When I arrived home from my vacation, a trip that concluded with a visit to Slope Farms, I was hungry. It wasn't hard to decide what to eat for dinner.
Monday, September 30, 2013
When I arrived home from my vacation, a trip that concluded with a visit to Slope Farms, I was hungry. It wasn't hard to decide what to eat for dinner.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
This is the longest post ever to appear on this blog, by far, but I wanted to share all that I learned at Slope Farms. I think it's very important to engage with this - thinking about where our food comes from.
I don't remember exactly when I began buying Slope Farms beef, but it's been over five years now. I tried several varieties sold at the Coop and found Slope Farms to be the most delicious.
A few weeks ago, as summer was still vibrant but beginning to wane, I found myself in the Catskills for a few days. I emailed Ken and he welcomed me to come visit the farm. I drove west from near the Hudson River on Route 28, a gorgeous drive if ever there was one.
I arrived at Ken and his wife Linda's house and Ken told me to put on a pair of the big rubber boots that sat in the garage. We would do a lot of walking on wet ground, he said. We began by going out behind his house, past his little tomato garden, and heading toward the pastures. I asked him about how it happened that he became a beef farmer.
Ken grew up in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene. He left NYC for college and went to SUNY Binghamton for college and then to SUNY Buffalo for Medical School - that's how he came to feel a connection with upstate NY. He returned to Brooklyn with his wife Linda and worked as an old fashioned family doctor for 25 years. Ken was the doctor, Linda ran the business. He was not part of a larger medical group - he had no other partners. He saw kids, old people, everyone. But eventually the necessities of the modern medical business establishment made it unfeasible for Ken and Linda to continue their business, and so they stopped. Their kids were grown. They had been visiting the Catskills for years, and decided to move there.
Okay, I said. But why beef farming? We looked out at the hills of pasture from behind Ken and Linda's house.
Ken went on to tell me that the Catskills region used to be covered with dairy farms, now largely defunct. "NY State has abandoned factories, just like Detroit," he said. "Ours are empty plots of land that once were used for dairy farming. You can think of the beautiful unused open pastures of upstate as similar to the empty factories of Cleveland or Detroit."
Ken unlatched a part of the wooden fence and we walked out into the pasture.
"Rotational grazing is the key to healthy beef agriculture," Ken said. The idea is to mirror the natural grassland ecosystem, which in nature includes large ruminants moving from one area to the next as a key component of the health of the grass and soil. In the past, between tens of millions of years ago until hundreds of years ago, large ruminants roamed the plains in the US and the eastern grasslands as well. They grazed, they used their hooves to trample some of the grass into the soil, they added excrement to fertilize/add carbon to the soil, then they moved onto other plots and returned after the grass had recovered and regrown."
"So how did you figure this out," I asked.
"Rotational grazing is not rocket science," Ken smiled. "You can learn 80% of what you need to learn in an hour or two. You can read about it in any number of books. The other 20% takes more time, observation, and practice to learn."
"What about in the winter," I said. "What do they eat then?"
Ken said that the grass in the fields doesn't grow past October, but it "stockpiles" in the pastures and the cows eat it through December - it remains nutritious into the winter. Then they eat hay produced at nearby fields until the spring. I asked if the beef finished on grass tastes different from beef finished on hay, and Ken said that it does not.
"And where are the cows now," I asked. We walked uphill, and through a clearing in a line of trees, I saw them.
"And they never go inside," I asked.
"The adults are almost never indoors," Ken said. "The babies - if the rain or wind or cold is too intense, they will go inside. We leave the younger animals close to the barn so they have the option of going inside if the choose. They generally prefer to be outside, only going in if there is freezing rain or windy cold."
"And what about at night? Is there any worry about bears or any sort of predator?"
"Not bears," Ken said, "but there are coyotes around, which the New York Department of Environmental Control reports are about 90% red wolf. They cannot hurt a full grown cow, but they could take a calf if the mother weren't vigilant. We've never lost any calves to coyotes.
