I’m on the road this week, bound for Las Cruces, N.M., and I’m currently driving through the raunchy stench of the Swift meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo.
The Swift plant gained attention in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation for abusing illegal workers, violating numerous meatpacking laws and operating under ruthless management tactics. If the public were allowed inside to view the grotesque conditions of the plant, it would churn out more vegetarians than T-bones. Driving south on Interstate 25 toward Denver, and still miles away from the plant, the smell of thousands of cows, shoulder to shoulder in their own shit as they fatten up for slaughter, is ranker than rank.
It’s hard to get past the smell. That putrid cloud—not to mention the thought of the workers and bovine suffering directly under it—reminds me why I don’t eat “mystery meat.” Because when you eat meat of unknown origin, chances are it came from a place like Swift.
Meat, like sex, is better when you don’t pay for it. Most of the meat I eat is deer or elk I hunted myself or received from friends, so I know exactly where it came from. And when I do pay for meat, I try to learn as much about it as possible. This requirement limits the amount of places I can buy meat, and tests the patience of many a waiter.
While eating through my own elk stash, I’ve noticed that the backstraps—widely considered the best cut—take a second seat to the bottom round. The backstraps are more tender, but the bottom round, which comes from the rear quarters, has more flavor.
Not long after Greeley, I stopped in Golden, Colo., home of Coors Brewing Company, and of a transplanted Missoula friend who I’ll call WTF (short for “What The ‘Heck’”). Walking through Golden’s tranquil and funky neighborhoods, we couldn’t stop comparing it to Missoula. In typical Missoula-centric fashion we re-christened the town “Mini-soula.”
At the Golden City Brewery (“Golden’s second largest brewery!”) we got three growlers of perhaps the hoppiest IPA ever. Without a side-by-side comparison against Blackfoot IPA—my local favorite—I couldn’t tell you which I like better.
These growlers were accessories to planned research: WTF and I were set to compare backstrap and bottom round cuts of grass-fed beef.
The beef came from Wild Oats, a Boulder-based natural food supermarket. What a place. The samples were flowing, the deli counter was stocked with impressive prepared foods, the sushi was dangerously good, and the meat counter was plush with grass-fed options.
Whole Foods, the 800-pound gorilla in natural foods retail, is currently attempting to buy out Wild Oats. After my shopping experience there, I hope it doesn’t happen. I’d hate to see Wild Oats get homogenized into the Whole Foods behemoth.
The bovine equivalent of elk backstrap is called rib-eye, which is analogous to the fleshy part of a lamb or pork chop, and costs $12 per pound. The bovine equivalent of the elk bottom round is also called the bottom round, which costs $5 per pound.
Rubbed with olive oil, salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce, the crimson slabs went onto WTF’s grill, along with fresh asparagus and whole Anaheim peppers. Avocados were mashed with garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper; a green salad was dressed with vinaigrette. Our second growler, meanwhile, was running on empty.
Normally I’d have called a foul for serving such a meaty meal without red wine. You need that balance of fruity acid to complement the meat. But the balsamic vinegar on the salad filled the void, while the hoppiness of the IPA provided its own distinct brand of joy. You could say it made me very hoppy.
As for the winner between the grass-fed beef rib-eye and the bottom round: the award goes to whichever piece was in my mouth.
When I bit into the bottom round, the rich flavor was impressive. But when I went back for a bite of rib-eye, it dissolved in my mouth with a juicy burst. In short, the rib-eye was juicier, fattier, and more tender. The bottom round was tougher and leaner, with more flavor.
I’ve uttered the mantra “fat is flavor” so many times that I’d come to believe it’s true. But if my little experiment proved anything, it’s that fat and flavor are not one.
Since elk is naturally lean, it makes sense that in a specimen like what’s in my freezer, where the whole animal is tender, the more flavorful bottom round would edge out the backstrap. But in beef, the bottom round is tough enough to cost it some points, while the rib-eye is marbled and seductive.
But I don’t mind the extra chewing. In fact, I’d take some dental floss and grass-fed beef over a feedlot cow any day.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Revisiting rhubarb and renegade chickens
This week’s mailbag continues two discussions started by questions in previous weeks. Our first letter addresses the question posed by the man who is dissatisfied with the size of his…rhubarb plant.
Dear Chef Boy Ari,
I was just reading the May 10 issue of the Independent and the fellow’s question concerning puny rhubarb plants. I too had the same problem until I mentioned it to my father one day. He advised me to bury any old rusty iron such as hammerheads, ax blades, old chain, etc., around the roots. I did and it worked. I now have large elephant-ear sized leaves supported by big thick stalks! Rhubarb pie anyone?
—Really Big Rhubarb
Thanks, Really Big. The iron is an old method of helping plants grow; iron preparations are another option available at most garden stores.
Next, a response to last week’s article about lost and illegal urban chickens.
Dear Chef Boy Ari,
Sorry to hear about your chickens. I have eight chickens in East Missoula, where it’s still legal. But I’m outraged at the fact that folks in town have to keep their chicken habits on the down-low.
I’d like to start a letter writing campaign to legalize chickens in Missoula. I have a few friends and acquaintances who own small flocks within city limits, and I think it is illogical that this sustainable, innocuous hobby is illegal.
If chickens are outlawed, only outlaws can own chickens!!
Dear Chick Chick,
As I mentioned last week, the matter is being discussed right now in committee by City Council. Letters to Missoula City Councilors could not possibly be more timely. Both Seattle and Portland have recently legalized small flocks of chickens. Missoula is next—I can feel it.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.