Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Farm-to-plate, part three

Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part series following a group of Kendall College chef-instructors and students on a trip to Southern Illinois University's (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences.

Contributed by Dana Cox, Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, Chicago

Slaughterhouse tour
Groggy from our busy night of cowboy cooking, our last day of touring begins at 7 a.m. with a road trip to Fruitland, Mo., to a slaughterhouse with Dr. Karen Jones, an animal researcher from SIU. This would be a difficult morning for most of us. As we arrive at the facility, we notice a fountain behind the plant. What was odd about the sight of it was that the water spraying from it was distinctly red. We would later learn that this was part of the system of disposing of the blood from the cattle and pigs that are processed there.

The day we tour the plant, cattle are being lined up outside that had been "retired" from their function as gestation or dairy cows. Most cattle being raised for meat is less than 36 months old, as this is a pivotal age when steer become less tender. We are told the animals there that day could potentially be 8 to 10 years old. When we asked the veterinarian what the market is for meat from old animals, she responds that McDonald's is the biggest buyer. A licensed vet--employed by the USDA, not the slaughterhouse--must be present at each facility. She explains that her role there is largely to ensure that the animals being slaughtered were "ambulatory," or that they could walk on their own into the plant. A couple of cows we observe walk in only with considerable motivation in the form of a large paddle at the end of pole. This is more humane that the old-fashioned electrified cattle prod, we're told.

The USDA vet describes her role at the facility

One creature that stood out among the bovine senior citizens was an obviously young calf, which was missing a foot and had a profusely runny nose. The vet said that this was an animal infected with indo-toxins produced by a fungus that can invade fescue, a tall foraging grass commonly sown in pastures. The toxins are produced by the fungus and cause vaso-constriction in the limbs of cattle, which eventually can cut off circulation to the extremities and result in loss of the limb.

Once the animal has arrived at the head of the line, it enters a chamber of sorts. The door on the opposite side opens to reveal the employee with a captive bolt pistol, which is applied to a specific point between the eyes of the cow to stun it. The pressure ideally renders the animal unconscious, at which point it is inverted, hung by an ankle and suspended midair. The cow's throat is then slit, to let the blood drain from the animal's body. The idea is that the animal's heart needs to continue to beat in order to churn all of its blood out of the carcass, which is technically the cause of its death, not the blow to the forehead.

The next step is to eviscerate the animal, as contact between waste and meat creates an opportunity for contamination such as E. coli if not done properly. The skin is removed and hooves are cut off while the animal moves across the facility, assembly-line style. The vet explains that in larger plants, the animal stays stationary and the butchers move, standing on conveyor belts that whiz past the carcasses. Some workers sit low on stools, or stand and work, reaching above their heads.
Freshly cut sides of beef

Animals are broken down into primal cuts, then subprimals; there are waist-high barrels along the walls labeled "hooves," "inedible" and "edible." There is even a room with racks for the heads. Heavy metal music blares throughout the facility, making the experience all the more surreal. The butchers move quickly and manage to separate the subprimals like loose puzzle pieces, sometimes slinging cuts of beef that appear to be as large as they are.

HAACP is an important consideration at a slaughterhouse. The government has developed a sanitation program that must be followed, with each product monitored at various stages of handling and processing. This facility also produces sausages and jerky products. Customers supply the recipes and ratios, and the slaughterhouse makes the products and can even package them for shipping. During our visit, we see some grass-fed beef products en route to the St. Louis Whole Foods.

Foraging for wild mushrooms
That afternoon, we would travel to Giant City State Park to meet Joe McFarland, a writer for Outdoor Illinois, a magazine published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. McFarland has recently released his field-to-kitchen guide for foraging and selecting mushrooms in the area, "The Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois." McFarland gives us an overview of the mushroom kingdom in his office filled with fresh, dried, drawn and sculpted fungi of all sorts. Mushrooms that are cultivated as opposed to found are generally grown in pasteurized manure. McFarland says that the mushroom itself is actually the fruiting body of a fungus that contains spores. Anatomically, some have gills and others have pores. Some cooks prefer to peel away the pores, as they don't cook up well, he says. Mushroom fans can make "prints" of mushroom gills by placing only the mushroom cap on a piece of paper and pressing gently. We get the great privilege of going on a mushroom hunt with McFarland. Wild mushrooms are the focus of his book.

"How can you tell if mushrooms are poisonous?" one student asks. The answer, says McFarland, is that there is no one universal method or rule with mushrooms. They have their own personalities, grow during certain seasons and prefer particular kinds of soil and trees. Chanterelles, a wild mushroom loved by chefs, is partial to the base of the oak tree. Each mushroom must be evaluated on an individual basis, as toxicity is a serious issue if one's intention is to consume what's found. McFarland's guide includes pictures, names, ideal spots for each variety and even how they're used in the kitchen. McFarland takes a small knife to cut any discovered mushrooms at their base. He travels with a basket or paper bag for collecting. Plastic bags or containers are not recommended, as moisture is the enemy in storing mushrooms once they're harvested.

Joe McFarland examines a mushroom find

We head up a stone-lined hill, paying focused attention to tree trunks, fallen limbs or any natural material that might have provided the right environment for a mushroom. I discover some small, thin mushrooms with beautiful coral red tops--not poisonous, but also not very tasty, according to McFarland. One student groans at an unpleasant smell and holds up her discovery with a stick causing everyone to cover our faces. Nature has created this mushroom to give off the smell of rotten meat, which will attract animals to it in the forest and insure its propagation, says McFarland. We won't be inquiring about this one with our suppliers any time soon.

