Meat is the enemy! That’s the mantra I hear these days from nearly all sides of the political spectrum. In The New York Times author, Jonathan Safran Foer, recently wrote, “We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly.” He added, “We cannot protect against pandemics while continuing to eat meat regularly.”
In the latest issue of the magazine, Columbia, which is published by my alma mater, the editors claim that COVID-19 started in the markets in Wuhan that sold wild animals such as pangolins, small endangered mammals whose meat is viewed as a delicacy and is eaten especially by wealthy Chinese. The editors also said that the virus might have been spread by hunters and poachers “involved in the illicit animal trade.” Maybe.
For most of my life, I’ve been told that raising animals is bad for the planet. One of my brothers has been a vegetarian for the past 50 years and won’t allow any beef, pork or lamb in his house. Grains, vegetables and cheeses keep him fit enough to bicycle from the Pacific Ocean side of San Francisco to the Bay side, and then to play handball and take a sauna at the South End Rowing Club.
When I’m at his Ocean Beach apartment, I eat what he eats and often feel deprived. As I have aged, I have eaten less meat than I did as a teenager when I lived on burgers, fries and shakes. I still enjoy a burger occasionally, bacon occasionally and a steak occasionally. When I do eat meat it’s usually from a local rancher and a friend who raises ducks, geese, lambs, pigs and chickens.
I call him “Roi.” His meat is not certified by the USDA. Indeed, it’s blackmarket meat which might be why it tastes so good, though his animals are grass-fed which adds to the richness of the flavor. The animals live healthy lives on a small ranch about a mile from my house. It’s an easy walk that I take a couple of times a week.
Roi’s ranch is the opposite of factory farming, which I believe is bad for humans and for animals, too. COVID-19 has revealed the evils of industrial slaughterhouses. Two Tyson plants in Iowa have been hot spots for the virus. Ditto for a Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota. Stay away!
All around me, many families raise animals which they slaughter and eat. Some friends say they “harvest” their livestock because “slaughtering” sounds barbaric. Some of them become fond of their pigs, which are pretty smart animals. Recently, I visited Roi’s ranch and watched him slaughter four lambs. Then I observed the “field butcher” skin the animals, gut them, remove the feet and store the carcasses at the back of his truck before taking them to his shop where he would cut them up.
Roi used a sharp knife to kill four lambs, three females and one male all of them between 12 and 18 months old. Roi doesn’t ever transport his animals to a slaughterhouse, which stresses them, he claims, and adversely affects the taste and the flavor of the meat. Mark O., the field butcher, arrived about 8 a.m. and worked steadily until about 10:30 a.m. “This is my whole life,” he told me. “I’ve been doing this ever since I was in high school in the 1970s. I learned by doing.” Mark travels all over northern California to ply his trade. He charged Roi $30 an animal.
That morning, Mark cleaned his blood-stained apron and washed down the carcasses with cold water from a hose. He kept his knife razor sharp. While he worked, he explained, “People around here used to be self-sufficient. They reared animals for food and they grew most of the fruits and vegetables they ate. The commercial system destroyed the mom and pop ranches.”
It did much the same all over the U.S.
COVID-19 has revealed the fissures in the U.S. food system. Over the last few months, more and more consumers have been joining food coops and CSAs for organic fruits and vegetables. Increasingly, consumers have been purchasing meat from ranchers like Roi, who tells me that men and women like him are “increasing production,” which means raising more animals. I hope so. We need more locally grown food.
Still, Roi’s not getting rich raising animals, nor is Mark O. becoming wealthy by slaughtering them. But they’re not in it for the money.
On the evening before Memorial Day, I BBQed some of the chops from one of Roi’s lambs. They were tender and juicy, and I felt good eating meat from animals I knew were humanely treated by a rancher who cares about the planet and who does all he can do to nurture the environment, and where he lives with his teenage daughter.
The COVID-19 epidemic has made me appreciate the meaning of “local” more than ever before. I’ve seen that “go local” can be more than a slogan and that people who want to eat healthy and protect the planet can buy meat and vegetables from small producers who live and work close to the land. I also have a small vegetable garden in my backyard. I’m growing tomatoes, lettuces, eggplants, herbs and squashes and look forward to harvesting and eating the fruits of my own labor. I’ll go on eating meat, but I won't live by meat alone. Pass the salad and the bread, please.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.”)