Is the Whole-Animal Lifestyle for You?

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In "Uncle Dave’s Cow" author, cook and busy urban mom Leslie Miller provides a guide to sourcing and eating local meat, including how to find and evaluate farmers and how to store and preserve your purchases.
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In Uncle Dave’s Cow, author, cook and busy urban mom Leslie Miller shows city dwellers how to go whole hog—or cow, goat or lamb. Her guide to sourcing and eating local meat covers how to find and evaluate local farmers, plan for meat cuts and quantities, store and preserve your purchases and dish up a whole animal, one part at a time. This excerpt on considering the whole-animal lifestyle comes from chapter 3, “Is the Whole Animal Lifestyle for You?”

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Uncle Dave’s Cow.

Is The Whole-Animal Lifestyle For You?

Whether you care most about the quality and flavor or the conditions in which your meat was raised, or you are trying to support local farmers, buying a whole animal at a time is a surprisingly good choice for many people.

For example, have you dubbed yourself that darling of new lifestyle buzzwords, a “flexitarian”? Now, I would call a person who tries to eat a mostly grain- and vegetable-based diet without completely eschewing meat a cheating vegetarian, but I’m not here to judge. Though this may seem counterintuitive, I have found I eat less meat when I only eat meat that I know, making the whole-animal lifestyle a good fit for flexitarians as well as avowed carnivores. And it’s meat you can feel good about to boot.

Do your kids eat nothing but hot dogs? Buying whole animals and cooking them is a spectacular gift to your children, in understanding where and how your food was raised, in knowing exactly what you’re getting (and not), and in teaching them about a variety of animal parts and how delicious they can be. Or maybe your kids never eat hot dogs because you’re concerned about E. coli, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics, or want to avoid processed foods or artificial ingredients. Well then, how about if you make your own? Even if you don’t want to get fancy, I will tell you that children love both pounding and grinding meat. Buying whole animals also gives you the opportunity to show kids exactly what goes into sausages, as well as all the parts on an animal we can eat. Okay, when it got to the point that I was separating out the primals on our dog to show Atticus the component meat cuts of an animal (“Here’s his rack, and here, the loin . . . ”), I knew I had gone too far. But I think there’s a sweet spot in there somewhere in which your kids don’t think meat grows wrapped in cellophane.

For all those Idea People like me, who act before they think and need help making it all the way to the finish line once they’ve got a carcass in the freezer, I’m here to help. Help you, for instance, to know before you buy a whole animal that an average cow comes with a hundred pounds of ground beef and only about twelve New York strips, that a pig’s hind leg is called a fresh ham, and that a whole goat will fit in an apartment freezer. This book will give you the answers you need for that important conversation with the butcher that involves the term “cut sheet.”

That said, buying a whole animal is not for everyone, romance aside, and not the only way to save the world. Here are some questions to ask yourself, honestly, before taking the plunge.

Are You Equipped to Lay Out Some Real Cash Up Front?

Buying a whole animal costs anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Though the overall price is usually quite reasonable—the same as, if not lower than, what you’d pay at the market—the fact is that you have to pay it out in one lump sum or put down a sizable deposit. If this is not financially feasible for you, consider going in on animals with friends. Many producers also offer meat packages or bundles, giving you larger amounts than you’d usually bring home from the supermarket, but at a lower price than you’d pay if you bought all the cuts separately.

Are You Prepared to Store It?

Few people living in urban environments are prepared to store an entire beef. Multiple freezers are required, after all, and an emergency generator to protect your beef if your power should fail . . . not to mention the hound dog you should get if you already have multiple freezers and a generator, just to complete the “look.” Some people are cursed with apartment freezers so small you couldn’t squeeze in a bag of peas. I know, because I’ve had that freezer. Even if you purchase part of an animal or a small beast that will just fit in your freezer compartment, be warned that’s probably most of what your freezer will contain, and barely at that. No one wants a frozen roast landing on their toes every time they get some ice, and I don’t want you to grow to resent rather than appreciate your animal once it comes to live with you. If you’re space challenged you could go in on an animal with a friend and store it at their house, but that leads me to my next question.

Will You Really Cook It?

The Natural Resources Defense Council found that each of us throws away about our body weight in food waste each year. In general, I would offer that buying meat by the animal gives us a chance to decrease that waste considerably. Not only is there an opportunity to use more of the animal at the time of slaughter, but because your work sourcing and buying the animal is so intentional, there will probably be far less forgotten meat languishing in the back of the fridge. No more peering through the plastic, poking with your finger, wondering if the meat you bought last week at the market is still good. For me, all the meat I buy is special—the children named it, after all. I cook it, and eat it, and cherish it. Throwing away even leftover leftovers breaks my heart.

That said, frozen meat is not instant food. It takes time, sometimes days, for meat to defrost in the refrigerator. Don’t buy a whole animal if your schedule will have you eating takeout every night next to your very full freezer. Likewise, if your family won’t eat anything but steak and hamburgers, or lamb chops—frenched, please!—and you’re not willing to push their boundaries, then the whole-animal lifestyle is not for you. Instead, try to buy those traditional cuts you crave from a local producer that raises animals the way you like.

If any of the above restrictions has you rethinking your ability to handle a whole animal, there is still nothing stopping you from trying any of the recipes with good meat procured a different way. You might also find that, having the information, you feel compelled to educate others on the whole-animal process. In the course of my research I found a grower I really respected, but I already had a lamb in the freezer. I went so far as to become a meat pimp, and handled the instructions and money and even fetched the thing, all to then pass it on to family and friends with nary a chop staying put in my home.

Myth : I don’t have room in my freezer for a whole animal!

In truth, you might not. A cow is big; so is a pig, actually. Or an elk. If you’re trying to stuff a whole animal into the freezer compartment of your fridge, you’re going to have to plan. But there are ways around this:

1. Don’t buy the whole thing. Easy, right? If you are outfitted with a fairly standard refrigerator/freezer arrangement, I can get you down to an amount of meat that should fit: an eighth of a beef or a half-pig. Buy less from the producer, or practice “cowpooling” as many charmingly call it, sharing a purchase with friends. Or buy a smaller animal. So you grew up eating beef. You know what? Goat is delicious. So is lamb. And they are little animals. You could practically store a whole goat in your underwear drawer (if it were really cold, I mean).

2. Clean out your freezer. In preparation for moving our current refrigerator/freezer from the soon-to-be-remodeled kitchen, I cleaned the darn thing out. Since we have a separate meat freezer in the basement I didn’t really bother so much with this freezer on a regular basis. As a result, do you know what I found in there?

Two baggies full of half-grated nutmegs
Cheese rinds for stock (over a year old, if not two)
Chicken parts for stock (over a year old, if not three)
Fourteen bags of edamame
A Costco allotment of Otter Pops
Many, many Chinese noodles for soup
Frozen banana pulp (two containers) for bread I never made
Frozen banana leaves for steaming fish
Gluten-free waffles from when Romeo was thought to be allergic
Freezer-burned “natural” juice pops (when the kids prefer
Otter Pops anyway)
An unidentifiable whole fish
Three bags of frozen peas that may or may not have been used as ice packs

I won’t go on, but you get my drift. Use your freezer the way your freezer was intended to be used, instead of as a very cold junk drawer. You may find that you waste less food and you have more room than you thought. I know I did.

3. Pay a storage “fee” to a friend with a freezer. Your fee might be a package of chops or bacon, or an invitation to lamb stew night. Meat can build community.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Uncle Dave’s Cow, published by Skipstone, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Uncle Dave’s Cow.

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