The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Do you have a meat mentor?

February 4, 2013

What if you never had a grandmother who took apart a chicken with her rumpled, old-lady hands as you stood by, a kid transfixed at seeing the inside of an animal for the first time?

What if your mom — who raised you in the ’60s or ’70s and was relieved to be liberated from the kitchen — bought frozen hamburger patties and liverwurst in cans and shrink-wrapped pork chops so often that you never learned the difference between a skirt steak and a sirloin, a pork loin and a pork butt?

What if your husband does all the cooking in your family (you lucky gal!) which means you don’t know what cuts to buy when you visit a farmers’ market? What if your wife does all the shopping, so you’re mystified by meat labels when you have to walk through those sliding glass doors alone?

Solution: get a “meat mentor.” Someone. Anyone. A person who can stand with you in the kitchen and show you how to cook meat — a close friend, perhaps? Someone who can explain cuts of meat to you on a sunny day at the farmers’ market — maybe a farmer at one of the booths? Anyone who can stand with you in the grocery store and tell you why the organic label means something different for chickens than it does for beef cattle — an enlightened butcher, perhaps?  (I regret I can’t shop with you until I create a Humaneitarian app…)

A visitor to Humaneitarian recently shared this note, ecstatic:

As I was picking up a turkey from my friend Theresa, down the road, I discovered that they will be processing (is that the proper word?) their pigs soon…  We had a great chat about meat and I asked her to be my “meat mentor!” 🙂

I didn’t realize I had meat mentors until I received this note. Not being a sophisticated cook, and certainly not a sophisticated cooker of meat (even though I run a website about it), I realize that I’ve stumbled along in the kitchen all these years thanks to the help of the people pictured above — some of my “meat mentors.” They include (clockwise from upper left):

  • My mom:  Although she was a 70s mom’s, sometimes feeding me things like corned beef hash from a can, every Christmas she still re-creates a Czech country kitchen, plump with sauerkraut and dumplings and fragrant breads and…  pork loin and roast turkey, which I am now, finally, learning to cook at her feet (or rather, her hands).
  • Farmers I’ve worked for:  There are a million reasons why it’s wonderful to know a farmer. One is that they are walking stashes of simple meat recipes. (With long daily chore lists, simple cooking is key for farmers, I’ve found.) Green Mountain Girls Farm, where I worked this summer, includes a recipe in each of their weekly newsletters. When I tried making my first big turkey recently, farmer Mari (pictured above) said I could literally call them during the process and ask any questions. (I didn’t need to, but I hope the offer still stands for future meat experiments).
  • My aunt:  she is a cattle rancher out West, and can answer any question I might have on the anatomy of a cow, and which parts of it become which cuts of steak. (I got to know some of that anatomy quite well, actually, when I used to help with the vaccinations on her ranch, pictured above…)
  • Molly Stevens (pictured), Mark Bittman, and Shannon Hayes: I own cookbooks they’ve written – very good cookbooks that walk people through the steps of cooking meat: Stevens’ All About Braising and All About Roasting, Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and Shannon Hayes’ The Grassfed Gourmet CookbookA cookbook author may be the closest thing most Americans have to a meat mentor.

There have also been former boyfriends — C., who walked me through the preparation of my first whole farm-raised chicken, and M., who taught me how to make chicken wings during a Superbowl party in the mid-’90s (before my humanely raised days).  But meat mentorship doesn’t have to involve outright teaching. Modeling can work, too, as when I was tasked with helping make the “farmer lunches” at Green Mountain Girls this summer. These are motley midday meals made with whatever is on hand at the farmstand. My fellow farmers used meat in some creative ways, as in those memorable “kielbasa tacos.” I’m now a little more adventurous in the kitchen, thanks to them.

If you have a meat mentor, tell us about them below.  And if you don’t, who could you ask?