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All You Can Eat

Trend-setting restaurants, Northwest cookbooks, local food news and the people who make them happen.

January 24, 2013 at 6:00 AM

How to buy half a cow (and whether you should)

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Interested in buying a cow — or even half a cow — to stock your freezer with hundreds of pounds of locally raised meat? Seattle author Leslie Miller knows how to navigate the practical issues, from where to find the meat to how to fit it in your freezer to whether the idea makes sense for your finances and your ethics.

She’s shared her story, along with recipes for using up all that meat — whether you’re purchasing a cow, pig, goat, or lamb — in her new book, “Uncle Dave’s Cow.” She’ll share recipes and advice at a free signing at Book Larder at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Here are some tips we gleaned from reading her story:

Saving space and money: Don’t have room in your freezer or your budget for a whole animal, even though it may save you money in the long run? Buy less. Some producers sell as little as an eighth of a cow, or you can “cowpool” with friends or neighbors, sharing the purchase, to get as little as you need. You could rent freezer space from a friend or neighbor, or consider buying a smaller animal, like a lamb.

Not as many nasty bits as you fear (and maybe not even as many as you want): You’ll get a lot of different cuts of meat buying a cow, but “you have to ask for the tongue or liver if you want them, as many processors don’t routinely offer them,” Miller wrote. When she bought her first pig, with a relative, she specifically requested the cheeks and the fat (“I think the head’s already been cut off your pig,” the processor told her, but they could substitute cheeks from another hog,) but otherwise the most unusual thing she ended up with in her freezer was a pork steak. If you’re taking the whole-animal plunge specifically to get unusual cuts, be aware that you’ll need to give plenty of lead time for special requests, and the processor may not be willing or able to fulfill every one. “He (or she) who cuts your meat is close to God in this scenario, and sometimes God wants to cut your carcass the same way, or close to the same way, that he (or she) cut all the other ones that week.”

Labels aren’t everything: Miller describes what some of the different labeling terms mean, from “pastured” to “natural,” but found for herself that “like most complex issues, growing and buying meat involve a lot of trade-offs.” She talked with Evergreen State College students who raise lambs to sell, and found they were not the expected “standard-bearers for all the things liberal urban people think we want ‘good’ meat to be.” The students explained decisions like why their lambs were not organic (they wanted to be able to give sick animals antibiotics), how they decided their ewes needed more nutrition than just grass, and how they wrestled with the question of whether to dock the tails of their lambs. Miller wrote that she set out investigating ways to buy “sustainable” meat, but ended up “buying meat I could believe in, in a way that my family can and will sustain.”

Will it freak out your kids? Will it freak out you? Miller found that adults had more issues than kids viewing, say, the eyeballs being removed from a disarticulated pig head. She asked her own son, after “a field trip to meet some lambs we were to buy,” if it was better to know the animals you were going to eat. Working from his own experiences with the family freezer, he said yes. “It’s like they are our friends, only dead.” Miller found that selecting whole animals to buy actually made her less likely to eat meat in restaurants, where she doesn’t have the same knowledge of how the animals were raised and fed and eventually killed. “If you are going to eat dead things, own it: Figure out what works for you, make your peace with it, and accept those standards as your own values…if you are still turned off by growers who care about their animals, raise them the best way they know how, and try to produce good food for you to eat, you probably shouldn’t make meat part of your diet.”

How to find a whole animal to buy: Miller got off easy the first time she purchased a whole animal, thanks to the real Uncle Dave of the title, but she eventually discovered that there were plenty of options even if your relatives don’t raise livestock. Farmers markets are convenient but will cost you more (although “having trekked nearly 130 miles to pick up my own meat from one processor, driving or walking down to the weekly market to pick up my meat sounds awfully nice,” she wrote.) Some fairs hold auctions for 4-H animals. Online resources like localharvest.org make for easy connections, but Miller found it impersonal, though convenient. Farmers with meat often advertise on, yes, Craigslist, and sites like eatwild are useful. And how about tracking down the farmers whose meat is advertised on your favorite restaurant’s menu to see if they’ll sell you a whole cow? “This is a sneaky way, like checking the acknowledgments in your favorite novel to get the name of a good agent or editor. But it works,” she wrote.

Have you tried a half a “beef” or a pig? Where do you get your meat and how do you use it? (For more recipes and debates, remember former Seattleite Lynne Curry has weighed in on beef too. I find it interesting that both Curry and Miller are former vegetarians.)

Illustration of Uncle Dave’s Cow by Ayun Halliday. Her books and zines are also well worth a read.

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