A ‘radical homemaker’ shares her secret to greener, more affordable meat eating
With her 2010 book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, author Shannon Hayes put forth a manifesto for a feminist, ecologically conscious way of living that rejected the dichotomy between home and work. Now, in her new book Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, readers will be let in on Hayes’ approach to cooking, eating, and raising meat on her New York state-based Sap Bush Hollow Farm.
We spoke with Hayes recently about food waste, her old-fashioned approach to eating all parts of the animals, and how she believes it can solve a core dilemma for locavores.
Q. Can you say a little about your motivation to write Long Way on a Little? It sounds like your experience with food waste had a lot to do with it.
A. I actually began Long Way on a Little while I was still writing Radical Homemakers. I was grappling with the same question: How are Americans supposed to have a sustainable, locally centered, nutritious diet on a low to moderate income? Answering that question led me down the path toward writing Radical Homemakers. At the same time, I needed to ask that question of my own family’s business — we produce grass-fed meat for a living. Did the sustainable, local diet necessarily mean that our product was only to be considered an occasional luxury, or did it play a more central role in reviving our community’s nutrition? If Americans continue to be wasteful of their food (tossing out scraps, letting things rot in the fridge, ignoring 20 to 30 percent of every grass-fed animal that is processed for the local food markets), then the answer to my question would have to be that meat might have to remain a luxury. But then, upon reexamining that waste — the bones, the fat, the scraps — I realized that it could play a very central, nutritious role. Indeed, I would argue that by committing to more thorough utilization of every animal, we can increase the nutrient density of all our food, dramatically reduce our consumption, and become far more sustainable.
Q. How does the structure of the book and approach to the recipes reinforce this idea of “going a long way on a little”? What role does quantity play?
A. The very first chapter of recipes is titled “Bones and Fat.” The reason is because these two ingredients, which comprise the largest portion of animal waste that I see in our meat cutting room [at the Sap Bush Hollow Farm store], are the foundational ingredients for much of the book. Rather than relying on canned broth or wines for sauces and braises, the recipes call for real broth. Rather than relying on olive oil or butter for frying or baking, the recipes call for lard or tallow.
The benefit is threefold. First, bone broth (especially if you make it with your leftover fridge waste) is far cheaper than a bottle of wine, and rendered animal fats like lard and tallow are far cheaper than butter or olive oil. (But don’t get me wrong; I love butter and olive oil as condiments.) Second, they increase the nutrient density of the food. Broth is high in proteinaceous gelatin, minerals, and electrolytes. This makes it an especially healing food, but owing to the hydrophilic colloids in the gelatin, it also helps the body to make more efficient use of any protein it does ingest. Thus, if you are not able to afford a lot of meat, the broth helps your body to maximize whatever protein you can get.
The fats are advantageous in a similar way. Their caloric density is more satiating, but also — because they are a source of the fat-soluble vitamins — they enable the body to make more effective use of nutrients. The result, then, is the third benefit: Because the nutritional density of the food is increased, the volume of food necessary to keep ourselves well and sated is significantly less. That helps to make sure our local food system can feed more people, and it helps to make sure more of us can afford it.
Q. Leftovers also seem to play a crucial role.
A. The other aspect of the book that helps folks go “a long way on a little” has to do with the largest chapter in the book: leftovers and soups. Every recipe in the book, whether it is for roasting a chicken, preparing a Thanksgiving turkey, making a stew, or grilling a steak, is followed up with suggestions for using the leftovers. These suggestions are then cross-referenced with the recipes from the leftovers and soups chapter. I want people to stop looking at a piece of meat and seeing one meal. My hope with the book is to get people to look at one piece of meat and think about how they can use it for two, three, or even four meals.
Q. Do you want to speak to the way bones and fat have become undervalued in our culture?
A. There is a long history that led to this, tied with our post-World War II affluence, followed by a misguided hypothesis suggesting that consumption of animal fat raised cholesterol levels (because there is cholesterol in animal fat), and therefore resulted in heart disease. From my reading, it appears that the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease was associative. It wasn’t causal. In spite of this, the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs published the “Dietary Goals for the United States,” recommending that Americans reduce their fat intake and increase their carbohydrate consumption. That wasn’t good for the farming industry. It was great for the processed food industry.