"You know, I was pretty surprised when I started seeing Slope Farms veal appearing on the shelves at the Coop," I told Ken. "There's such a stigma with veal. Why did you get into that business?"
"Well, some cows make babies that take too long to 'finish,' and I learned which ones those are," Ken said. Babies from those cows become veal. We raise those calves in the fields with their mothers and the herd."
"Finish? - What do you mean by that?" I asked. I must have made a face. Because Ken said "You know, if you drink milk then you are participating in the veal industry. This is a dirty little secret. Cows must have a baby every year in order to produce milk. Of course, half of the babies are male. And in the dairy world, most male calves are raised away from their mothers in an industrial setting, and end up as veal. Our male calves become steers, and are marketed at 18 - 30 months of age."
Ken explained that a 'finished' animal is one that is ready for market. For lack of a better word, it is 'fat' enough. Animals whose ribs are showing, or whose haunches are too bony, those animals are not 'finished' and will stick around longer, eating more grass. He said that it took him a while to learn how to select good cows, when buying animals at the beginning, to predict which would 'finish' well.
"So how does it work in general - how long are the animals with you here," I asked.
"Our animals are slaughtered at an average age of two and a half years old," Ken said. Some calves become veal. Other calves that are male become steer and then are slaughtered at about two and a half years old. Female calves can be finished just as the steers, or kept as breeding stock as long as they continue to make babies that 'finish' well - often more than 10 years."
"What happens when that older cow stops making 'good' babies," I asked.
"For older animals, generally females who stop breeding, the default is ground beef because most of the meat is not very tender, but is has very good flavor," Ken said. "But the tenderloins on those animals stay very tender and have great flavor - deeply beefy. With these animals I like to take a rib steak into my 'test kitchen' and see if it's tender enough for steaks. About one in three times it is, and the Tarlow group in particular loves those steaks."
---Note to self: find out how to go to Marlow & Sons, Romans, or one of the other Tarlow joints when that kind steak is on the menu.---
"As healthy as the grass and the cattle look," Ken said, "it's the life underneath the surface of the soil that's the richest, teeming with small animals, microorganisms, and fungi, which creates a healthy soil. When it's working, cows eat the leaves of the grass plants, use their hooves to push other grass into the soil. In the perennial pasture that develops, plants like clover work symbiotically with bacteria to move nitrogen from the air to the soil. When soil and roots are healthy, grasses will regrow and be ready for grazing again in about 6 weeks."
As we walked further through the pastures, I looked more closely at the plants I could see.
We walked back to the house and got in Ken's pickup so we could see the rest of his cattle and his land. On the way we passed some fields that looked quite nice, others not as much. Ken told me that some of his neighbors noticed how healthy the Slope Farms fields look, saw what Ken is doing with rotational grazing, and adopted the practice for their own herds. Others, not.
After touring we stood in Ken and Linda's kitchen and talked some more. "So how does this become the industry standard?" I asked. "Is it about Americans learning to eat less meat, but meat of higher quality that is farmed in a healthy way?"
"I agree that in terms of health and the environment, it is better to eat less meat that is of higher quality," Ken said. "But I feel that there is room for more than one type of beef for consumers to choose from. Its about changing our tastes, expanding our palate. The American palate currently leans towards feedlot beef that is low in flavor but extremely soft in texture. Grass fed beef has more flavor but is, on average, a bit less tender. People should have a choice rather than being stuck with the industry standard."
There is no question whatsoever in my mind that the feedlot cattle industry is harmful the health and to the environment in several important ways. At the end of this post (which by now must seem will never come) I will include Ken's analysis of the costs of industrial feedlots. Our conversation continued and I asked him more about how to scale the grass fed beef business.
"Is this a good business, first of all," I asked. "Are you making money?"
"Yes," said Ken. "It is very important for me to show that this is a profitable enterprise, to help create an economically viable model from grass fed beef production in our region."
