing in your car on your lunch break with a pasta salad you brought from home.

Here’s an easy recipe, one that incorporates a bunch of different food groups, that you can make a big batch of and eat at your leisure.

Pasta Salad

1 box (16 oz) RotiniTri-colored if it makes you feel healthy. Generally, a more colorful meal means a healthier one. Colors to enjoy on a regular basis? Green, Red, Yellow, Orange. Colors to avoid? Brown (unless it’s whole wheat), white. Let’s see what else we can put in the salad…

1 Red Pepper, diced

1 Tomato, diced

1 Green pepper, diced

4 oz. sandwich cheese (cheddar, perhaps. Maybe provolone), cut into small pieces.

Fresh basil, torn, however much you want.

Fresh spinach, handful or two, rinsed and patted dry

one light swirl of Olive oil

Fresh lemon juice

Boil the pasta in salted water for the recommended allotment of time. Drain and put in a bowl to chill tossed with olive oil to make sure it doesn’t stick together. Add vegetables, cheese, basil, and finish with a dash of lemon juice and a couple grinds of black pepper.

The big thing here is not to put it in big containers. Get yourself a bunch of small, portion sized containers, and portion them out for a week or so. A good rule is this: Take out a lunchbag or purse. If you can’t fit your container and a sandwich comfortably in there and close the top, it’s too much food. While saving the environment with reusable packaging, save your stomach by recognizing that having a giant tub of food is not going to make you feel good in the long run. Yes, some people can stuff their gullets full of hot dogs, but your stomach is not designed for anything more than what you can fit in a lunchbag. Trust me, it’s enough food, and there are nutrients in there that will sustain you throughout the day.

I don't care what you think. All those hot dogs do not go in your belly.

As I’ve stated in the previous post, I’ve now moved to Chicago. With a bit of brevity, I’ll say that I’m back at Whole Foods, and I am part of the meat department.

Why? Well, for the time being, I was done with seafood- done with the city of Seattle (not in my heart, mind you, but done with that chapter), most definitely done with the smells (sorry, but I got rid of my seafood clothes dresser), and just…done. I find it interesting, though, that I was first in Fish in Chicago, then Fish in Seattle, and now Meat in Chicago.

Seafood is appropriate for Seattle. Chicago is a meat town. Boy, is it ever.

So far, I’ve gone through hundreds of pounds of brisket, dozens of pork shoulders, a fair count of lamb chops, and, for some ungodly reason, thousands of pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

I can understand why people think they want it: It’s simple and healthy. Here’s why they really buy it: It’s boring, it tastes like nothing, and it’s so bland that if it’s messed up, you can blame it on the recipe. It is the tilapia of landmeat.

What makes people think this is okay? In the service case, we have whole chickens, ducks, split breasts with the bones in, boneless breasts with skin, and thighs, drumsticks, wings, all of which are infinitely more tasty than a boneless, skinless breast. Not everyone who eats these things is on “doctor’s orders”.

Oh, “Doctor told you to eat more boneless, skinless chicken breasts?” No, they did not. They said eat healthier. Here’s a newsflash: You can still eat healthier without sacrificing your chicken in a flurry of feathers and discarded fat.

It’s really difficult, because I see people coming in buying pork, and buying bacon, and buying a steak, and buying beef jerky. People whisper in my ear as I pass them their Andouille Sausage, “Doctor said I shouldn’t have this, but I love it anyway.” Guess what! You’ve just made me feel bad, because I’m not helping! I was more able to serve people in their eating choices in Seafood, but from behind the meat counter, I realize that Chicago, and the Midwest in general, has got an eating problem, and they’ve got it bad.

Whenever someone is looking at ways of making their diet more heart healthy, they most often fail to account for the handful of snacks that they eat, the samples that they chow down at the grocery store (that piece of brisket that you just ate? 100 calories) or that they add five times as much salad dressing as they need (just a thought-that extra salad dressing alone can add 1-200 calories to your meal, and that’s not even Ranch). What a nutritionist or a doctor needs to do, rather than sending someone home with a tablet to analyze their eating habits, is to actually see where it is that they’re getting hung up. People need to know if it’s the salad dressing, the pats of butter (nothing is ever a pat anymore. It’s not even a smear or a smattering. It’s a slather.) and cheese (nothing wrong with cheese, just the proportions of cheese to other stuff) on the baked potato where you scoop out and eat everything but the skin. The only reason you eat the potato at all is because of the butter. And the salt. And the cheese. And the bacon.