As for the bones, as folks may remember from the history laid out in Radical Homemakers, post-war industrialization efforts found their way into the kitchen. At the same time that women were being “liberated” from the kitchen, processed foods were replacing home cooking. No one was at home to cook, and there were ample processed foods available at a low price (including canned broth, bouillon cubes, and premade foods). That left animal bones largely ignored. I’m not, by the way, suggesting that women go home and cook; I’m suggesting that someone goes home to cook. It’s a lot cheaper! (If you can’t be home, you can still make broth in a slow cooker.)
Q. You talk about the three phases of the grass-fed meat production chain that can affect flavor. Do you want to describe those for Grist readers?
A. I get into this in-depth in the book, so I’ll try to be brief here. The first phase of control is on the farm — how the pastures are managed, whether the animals have access to good quality forage, whether the farmer has chosen livestock with the genetic disposition to thrive in a natural environment. The second phase is in processing. That starts with transport and harvest, which should be as quiet and calm as possible so as to stress the animal as little as possible. The third phase is in the cooking, which is the central topic of the book. But the basic tenets of that are moderating cooking temperatures, matching cooking methods to the appropriate muscle groups, and making sure meats are not overcooked.
Q. You write: “Flavor intensity has by and large been obliterated from the American palate.” Do you want to say more about how the flavor of beef might play a different role in people’s meat choices moving forward and where pasture-based production has a role?
A. Yes, I feel that flavor sensitivity has by and large been obliterated from the American palate. Grass-fed meats have a pronounced flavor marked by a sweet herbaceousness that comes from the grasses, a mineral intensity that comes from nutrient-rich pastures, followed by an inherent species-specific flavor that comes through as a result of animals leading a natural, active life (rather than being raised in confinement). By contrast, factory-farmed meat has none of these attributes. Someone who is not accustomed to what good meat should taste like might find it alienating at first, as their taste buds are simply accustomed to the “factory taste.”
I think that one of the ways we can ensure the future sustainability of our culture is to bring that flavor awareness back. When our children can detect what true, authentic food, raised in harmony with the Earth, is supposed to taste like, they will naturally make more sustainable choices for the future. Their taste buds will guide them.
Q. You know this territory well (this is your third book on the topic). Did you learn anything new or surprising while putting this one together?
A. Lots! First of all, I had to scrap nearly everything I’d written halfway through when our family began battling type 1 diabetes and we became aware of the fact that many Americans are unable to tolerate grains and legumes in their diets. I began this book under the assumption that the way to stretch meat farther was to pair it with grains and legumes. When you’ve got to pay for insulin out of your own pocket (which we do), suddenly grains and legumes, which spike insulin demand, don’t seem so cheap. With the exception of a few truly special recipes (such as my beloved Cassoulet de Castelnaudary), grains and legumes had to play a much smaller role in my recipe selection.
If my family had to avoid grains and legumes, was our diet necessarily unsustainable? That led me back to the discovery of the nutritional importance of the bones, fat, and the organ meats (although proportionally, they make up a significantly smaller portion of the animal waste). What I learned was that by concentrating more fully on utilizing the whole animal, I was able to find ways to nourish my family even more effectively than before. Thus, we eliminated the grains and legumes, but then found that by focusing on the “waste,” we actually reduced the ecological impact of our dietary needs. We didn’t eat more meat; we drank more broth, prepared more soups, etc.
The second great lesson came around with the fat exploration. I had always used our animal fats for making soap. But through researching the book I discovered that they make vastly superior salves and lip balms than conventional vegetable-based fats and oils do (and they are cleaner and more sustainable). I also had fun experimenting with the idea of the tallow candle, which many people assume today is entirely impractical. By blending the tallow with our beeswax, I learned that we could make amazing candles. As a result of all these fun experiments for the book, we wound up developing a new product line for our farm — we now sell salves, lip balms, candles, and soap, in addition to our meat. Customers love them! I included all those recipes in the book as well, because I think it is important to “think outside the steak” when it comes to working with these gentle creatures.
Q. Where do the ideas you put forth in Radical Homemakers fit into the messages in this book?
A. There are many ways the ideas overlap, as you can probably see from my earlier answers — from finding ways to be more frugal with our resources, drawing from traditional skills to navigate an uncertain future, to finding new and unique ways to produce, rather than consume, and maybe even supplement the family’s income with some micro-enterprises.