"So what's stopping others from doing what you're doing," I asked.
"The main barrier," Ken said, "is how to get a small number of finished cattle to the market of wholesale buyers. Buyers want a regular supply of high quality product. Feedlots house 10,000 - 100,000 animals. Trucks can come in, point to the animals they want, and drive away with them. Feedlots are horrible in many, many ways, but they have one advantage - they aggregate the animals so that when they are ready they can be shipped to market from a central place."
"So a small cattle farmer has a hard time getting the finished cattle to market," I said.
"Yes," Ken said. "There is a need for an aggregator. This is a crucial business player. As others start good farms, an aggregator is needed."
"Are you doing any of this now," I asked.
"I work with about a dozen farmers to help them get their beef to market. I'm at their farms constantly and I can vouch for their no hormone, no antibiotic, all grass, and animal welfare practices. They raise the cattle and I can maintain quality standards and sell their beef under my label."
---Whoa - does this remind you of anything in the wine industry?---
"So," I asked, "is this something that can happen - can grass fed beef be brought to scale?"
Ken told me that the Grassland Team at Cornell University says that there are 3 million acres of unused pasture in New York State. They wouldn't all be used for cattle farming, but that's enough pasture to finish 1 million cattle each year - enough to supply all of the demand for beef in New York City for a year.
Compelling ideas, indeed.
I love the taste of grass fed beef. At home I eat it exclusively. Whenever I happen to eat feedlot beef, I am struck by the differences in appearance, taste, and texture. I find the corn-finished feedlot beef to be pink rather than deep red, and essentially tasteless. The tenderness has no appeal to me - it's like eating a very soft wet towel. But I'm opinionated and picky, so find out for yourself. If you happen not to have tried grass fed beef, I seriously encourage you to find and buy a simple grass fed steak. It costs a bit more, but it tastes better. And you're paying for more than your beef - you're investing in something bigger than just that steak dinner.
"What are the costs of the current industrial feedlot system," I asked. Ken wrote an email to me later in which he described the costs as follows:
1) At the feedlot:
1)Regional air pollution with toxic dust and airborne bacteria.
2) Greenhouse gasses from manure lagoons.
1) Runoff killing local streams and polluting larger waterways.
1) Cattle each have about 100 square feet and are not able to have a normal life grazing.
2) High grain diet leads to 'acidosis' and cattle illness.
Human Heath Impacts
1) Daily antibiotic use in cattle leading to strains of bacteria in humans that are resistant to antiobiotics (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter)
2) Hormone implants in feedlot cattle lead to hormone residue in meat.
3) Feedlot beef has a fat profile that is less healthy than grass fed beef - there is more saturated fat, less omega-3 fatty acid, less conjugated linoleic acid).
2) Production of Grain to Feed the Feedlot Beef
Fossil Fuel Usage
1) Use of fossil fuel to plant, fertilize, harvest, and transport grain.
2) Use of fossil fuel in production of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides.
1) Widespread water pollution from runoff from chemical fertilizers (the dead zone off the Gulf of Mexico, for example)
1) Loss of carbon from the soil into the air due to plowing, as opposed to rotational grazing which moves carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.
1) Use of GMO grain.
2) Loss of biodiversity in plants and animals from mono-crop production.
Monday, September 16, 2013
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Tipping and Restaurant Service: Thoughts on the Pete Wells' Article in the NY Times, and Some Stories
A week ago the NY Times published dining critic Pete Wells' thought provoking piece on tipping in restaurants. In the article Wells argues that our current system of tipping does not have an impact on the quality of service we receive and that we should consider changing the way servers are compensated. He points out additional factors that he suggests might lead restaurants to do away with the current system, including lawsuits and cultural issues within restaurants.
This is not a long article and worth reading, if you haven't already. Tipping is one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. At of the time of this writing, the Times piece has generated 474 comments. I want to share some of my thoughts after reading the article.
