Monday, November 30, 2009

Turkey Day

I knew when Sara invited me to the Thanksgiving turkey harvest at the farm the only possible answer I could give was an enthusiastic “Yes!” Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to learn the intricacies of small scale poultry processing, spend a day on the farm and catch up with one of her closest friends?

So I woke up at 5am, dug out my favorite farming clothes from the bin under the bed (they are so lonely down there since going back to school) and drove the long haul for a full day of harvesting and processing about 150, 28-week-old ‘Broad Breasted Whites’ that had spent most of their turkey lives foraging on pasture. “Harvest” and “process” are, of course, pleasant euphemisms for the last stage of raising livestock and getting it to market: the slaughter.

As many Americans were in the pre-holiday frenzy of buying a frozen turkey at the store, I felt excited to experience the process from a new perspective. In this case, these birds were pre-sold (and sold out!) to a community of people who value small-scale agriculture and having a direct connection to the land and people who raise their food. A group of people willing to trek to the farm and pick up a turkey at its source.

I walked from my car to the barn with that familiar mix of excitement and nervousness roiling in the bottom of my belly. It was that first-day-of-school feeling, mixed with the squawk of the geese in the pasture and the warmth of the early morning autumn sun. I was in an unfamiliar place about to embark upon a new, and quite messy, expedition. I walked into the small slaughterhouse and slipped on a pair of the indoor rubber boots lined up by the door. “So, what made you want to come here and do this?” one of the farm crew asked as I walked toward him down the white hall. For me the answer was simple: one day I plan to raise poultry and I want to gain any first hand experience I can.

I had a few weeks between accepting the invitation and my morning drive to the farm to mentally prepare for this adventure. I spent this time recognizing my immense excitement at participating in harvest and learning a bevy of new skills about small-scale poultry processing. Not only did it feel like an important step in gaining poultry production knowledge, but also a deeper understanding of exactly what it takes to produce the food I eat. Tempering my overt enthusiasm was the awareness that turkey harvest unavoidably included killing a living animal. Would I be able to kill a turkey? Should I even be eating animals in the first place? I believe strongly that animals are an important part of the nutrient cycle of the farm…and of our food system. So for me, I concluded that if I’m going to eat the meat, it should be humanely raised using sustainable practices and that I should be able to kill it…or at least be intimately aware of how it ends up on my plate. But at my core, I was just so excited to experience a part of the food system in a way.

I knew, roughly, what to expect on the farm: from the large, upside-down cones that would hold the birds as their necks were cut to the hot water scald and the infamous plucker: the stainless steel cylinder lined with rubber fingers that quickly pull feathers from the birds as they spin around and around in the basin.

Then there would be evisceration…the process of removing the turkey guts by hand. I’ll call them guts because that was the depth of my understanding of the inside of a turkey before that day. This last step of the process was the biggest mystery, I could hardly name all the internal organs of a turkey, nonetheless how to remove them.

And so it began! I walked into the first room and waved a hello to Sara and met the rest of the farm crew. There is no hugging or handshaking when you are covered in turkey. Sara was working on a pile of turkeys as they spun out of the plucker. By this stage they looked, roughly, like a bird at the market: pink and featherless breasts, thighs and wings with necks still attached. Her job, and later mine, was to remove the oil gland, trachea, crop and neck. The neck was saved in a bucket of ice and the bird was then hung on a rack for evisceration. Two very skilled, and quick moving, apprentices cut a circle around the vent of the hanging bird and gently escorted the intestines, and everything else, out of the bird onto the stainless steel table below. The liver, gizzard and heart sorted into buckets of ice, joining the turkey later on. The intestines scooted into a bin for compost. I got to try my hand at this, and it was at first the equivalent of playing Operation, blindfolded. But one learns quickly where to find the lungs, the heart and the gizzard inside a still-warm bird.

OK, this is the point where you may say, “Stop! Please! Too much information!” The point of these details is not for the gross-out factor or to open debate about if we should be eating animals. But for those of us who believe in good, clean, fair food: this is it. This is small-scale production that treats animals, farmers and the environment fairly. And the more we know and understand exactly what it takes to raise this kind of food, the more easily we can find and support farmers, growers and producers who share these values. Each of us may value a different part of the process, but the power is in the knowing.

After about half of the turkeys were processed and resting in ice baths, we got to the task of cleaning out the gizzards. The gizzard is, roughly, the secondary ‘stomach’ of the turkey. Since turkeys don’t have teeth, the gizzard is the place where food is mashed up by the external squeezing of the gizzard muscle and internal, mechanical grinding of grit: non-food matter that’s eaten and stored in the gizzard for this purpose. Little did I know that each gizzard gets cut and cleaned out by hand before joining the liver, neck and heart as the (previously mysterious) giblets. We stood around the slippery-floored room, sharing small, sharp knives as we worked through the icy bucket of fist-sized gizzards. Each gizzard was cut open like a clam, exposing the gritty contents of the turkey’s stomach, surrounded by a rough lining. This is delicate, detailed work when compared to the previous hours of the day. I slowly opened my first gizzard, almost like opening a small gift, to find a pocket of nickel-sized rocks, short pieces of straw and something that looked eerily like sea glass.

