You are what you eat—and so is your meat
Author Jolyon Helterman
Ask Matt Christianson how he likes his steak, and he’ll tell you medium rare. But that’s not the half of it. He also prefers it butchered from animals nourished on northeastern Oregon grasslands—especially Carman Ranch, where cows gorge on autumn-baled hay in the winter and spend warmer months fattening up on fragrant wildflowers, a varied diet that, he finds, yields “a super-rich, robust flavor.” This pedigreed beef shows up as an occasional daily special at his Portland, Ore., steakhouse, Urban Farmer, which also offers corn-fed beef from California and grain-finished beef from Montana.
Urban Farmer’s painstakingly annotated menu (for example, the “flight” of four differently fed steaks) points to a trend that has become the foodie obsession du jour—gourmet animal feed. No longer do diners simply choose their favorite spot along the time-honored spectrum from rare to well done; now they can decide what their steak dined on, too. And the practice isn’t limited to cows—the past 12 months have seen a spike in purveyors experimenting with custom diets for pigs and chickens, as well.
Taking a cue from the prized jamón Ibérico de bellota (a Spanish version of prosciutto that gets its gloriously nutty taste, and $150-a-pound price tag, from the pigs’ diet of acorns), Virginia pork purveyor Edwards & Sons is feeding its pigs rich, fatty peanuts, then distributing the resulting pork to salumi shops and on-trend eateries, such as New York’s Momofuku Ssäm. South Texas Heritage Pork has experimented with feeding hogs creamy avocados, which yields luxuriously tender meat. And in September, The New York Times reported that specialty products purveyor D’Artagnan has been working with chefs at elite culinary hotspots—among them Daniel and Per Se—on a program to feed pedigreed chickens rarefied restaurant table scraps and milk-soaked bread.
Christianson says that he too has been featuring milk-fed chickens on the menu. “We’ve been putting a little bit of nonfat dry milk in their water, which makes them fatten up real nice,” he says. “They’re juicier, and you see little flecks of white fat in the leg meat, rather than the usual yellow.”
The meat sounds delicious, but the process does make one wonder how far down this particular foodie rabbit hole we can go before landing smack in the middle of “Portlandia.” How long before waiters describe the water that nourished the grass that was nibbled by grass-fed cows? And what kind of cows produced the milk that fed our milk-fed chickens?
Silliness aside, there is an altruistic element to the idea of providing wholesome foods for meat animals—a sense that we should be paying as much attention to what we are feeding them as we do to what we feed ourselves. Chris Shepherd, who serves Wagyu beef finished with beer-grain mash at his Houston restaurant, Underbelly, says, “We give the cows Saint Arnold Endeavour, a local double IPA, mostly to reduce their stress during their final months. Our philosophy is: They should have only one Bad Day.”