The economics behind the tipping question are complicated and I do not fully understand them, especially with regard to the equity questions raised in sharing tips with cooks, bartenders, and other staff. But I do think that it is worth asking this: why are we using the tipping system we use? Is our goal to ensure that servers are fairly compensated? Is our goal to provide servers with an incentive to give high quality service? Is our goal to allow customers to express their appreciation for services rendered? Is it a combination of the above?
If the goal is purely about compensation of servers, then the system does not make sense. I am "served" by many people during the week, and most of them are compensated by their employers, not by me. The man at the hardware store helped me the other day to figure out how I should go about building some shelving for a closet. I paid for the lumber. His employer paid him. I felt good about the service I received and so I will return to that store the next time I need hardware.
Why do we accept the notion that each of us must help to compensate a server at a restaurant, or the driver of a taxi, but not the employee at the hardware store or behind the desk at a medical office? If we are trying to ensure that servers are fairly compensated, then let's allow the labor market to function without the tipping intervention. But compensation isn't the goal, purely. It's also about restaurants lowering labor costs, and it's completely rational for them to try to do so using any legal means.
One of Wells' main points is that the system fails as a way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service, and he gives several good reasons for this. The problem is, a system in which tipping is not allowed or not customary also does nothing to create the incentive for good service. And this is the thing that I wish we would talk about more when we talk about the relationship between service quality and tipping.
The way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service is for restaurants to evaluate servers based on their performance. A good service manager ensures that servers are properly trained and faithfully implement the restaurant's hospitality policies. A server that repeatedly fails to do so would not remain on staff. A service manager would be replaced if his or her servers too often fail to provide a high quality service standard.
In a tipping-as-compensation system, as most of our restaurants currently use, management should evaluate servers performance using qualitative data, not simply by looking at tips as a percentage of sales. Tip percentage is often not a reliable indicator of the quality of service the customer feels they have received. In a system that fully compensates servers via salary, as in most of Europe and now at some US restaurants, managers cannot rely on tip percentage as a means of evaluating servers and must therefore use other methods. Just like the manager at the hardware store does when evaluating the service provided by his or her employees.
Many of us feel as though our tipping system all too often allows restaurants to ignore their hospitality management responsibilities. They assume that customers handle this job for them, via tipping.
When I was 18, over the summer after my first year of college, I worked as a waiter in Manhattan at a restaurant called The Lion's Rock. I had no prior experience and I still have no idea why they manager hired me. I trailed another waiter for one shift, but otherwise received no service training. Then I was given a full schedule. It was a busy restaurant in the summer with a huge outdoor section, and we pooled our tips - tips were added up at the end of the night and shared by all waiters, after tipping out the bartender at 15% of the total. This tip pooling gave me the incentive to help serve tables that were not "my" tables, because I was impacted by the tip at that table. One summer evening I was delivering food to a well-dressed couple on the patio, and as I put the plate down in front of the man I tilted it too far and spilled sauce onto his lap. Not just a little bit of sauce. It was everywhere, comical in proportion. I apologized profusely, brought napkins and seltzer, apologized again, and felt truly awful. They were nice about it and they left me a big tip - over 20%, perhaps because they sensed that I would soon be unemployed. I have no idea if the manager offered to pay their dry-cleaning bill. In fact, the manager never spoke with me about the incident.
After I graduated from college I worked at another Upper East Side restaurant that no longer exists, called May We. I worked there for almost a year while trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'm sure that I cleared plates before all diners were finished and committed many other service atrocities - I received no training whatsoever. Anyway, we pooled tips there too, and there was no turnover in the waitstaff while I worked there. After a few months I noticed that I was consistently earning more money in tips and at a higher tip percentage than some other servers, and yet we shared tips equally. The manager never noticed, or if she did notice she never did anything about it. She also never thanked me when I spotted Ruth Riechel, at that time the NY Times restaurant critic, at a table in the upstairs room and alerted the kitchen and management so they could pay extra attention to her and her food. No one had noticed her until that point. She wound up giving the place a decent review on her weekly radio show.