Sea glass?

I paused, not quite believing what I saw. Maybe there was something about turkey digestion that I just didn’t understand. I glanced around the room; every other gizzard was full of the frosted glass too. “Um, is this glass?” I asked. Sure was! The best I could determine, through the rapid-fire banter of the farm crew, the teasing and jovial finger pointing, was that someone cracked the windshield of a farm vehicle while driving through the pasture. I think I heard something like, “That structure just appeared out of nowhere.” Of course, the fine turkeys, always attracted to sparkly goodies, pecked up the small pieces of safety glass that scattered in the field. This unusual grit was burnished into the equivalent of sea glass through the constant grinding of the gizzard. Not to worry, the glass didn’t harm the turkeys, as the inside of the gizzard is encased by a very thick lining, which we eventually removed before the gizzard joins the rest of the giblets.

Yes, there was the instant amazement of seeing glass in the ‘belly’ of the turkey, and it makes for a good story. More importantly, I very directly experienced the connection between what we put into growing and raising our food and where it ends up…be it the gizzard of the turkey, the food we eat, the water or the air.
I left the farm that day content, exhausted, dirty and empowered. Proud that I had learned new skills and gained a fresh understanding of what it takes to produce the food I eat. I left eager to prepare my own Thanksgiving turkey, ready to face the giblets with enthusiasm (not trepidation) and more steadfast than ever to make educated choices about the source of my food.

Want more information? Below are a few links addressing small-scale animal processing, ‘humane harvest’ and the culinary interest in small-scale butchering.

Grist Will Whole Foods’ new mobile slaughterhouses squeeze small farmers?

Gourmet Humane Slaughterhouses

Wilamette Week Ethical Butchers Do It Better

Dean Mullis of Laughing Owl Farm in the Charlotte Observer

NY Times Diner’s Journal Blog

Written by Vanessa Herald

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Slowcal? You Tell Me

In an attempt to foster dialogue, I invite you to respond to the questions I pose here, in the hope that we can share ideas and learn from each other. I am withholding my conclusion to this post for a few days. In order to avoid any apprehension of baiting, I'll vow not to directly address any responses to this post. Any takers?

Q: Can the local foods movement support a food system that is good, clean, fair and economically viable?

The designation of locavore as Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007 was a nod to the ascent of the local food movement. Put aside the global implications, and the local feasibility of, a fully realized bioregionalism. Consider one aspect of the debate currently surrounding the local foods movement: the extent to which geographic proximity to your food source can be used as a proxy for sustainability.

The best-known proxy of this sort is the set of standards for organic foods under the USDA National Organic Program, which has been criticized for not going far enough. Widely considered a step in the right direction, the principles of the organic standards nonetheless fail to embrace principles of agroecology that might bring our foodsystem closer to sustainaibility.

Enter locavorism, which takes fresh aim at the moving targets of sustainability. So, Bullseye? Well...maybe. For example, while it can't be denied that choosing local foods reduces your carbon footprint, it turns out that a rather large proportion of the greenhouse gas emmissions - and various other forms of non-point source pollution - from agriculture occur as a result of on-farm management decisions. This suggests that, in pursuit of environmental sustainability, the methods of production may be more important than the location of the farm. That is, if I lived in California's semi-arid Central Valley, and I purchased lettuce from a techno-industrial farm in my county, the only thing green about this would be the color of my lunch.

However, another dimension of sustainability is brought into focus when considering the merits of locavorism: economic sustainability. An obvious boon to farmers is the increased income from being able to sell products directly to consumers through markets, community supported agriculture, and relationships with local restaurants and institutions. Slightly more abstract is the multiplier effect observed in local economies. Basically, the dollar you spend with your local farmer in turn tends to be spent locally, accruing economic benefits to the community. Given the steady decline of the urban economy in the last 50 years, this seems a rather significant aspect of the local foods movement. Coupling this factor with a sustainably produced local food supply makes locavorism an attractive option.

Yet, the questions remain: How do we complete this picture, and fuse economic and environmental sustainability with a local food system? How do we ensure that sustainable practices are both a necessary condition of our food system, as well as an investment that rewards farmers? Is it enough to buy local?

