Relish your sides, and your meat (NYC Meat Hackathon, December 7-9, 2012)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend part of the [ New York City Meat Hackathon ], a three day brainstorming event that brought together programmers, entrepreneurs, policy experts and farmers with the aim of solving some of the problems surrounding the ethics of eating meat in the US. As its name implies, the idea behind a Meat Hackathon was to use extant technologies to create tools for the various parties involved in sustainable meat production, from the farmers themselves to home cooks who, if they’re privileged enough, have the choice of buying it.

Several institutions, dubbed the “steak-holders,” were invited to present challenges  to teams of tech- and food-oriented enthusiasts who would come up with ideas to address them. It was interesting to see the variety of entities represented, which ranged from food-production corporations like  [Applegate ] to representatives from non-profit advocacy groups like [ Food and Water Watch ]. The teams would then have a day to formulate ideas and create prototypes for tool that would be presented to a panel of judges. The team that produced the best idea would win an award. You can read more about the challenges [ here ].

In my capacity as a fly on the wall I was able to observe some of the planning sessions on Saturday afternoon. I was particularly drawn to the challenges presented by the Vermont Meat Processing Working Group. In brief, the challenge was to help farmers raising sustainable meat in Vermont better communicate with processors and consumers and hopefully turn better profits in doing so. It was interesting, although not surprising, to hear that while demand for sustainably raised meat is on the rise, the interest doesn’t always translate to good business for small-scale farmers on the production end. The issues involved were complex, ranging from farmers’ inability to schedule appointments at slaughterhouses to the consumers’ lack of understanding just what went into producing meat sustainably and, thus, the rationale behind higher costs in markets.

I was curious to see what the groups came up with and returned Sunday evening to find out. There were three pitches presented for tech tools related to the Vermont Meat Processors’ challenge. First was the cleverly-named [ Slot for Slaught ], a website allowing farmers to find and schedule appointments at slaughterhouses months in advance. Second was another web-based tool called FarmStamp, which acts like a FedEx tracking system for animals moving from farm to processor to market. Finally, there was a smart-scale called [ CARV ] that would allow data related to cuts of meat passing through the slaughterhouse and processing facility to be quickly digitized and stored on a server. CARV ended up taking first place over all, and Slot for Slaught came in second.

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As a decidedly not tech-savvy person, I was impressed. But I think the true value of the event for me was that it raised more questions than it answered. One question I was left with is whether it is truly sustainable for people who live in major cities to eat sizable portions of meat on a regular basis. Is it really cost effective for a farmer in Vermont to export meat to farmers’ markets in New York? Even if this problem is surmountable, will the increasing demand eventually lead farmers to cut corners and produce bigger, faster?

I’m not an expert these issues, but from the perspective of an urbanite on a budget, I think the answer is probably eating less meat of better quality, maybe even far less. In order for quality and ethics to be ensured, the cost is going to be high and the amount produced lower than what we’re used to seeing on the shelves of supermarkets, even places like Whole Foods, where sustainability is pushed.

I’m not the first to advocate the “less of higher quality” approach by any means. This principle is encoded into some of the oldest and complex cuisines in the world. Next time you’re eating a bowl of Vietnamese noodles, assess how much meat is in there. There might be a few slices of meat, far less than you’d get at an American steak house, and yet it still tastes satisfying and meaty because it contains a broth that was extracted from other parts of the animal that often go in the trash.

There is a deeper, more systemic attitude that we in the US will eventually have to change if we’re going to “make meat more democratic,” in the words of the Hackathon’s sponsors. Namely, this will be accepting that eating less animal protein may not necessarily mean eating less well. I’ve always been a “sides” person, and I believe more and more that balanced meals of costly but ethically-produced meat not just supplemented with but complemented by vegetables on the plate is a conceivable way forward.

Steak for two

Comb your supermarket, butcher or farmer’s market to assess your options. Read labels and talk to people who know more about meat than you. Ask the opinion of your butcher about what cuts are cost effective and choose something that is within your range but you feel good about buying. Ask about the differences between top loin, tenderloin, Porterhouse, T-Bone, ribeye and flat iron. Feel empowered with the information you now have. Buy half the amount of a sustainably-produced cut you’d usually buy per person and feed two for one. Trust that your side dishes will pick up the slack for you.

Take your cut home, season with salt and pepper and sauté in lots of butter in a cast-iron skillet until it’s cooked to the consistency you prefer, which should be medium rare or below if you’ve got quality meat. Each side should be browned but the center should still be pink. Let it sit for ten minutes after frying so that you don’t lose all the juices.

But before you even cook the steak, start your sides.

If it’s fall or winter, get colorful potatoes, squashes, kale, shallots. Make the potatoes into oven fries and garnish with tabasco, or pan fry onions until they caramelize. Steam kale the Italian way: in olive oil and chili flakes, or turn it into a more decadent gratin with béchamel sauce and parmesan cheese, baked until bubbling in the oven. Squash likes to be roasted or gratinated. I prefer the latter.

If it’s summer, get juicy tomatoes and [ slow roast them with rice ]. Nothing could be better alongside a steak than good tomatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and slow cooked until the point of collapse . Make salads of sweet zucchini dressed in oil, vinegar, chili, or prepare some creamed spinach with pearl onions.

In spring, buy a big head of iceberg lettuce to make an old-fashioned wedge salad. There is nothing more simple and yet so decadent as a wedge of iceberg lettuce covered with bleu-cheese dressing.

Plate everything nicely. You might even cut your steak into nice slices or place it to one side of the plate and one of your sides in the center. Avoid the blue-plate special hunk of meat in the forefront and two sad lumps of veg in the back approach. Relish the fact that you can enjoy all of this luxury.

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