The Importance of Burgers

Can frugal carnivores eat locally, humanely, and well? Dear Dara finds out.

Dear Dara,

I look forward to your column every week, but find it frustrating that although there are many restaurants I'd like to patronize, as a card-carrying carnivore (okay, I don't actually have a card), I also insist on what I refer to as "proper" meats (you know, no antibiotics or hormones, organic, and local if possible) and so I find myself reticent to try out many places for fear I'll be subject to freaky mystery meats. Perhaps an idea for a future column: American casual (and cheap) without fear of Schlosserian nightmares.

My mom bought a [factory-farm produced] pork tenderloin (she lives in Wisconsin and does not share my critical eye) and it actually smelled like piss! I couldn't believe it—my family was just chowing down. I couldn't say anything, of course (my family already thinks I'm unbearable when it comes to food, ah, issues when I visit), so I had an extra helping of mashed potatoes.

The Dakota’s winning--and defensible--Cobb burger
Kris Drake
The Dakota’s winning--and defensible--Cobb burger

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Barbette

1600 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

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Thanks,
Christian, of Northeast

 

Dear Christian;

I know, right? Once you read Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's exploration of fast food that shines a particularly queasy-making light on American factory farming, you get all problematic, don't you? Well, that's what they get for teaching you how to read. Now you're all, I don't want to eat poo, or eat things that smell like poo, or live in a landscape gone to poo, or have a poo economy. Well aren't you Mr. Fancy Pants?

And yet, Christian, I'm glad they taught you to read, because you raise an extremely relevant point, on the importance of burgers and barbecue. Because unless local, thoughtfully raised meats are available for everyday prices, the organic revolution is going nowhere fast.

Did you know that local farmers can't raise a whole steer, charge $500 a pound for the tenderloin, and drop the rest of the meat off a bridge? It's true. I learned this from Todd Lein, who, after spending the first part of his career working for the Land Stewardship Project, now works in marketing at Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a business based in Cannon Falls that works with local farmers to sell their grass-fed, sustainably and humanely raised beef. "On a 1,200-pound live steer, you end up with 400 or 500 pounds of meat—2 percent is tenderloin, 40 percent is ground beef," Todd Lein explains. "If you can't sell the whole animal, you can't stay in business."

Thousand Hills is a great example of the next wave beyond organic: Not only are they local (all their farmers are within an hour's drive of the processing plant in Cannon Falls), and not only are the animals raised humanely, mostly outdoors, on non-scary feed without antibiotics (you can read their protocol yourself at www.thousandhillscattleco.com), but the whole company is based on the idea of promoting perennial grassland. Perennial grassland, of course, is also known as a prairie, and is what much of the land around here is meant to be, and it's a good, good thing. It's what prairie voles, owls, hawks, moths, foxes, and all need to survive. It's what prevents our soil from washing away, first into our rivers, thereby ruining them, and eventually ending up in the Gulf of Mexico.

But I do go on. What's important to know for today is that studies show grass-fed beef is higher in Omega 3 fatty acids and healthier than grain-fed beef. And so you can help our local environment, our local economies, and yourself by simply making your meatballs, burgers, sloppy joes, and meatloaves with Thousand Hills meat, which is available in most of the co-ops, at Kowalski's supermarkets, and through Simon Delivers. (Check the producer's website for a full list of retail locations.)

Meanwhile, as it goes for beef, so it goes for pork: Neither can hogs be hidden under doormats after the 25 percent or so that accounts for tenderloins, chops, and such is extracted. Niman Ranch is one of most visible marketing companies representing local farmers committed to good land stewardship, humane animal rearing, no antibiotics, and such. Today they represent about 50 Minnesota farmers, as well as dozens of other farmers in 11 other states. You can find Niman Ranch hot dogs, sausages, and bratwurst at Byerly's, and you can find some of their salamis in gourmet markets like the Buon Giorno in Lilydale or Clancey's Meats in Linden Hills.

I talked to Paul Willis, a farmer from Thornton, Iowa, and a manager with Niman Ranch, who told me how important the "middle" and "end" meats are to a farmer. "Niman Ranch was the first [company that] understood you had to buy the whole animal to support the farmer. In the old days you didn't throw anything away," when you butchered an animal, Willis told me, which is really the economic principle that underlies farming. Now that small farmers are finding a market for their non-confinement pork, "We're actually seeing some resettling of depopulated areas," down in Iowa, Willis told me. "There are more farms, but smaller farms. It used to be get big or get out, but we're seeing some change now."

One place you can get Minnesota, non-Schlosserian-nightmare pork is in a Chipotle burrito. Pork shoulders are shipped right from the processing plant in Iowa to Chipotle. Yes, that Chipotle. I talked to Ben Mattson, the local farm kid (originally from Luck, Wisconsin) who is in charge of Chipotle's Minnesota marketing, and he explained to me that he took the job with Chipotle because of his commitment to local farms. In Minnesota, says Mattson, 100 percent of Chipotle's pork and chicken is raised without antibiotics, without growth hormones, on 100 percent vegetarian feed without any animal by-products, in humane and free-ranging situations.

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