Now, with the chicken breast, the skin is not the problem. Nobody says that you have to eat the skin. Still, the skin browns, and crisps, and imparts flavor into the meat. With the boneless, skinless variety, you have to marinate it in oil, salt, sugar, etc, usually putting on too much, and then adding too much oil to the pan, thus shallow frying your meal hoping for it to brown, which it will never do. The only way that you’re going to get a deep brown on your chicken breast is from the sugars in the marinade that you put it in.

When viewing your diet from the standpoint of a healthy breakdown of caloric intake, a healthy mix is going to be, on average 30% of your calories from protein, 30% from fat, and 40% from starches and carbohydrates.  Now, fat has 9 calories per gram, while carbs and protein only have 4 calories per gram. You’ve probably been made aware of this a few times, and it’s probably somewhere in your head, but it’s important to note for a couple of reasons:

1) If something says that it is 96% fat-free, that means that it is 4% fat. 4% fat has almost 2.5 times more calories than 4%protein or 4%carbs. In a 4 oz. serving of something, something that says that it’s 96% fat-free can have 50 calories from fat alone. It’s not that fat is bad for you, because everyone needs some in their lives. However, by reading and understanding what’s on the label of your food, you can get a better grasp of why you may feel poorly when trying to eat healthier.

2) When you think about it, chicken skin does not take up that much of your dinner plate, but what it does is add a buffer to an otherwise boring dinner. How many times have you served those boneless skinless chicken breasts to a reception of “Chicken? Again? Auuuuugh!” (yes, Charlie Brown is at your dinner table. Just go with it). Just because a chicken has skin does not mean that you have to eat it. The skin of a chicken is healthier than you might think. It means that you don’t have to put much, if any, oil in the pan. It serves as a vehicle for making a healthy pan sauce after deglazing, thanks to the caramelized bits it leaves behind. And nobody says you have to eat it. Use it during cooking, and take it off at the table if you don’t feel like eating it. It’s a far better thing to not eat the chicken skin than it is to not eat the potato skin left sitting on your table.

I write all this down for a couple of reasons. First, I loathe American eating habits. It goes back to my return trip to America from a stint in Italy, where I was sitting, bleary-eyed on a bus from O’Hare back to Madison, watching a woman cry as she pawed through a box of teddy grahams at 11:30 at night. 11:30 at night! I can understand if you work 2nd shift as I sometimes do, and you have to get a bit of energy. Still, you don’t need to be eating an entire box on a bus trip merely because there’s nothing left to do. Turn on the overhead light and read. Listen to music. DON’T EAT WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A MEAL SCHEDULED!

Get up and walk around. Realistically cut calories and portion sizes wherever you can. Please try not to eat so much fried food. Today’s Chinese food is not healthy. Remember when something that came out of a wok meant healthy and crisp food which retained its health benefits? That doesn’t happen anymore. I heard the statistic the other day that some exorbitant percentage of children under the age of one year old (50% or above, I think) eat french fries on a regular basis. It costs less to buy a bag of frozen vegetables that feeds two to three people heartily than it does to buy a large order of fries which will usually be consumed by one person.

***

I made the mistake of eating McDonald’s on the road out here in Sioux Falls, SD. I could only finish half of it. It didn’t fill me up in the way that a meal should. I was not satiated. I had the feeling that I didn’t want to eat anymore, but not for any good reason. Since when does our appetite dictate that we can’t taste anything but salt? I was left wanting.

Sadly, on the other side of the spectrum, when it comes to a boneless, skinless chicken breast, I am also left wanting. It doesn’t mean that I won’t eat it- It’s food. It is calories, and energy, and lean protein, but like the fries, I won’t be satisfied.

You can still have the skin and be content. If the skin is on, it gives flavor and, yes, calories, but it still falls within the realm of healthy eating, assuming that you maintain a good ratio of protein-fat-carbs. If you need it to be healthier, take the skin off after you cook it. Just don’t let me come over to your house and find three half empty bottles of Hidden Valley and bottles of soda.

I want you to eat healthy. I want you to eat right. I want you to make the right choices when you eat, and when you do, to enjoy the flavors that you’ve created. I want you to enjoy eating, but most of all, I want you around.

And So Does He

And So Does He

 

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