Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Grass fed

Not long ago my wife and I bought a quarter steer from our egg lady. One of the compensations we get for living in a very small east Texas town (a local monthly calls itself the voice of the Upper East Side of Texas, heh) is that we have access to some incredible tasting, sustainably raised meat and eggs. The egg lady delivers a couple dozen free-range eggs -- okay, the chickens range freely, not the eggs -- regularly. And annually she slaughters a steer, parts of which we have bought on a couple of occasions.

A word about grass-fed beef: it's delicious.

Since the animal spends his life walking around and not penned, it can be a bit chewy if it's over-cooked. On the other hand, exercise gets blood flowing in its muscles and a diet of carotene-rich herbage both adds flavor and makes the fat distinctly yellow. Cattle evolved as grass eaters. They have a digestive system designed by millennia of natural selection to get the most out of a very fibrous, low starch diet. This document from Colorado State begins:
The rumen is a fermentation vat par excellance, providing an anaerobic environment, constant temperature and pH, and good mixing. Well-masticated substrates are delivered through the esophagus on a regular schedule, and fermentation products are either absorbed in the rumen itself or flow out for further digestion and absorption downstream.
It continues:

Feed, water and saliva are delivered to the reticulorumen through the esophageal orifice. Heavy objects (grain, rocks, nails) fall into the reticulum, while lighter material (grass, hay) enters the rumen proper. Added to this mixture are voluminous quantities of gas produced during fermentation.

Ruminants produce prodigious quantities of saliva. Published estimates for adult cows are in the range of 100 to 150 liters of saliva per day! Aside from its normal lubricating qualities, saliva serves at least two very important functions in the ruminant:

  • provision of fluid for the fermentation vat
  • alkaline buffering - saliva is rich in bicarbonate, which buffers the large quanitity of acid produced in the rumen and is probably critical for maintainance of rumen pH.

All these materials within the rumen partition into three primary zones based on their specific gravity. Gas rises to fill the upper regions, grain and fluid-saturated roughage ("yesterday's hay") sink to the bottom, and newly arrived roughage floats in a middle layer.

Then comes an illustration that may owe a lot to Carroll Dunham:

Or maybe not.

The point here is that cattle evolved an extraordinary digestive tract that has nothing to do with eating and digesting grains like corn. Feeding corn to cattle is an industrial agriculture practice and owes its being to economic factors and not good animal husbandry. Basically you can get a steer fatter faster on less land if you feed him corn. But a corn diet can also make the steer sick, so he also gets frequent doses of antibiotics.

The economics of corn are downright Byzantine with market distortions arising from huge agribusinesses like Monsanto and from USDA farm subsidies. Growing corn is also intricately linked to America's consumption of fossil fuels (transportation, processing, fertilizer manufacture, etc.) Michal Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma covers much of this info in engaging detail. Apparently there is molecular evidence that US citizens consume more corn (via corn sweeteners, animal flesh raised on corn diets, and so on) than do Mexicans.

Tonight I cooked a T-bone steak from our quarter steer for dinner. Grass-fed beef. I seared it in a steel skillet and let it rest while I fried some turnip pieces in the pan drippings. When they were nearly done, I added a chopped shallot and later some smoked turkey stock. After reducing the stock, I added some lemon juice and some grated horseradish.

I cut the meat off the bone and sliced it for serving with the turnips and juices. Nobody ate better. It was rich and flavorful and simple and right.

It was a huge steak. There is leftover meat for salads later and the bone and trimmings are in a stock pot simmering as I type.

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