Because I've worked as a server at several restaurants I feel some empathy for how hard the job is, and how frustrating it can be. I tip well when service is good, but I tip less when service is not as good.
Not too long ago, and for the first time that I can remember, I left no tip for the server at a restaurant. I was with my daughters and a good pal and we went in at 5:30. We were the only diners in the room and there are perhaps 10 tables, all of which can accommodate 4 or more people. This is a pizza place, a red sauce joint in a small city in northwestern Connecticut. We had been there many times before. I asked to sit at the booth where we usually sit and the server (who I did not recognize) told us we couldn't because the booth was meant for 6 people and we were only 4. I told her we would move if a larger party came in, and that we'd be there for only 45 minutes anyway. She said no, I politely asked her if I could ask the manager, she came back and said the manager said no. We ate our dinner (because at that point there was no other way to get the daughters to another restaurant in time to also go bowling and get home to bed) and I told the server as we got up to leave that I was sorry, but I would not leave a tip. Funny thing is, she said she understood and that she was sorry.
A new restaurant opened recently around the corner from my house. The menu offers things like sweet corn hushpuppies, pickled fried chicken, chickpea chopped salads, house made pickles, and other tasty sounding things. A friend and I went and sat outside in the back garden. Right after our food arrived I noticed that my friend had a genuinely disturbed look on her face and I asked why - she pointed behind me and I turned to see a large rat on the ground, perhaps 10 feet from our table. It was sitting there contentedly, gnawing on something. This is a paved outdoor space, by the way. We got up and so as not to alarm our neighbors or cause a scene, I quietly told our server that there was a rat near our table. She asked if we wanted to move indoors, and we gratefully accepted. We sat at the bar and the bartender said "So you've met out little friend. We've been trying to get rid of him for days now." A few minutes later he said that the restaurant would like to buy us our next round of drinks, and so he did. I felt disgusted by the rat and it seems to me that a new restaurant should be a bit more concerned with my friend and I in this situation - "let me buy your next drink" is not sufficient. If I owned the place I would have comped the meal (which amounted to about $50) - I want to demonstrate how seriously I take the issue and hope that these two people will give my restaurant another shot. Or at least that they will not spread this alarming tale on Yelp, awesome Brooklyn Wine and Food blogs, or other social media. They presented me with the check, and once my dining companion left the bar for the door, I handed them $60 in cash and politely told the bartender and the server how I felt (without the social media part). The server apologized and said "You're right," but the bartender pushed my money back at me and snidely said "keep it - we don't need your money." It was one of the strangest restaurant experiences I've had and needless to say, I would never go back.
I recently had dinner at Maysville, the newish Manhattan spot owned by the people behind Char No 4 in Brooklyn. My friend and I were both struck by how great the service was. Okay, they recognized my dining companion and were being quite nice to us, but looking around, it seemed as though everyone receives that level of service at Maysville. I asked the bartender about a cocktail on the menu, but expressed my misgivings about the Jack Daniels the drink called for. Although her bar was busy, she discussed it with me and offered to substitute something else. I declined because she clearly knew what she was doing, and the whole interaction felt right (and the drink was delicious). At dinner the servers did not attempt to whisk away and deep-chill our bottle of 1995 Cazin Cuvée Renaissance (excellent). One of them did pour it a little too deep and fast but they were friendly and gracious when I asked if we could pour it ourselves. Servers appeared when we needed something, not otherwise, and we never needed to ask for anything. When I dropped a fork near the end of our meal, some one who was not my server - a runner (some one whose job is to bring food from the kitchen to tables and to clear tables when diners are finished), brought me a new fork within minutes, wrapped in a napkin, without ceremony or flourish - just brought me a new fork without my having to ask. We left a big tip.