"Where does your meat come from?"
It's a question that grocers, restaurateurs, deli counters, and cafeterias should know the answer to, and it's a question you should ask freely... yet few of us do.
As a lifelong animal lover, yet a passionate foodie, I often struggle with the moral dilemma I face when confronted by meat with questionable origins. When I dine out, I try to frequent restaurants that procure their meat and dairy products from local and humane sources. Yet there are the moments of weakness where I find myself in the Burger King drive-thru or grabbing the chicken tenders from my work cafeteria because I'm in a hurry or it's easier and cheaper to be lazy about my meat. Or, if I'm a guest in someone's home, I'm too embarrassed to ask.
However, I'm changing my tune. Permanently.
In a time when local food is all the rage and economic climate where meat-mongers have no choice but to price reasonably, it can be quick and easy to fine humanely-raised animal products. It starts at your neighborhood Farmers Market.
When I was in the parking lot of CVS one Saturday, I accidentally happened across C&D Family Farms, stationed at the weekly North Center Farmers Market just north of the intersection of Damen, Lincoln, and Irving Park. Unlike the illegal wares one might typically hock out of the side door of a large white van, the proprietor was exchanging pork tenderloin, ham steak, and handmade breakfast sausage with smiling customers, many of whom she knew by name. A force stronger than gravity (bacon) pulled me toward the vehicle.
That was the day I met Crystal Nells, co-owner of C&D, who raises the pigs on her farm with better care than most treat their cats and dogs. Truth be told, pork is the meat I feel most conflicted about eating, not for any religious reason, but because I've heard that pigs are very intelligent beings and some say they seem to comprehend what's happening to them when... well, you know. And I will never forget the sight I saw on the Kennedy earlier this year, when a truck full of unlucky pigs bound for slaughter rolled past me, and I saw a cute little snout pressed up against the caging, sniffing the fresh air, that reminded me of what my own Pug dogs do when I roll my car windows down. Yes, the sight made me cry.
Yet in the food industry, pork is a staple, and it's hard to write about food without ever consuming it. Plus, it's delicious. But what I learned from Crystal (and more directly from tasting her farm's offerings) is that meat made from happy pigs is even more delicious, perhaps a testament to the fact that her pigs are fed well, have space to roam, and are raised by a family whose motto is "we are all on this earth to live." I can have my pork without dealing a severe blow to my conscience, and support people like Crystal and her husband Dan, who take the extra time to care for the creatures on their farm. They even offer a CSA with regular pick-up points through the city (find locations here). At $6.99 for a Fresh Side of bacon and under $15 for a generous rack of baby back ribs, these are prices that are comparable to what Jewel charges, only with the assurance that you're buying local and supporting humane treatment of animals. With a rack of ribs, some veggies, and a few cups of rice or noodles (in, a family of four (or two very hungry adults) can enjoy a humane feast for under $20. Not bad at all. Crystal even has treats for your four-legged friends: smoked dog bones are $2.49 each.
Likewise, the meat and cheeses I find at my favorite Chicago Farmers Market, the Glenwood Sunday Market (they're even on Twitter! And Facebook too!) offers guilt-free (almost) animal product consumption at reasonable prices. The sausages from Crafthouse have sustained my husband and I during many a televised sporting event, and I've (half) jokingly told vegetarian buddies that I'd join their movement if it meant I could subsist only on a steady diet of Stamper Cheese's Amish Swiss (amazing with acidic white wine; I recommend trying it with Dry Creek Vineyard's Fume Blanc). At a slightly higher price point but far more accessible to those of you outside the Chicagoland area, I was pleased when I learned of Whole Foods' new 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating™ system, crafted in conjunction with the Global Animal Partnership. The system rates items at Whole Foods' meat counters as follows:
Even a Step 1 certified meat product has lived a happier life than one crammed in a crate who never sees the light of day. I asked the guy behind the meat counter at Whole Foods Schaumburg what consisted an "Enriched environment" when I was purchased some "Step 2" chicken a few weeks ago. He cheerfully explained that it meant the chicken had access to "toys," like things to climb on and hide behind, and that even chickens enjoyed the challenge of playing games and manipulating objects. I went home and cooked my happy chicken with a sense of peace that I definitely don't get when I find myself holding a chicken nugget, wondering which part of a chicken a "nugget" comes from.
There may come a day that I decide I love animals enough to stop eating them all together. I can't bare the books and movies detailing the atrocities committed against animals in the name of sub-par quality meals. I can't apologize to the animals that I've eaten who led depressing lives or suffered at the hands of careless farmers. But I can make a choice, from this point forward, to always ask my meat purveyors, "Where does your meat come from?" And if I don't like the answer-- or they don't have one -- well, there's always cheese and chocolate.