You tell me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Daphne Miller's "The Jungle Effect" Full of Adventure & Ancient-Yet-Apropos Advice

According to SlowFood USA, food is a common language. We all share the same fundamental nutritional needs and the pleasure of the meal is not bound by time, place, or culture. Also like language, however, food can be mutated, manipulated and adapted. In her book The Jungle Effect Dr. Daphne Miller, M.D. traverses the globe and traces time to unearth several original, indigenous diets that have gotten lost in translation through the westernization of the world’s food system.

Through a bifocal lense – part clinical, part anthropological – Miller examines the traditional diets of 5 “cold spots”. These are places tucked away in far-flung pockets of the world where native diets remain largely isolated from American influence, and, not surprisingly, nearly free of the chronic diseases that typify western health. Her stories read more like travel writing than tired diet book, and she takes you with her as she hopscotches across continents and explores their native foodscapes.

First, in Copper Canyon, Mexico, a cold spot for type 2 diabetes, Miller observes the dietary practices of the Tarahumara Indians. While long-distance running is a trademark of their culture and undoubtedly plays a role in their preserved insulin sensitivity, Miller discovers that the Tarahumara also benefit from key indigenous ingredients. These are mainly three slow-release carbohydrate staples: heirloom maize, beans, and squash. Other antidiabetic ingredients indigenous to the area include nopales (cactus), jicama (aka “Mexican turnip”), and indigenous herbs and spices (like cinnamon, cloves, and fenugreek seeds).

In Crete, Miller sets off in search of the “real” Mediterranean diet and the secret to staving off heart disease. In addition to pointing out the standard Mediterranean signposts, like olive oil and wine, she also goes hunting for horta (wild greens) in the Cretan hillsides and introduces you to local cheeses (used in moderation) like anthotyoros and kefalotyri.

Then it’s off to Iceland, where rates of depression are astonishingly low. Since Icelanders’ resistance to depression cannot be attributed to any genetic predisposition, and it’s certainly not on account of the weather (think permafrost and endlessly dark winters), Miller arrived in Reykjavik to find the food-mood link. The answer, she discovered, lies mostly in omega-3 fatty acids – not just in the fish (though they do eat lots and lots of the stuff), but in their wild game, cheese, skyr (Icelandic yogurt), and milk. Turns out, the grass, clover, and moss on which their animals graze (free range!) is also an incredibly rich source of ALA. Between fish, meat, and milk, the average Icelander gets a healthy dose of depression-fighting omega-3’s at nearly every meal.

On her next excursion she takes you to Cameroon, a cold spot for bowel trouble. From colon cancer to acid reflux, Cameroonians have particularly healthy GI plumbing. After her time in Ntui, a small village in the rainforest of central Cameroon, Miller found that the benefits their indigenous foods can be summarized by the five F’s. First, fiber is a mainstay in the Cameroonian diet with starch staples like millet, sorghum, teff, local hybrids of maize, plaintain, and brown rice. Second, Cameroonians eat less flesh. A low-meat diet may be just as important in preventing colon cancer as a high-fiber one. The diet is also high in fermented foods and foraged (and folate-rich) greens and select fats. Interestingly, there may be an anticancer effect from both unrefined peanut oil and palm fruit oils, high in PUFAs and antioxidant beta-sitosterol. Palm fruit oil is also high in antioxidant vitamins A and E.

Her final trip is to Okinawa, where there are notably few cases of, among other diseases, breast and prostate cancers. While soy is an Okinawan staple, the proverbial jury remains undecided on soy’s role in breast and prostate health. However, one school of thought suggests that soy in its natural form, such as tofu, miso, edamame, and soy milk, may have protective effects; processed soy, like that found in soy protein powders, texturized vegetable protein, and energy bars may be detrimental. All soy aside, however, Okinawans small portion sizes, lean BMI’s and plant-based diet add significant pieces to the cancer puzzle. Antioxidant-rich Okinawan fruits and vegetables linked to breast and prostate cancer prevention include garlic, onions, and leeks, cruciferous vegetables, goya (bitter melon), tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit, guava, imos (yams), and green tea. Active ingredients in their maitake, reishi, and shiitake mushrooms may also play a role in cancer prevention.

Miller asserts that you do not have to live in the outermost cultural edges to reap the benefits of an indigenous diet. Throughout her journeys from place to place and plate to plate, she discovers that common denominators are clear and can universally translatable (and oh-so aligned with the SlowFood mentality):

1. Choose foods that are fresh, local, and in season.

2. Learn, practice, and appreciate food cultivation techniques and recipes passed down through the ages.

3. Preserve endangered food traditions like communal eating, eating for satiety rather than fullness, and observing fasts and other food rituals.

4. Limit sugar to that found naturally in foods like honey, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

5. Get salt from natural, unprocessed sources such as fish, sea greens, and vegetables.

6. Eat meat in small quantities in favor of plant-based protein.

7. Select nonmeat fats from whole nuts, seeds, grains, and fatty fruits and minimally processed oils such as olive, palm fruit, or coconut oil.