A few years ago I became a beef broker. I can’t say it was a calling, I just fell into the work. You see, my aunt and uncle own Little Canaan Ranch in Eastern WA, where they raise Galloway+Angus (Gangus) beef cattle, fed on the grassy hills of the Palouse. Up until the moment they meet the butcher, life for these cows couldn’t be any more romantic.
And truly, they are delicious. (Maybe I should have put a disclaimer for vegetarians at the beginning of this post.) My enthusiasm for a good steak must be infectious, because I’ve never deliberately tried to be a sales person, and I don’t get a commission. It’s just that I get sort of dreamy and short of breath when I talk about it (think When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having”), and people ask me what they have to do to get some of their own.
My aunt and uncle sell this beef in quarters, halves, and wholes, which is the way they have to sell it in order to navigate the web of USDA laws governing the sale of meat. Essentially, you’re not buying a freezer full of steaks and roasts, you’re buying (part of) a cow. It happens to be no longer living. This arrangement allows the USDA to stay out of it, because a cow is livestock, not “food.” Which is fine with us, because when you buy a quarter or half cow, you get all sorts of cuts you probably wouldn’t pick up in the grocery store, like a tri-tip roast, or a hangar steak. You can use the bones to make stock; you can render the fat to make tallow for cooking, or suet for your birds; you can look up old timey recipes for ways to use the heart, oxtail, cheeks, and liver, because those are bits that are part of a whole cow, and you’ve paid for them, and it seems a shame to just throw them away. The offal also contains nutrients that are hard to find in other natural foods.
Deep into winter, my garage shelves are still stocked with storage crops from the garden–onions, potatoes, garlic, squash; canned jams, pickles, salsas, and stews are stacked in tidy rows above; my chest freezer is full of Gangus beef and berries–black, blue, and rasp–picked and frozen last summer. (My coworkers tell me that my house will be their first stop during the zombie apocalypse.) It feels like a step, a small step, away from reliance on an unsustainable food chain that is built on subsidized grain and petroleum. It also feels like a small step toward the vision that Josh and I have for ourselves. Someday I hope our freezer will be filled with elk we’ve hunted, and goats, chickens, and ducks we’ve raised (on slightly more than a 5,000 sq/ft city lot). It’s a romanticized vision, I realize, but it’s also in my blood.
My great-grandmother grew up in rural Illinois at the turn of the century, where career options were limited and hard work was guaranteed. Born into a tough, German farm family, she knew how much they struggled to make ends meet, and how the fickle weather could change a farm family’s life in a day. She announced there was no way, none, that she would marry a farmer. She wanted out of that life. But you know what? She married a farmer anyway.