This is certainly prime ground for fungal growth; we saw mushrooms of all shapes and varieties. Of the plethora that exists in nature, only a few are both safe to eat and desirable for their flavor and texture. McFarland finds a small, skinny, white mushroom that looks much like cultivated enoki mushrooms (commonly used to raw as a garnish for Asian dishes). It is barely as big around as a pencil, with a tiny white cap. He says that although it appears harmless, the Amanita is the most toxic mushroom in the Illinois forests, adding that this small specimen alone is enough to kill an average-sized person. The toxicity impacts the victim in two stages: If the forager who eats an Amanita is able to get to medical help, hospitals generally pump their stomachs, they feel better and are sent home. A couple days later, however, the second wave of toxicity hits and causes the digestive system to shut down. It is quite an awful death, and he says the mushroom is even known by the name Destroying Angel. McFarland was effective in scaring me; I don't know that I'd be capable of discerning the delicious from the deadly on my own, even with his book. When I asked him what attracted him to the study of mushrooms, he answered, "It's free food!"

McFarland displays Illinois' most toxic mushroom, the Amanita

Dyempur Farm
Our final adventure is a visit to a farm that truly embodies the local agriculture movement, as it is a part of a community of Sufi Muslims. The Sufis are a mystical sect of Islam, who believe a direct experience of God is possible for the mortal being. Our tour guide is Greg Wendt, staff videographer at SIU, and founding member of this community. He and seven other devotees from New York moved to the rural Shawnee area 14 years ago to construct an idyllic model of healthy, sustainable living. It is surprising to hear Brooklyn-esque accents in Southern Illinois. The original goal behind their farm was to grow produce for the members of the church, but with their impressive productivity, feeding the community at large may be within reach. The modest acre they nurture yielded 8,500 pounds of vegetation between spring and summer growth, and they estimate they will harvest another 4,000 pounds this fall and even winter using covered beds. At present, 80 to 100 people are fed twice each week at spiritual functions, and their produce is sold at farmer's markets and the local food co-op. The diversity of flora is astounding in this small plot; we see amaranth, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, okra and squash as we walk the rows.

Okra blossom at Dyempur Farm

The Sufis here plant their seeds or bulbs in elevated rows. The shallow valleys in between will trap rainfall, lessening the need to water the crops. There is a charming orchard as well with apples, pears and black walnuts, which look somewhat like a fruit of the pomme family and have a distinct citronella smell. A student picks one and attempts to cut it open with a pocket knife. Our tour guide snickers and warns him that his hands will soon show the signs of walnut handling. Sure enough, the juice stains his hands a purplish-black that will remain for days.

Under the black walnut tree

The Sufis also have a gorgeous chicken coop. A miniature barn provides shelter for the chickens with a door flap on either side to allow the birds to go in and out as they please. The inside is immaculate and lined with hay and straw to provide some warmth and comfort to the birds. No unpleasant odor here--just plump, healthy chickens. The Sufis' respect for the animals is obvious in the beautiful home they've created for them. Periodically, they open the area around the coop and allow the chickens to roam in the grass and look for bugs and worms. They will return to the coop without being coaxed, knowing that is where they are fed.

A chicken leaves the coop for a bit of sunshine

The birds are the epitome of health: sizeable with fluffy brown feathers and red combs and very social with one another and us. They provide eggs for the community, as well as occasional meat. Our guide laughs and says that he wouldn't want to be a hen in the group, as they are outnumbered by the roosters. Time for rooster stew, he says. We recommend coq au vin, the French country solution to make an old rooster palatable by braising him in red wine. These are the only animals the Sufis raise on the farm; the other animal protein in their diets sometimes comes from hunting and fishing.

The Sufis have a few solar panels mounted to the roof of their workshop, which fuel a lot of the shop's activity: building and fixing things. They also contribute to the lighting and heating of the spiritual leader's home on the property. The panels are tremendously productive, says our guide, even through Illinois winter months.

We are all exhausted as we head back to our cabins at the Green Retreat that evening for one last peaceful sleep at the farm. We've seen so much in a week's time, and our newfound knowledge has sparked debates at dinner each night about our food systems. My take on our experience is that price has become king in American food production. I'm not sure when this happened, but we spend less on our diets (about 9 cents per dollar earned) than any other developed nation in the world. Some of the professors we spoke to this week view that as a triumph of industrial agriculture, but I'm not sure I agree. Quality rarely follows quantity in my experience. But, at some point in our history, volume and cost overtook the caliber of the foodstuff being produced. I know our population has grown tremendously in the past century, and individuals no longer have the traditional knowledge base required to raise their own meals, but I feel the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of cheap abundance.

Our students are thrilled to see heirloom vegetation from our local City Farm or Green City Market during the growing season. Unfortunately, that represents a drop in the bucket of all the food consumed by diners in Chicago. We have such power as chefs in educating and influencing consumers. It's easier to justify paying more for organic, local or heirloom once you've tasted them. In order to make this sort of authentic diet more feasible, we have to shift our priorities as consumers and voice these values to our government. I'm not aware of any subsidies to small farmers who've returned to the traditional methods of farming. In the meantime, we certainly can support our farmer's markets or buy a share of a community supported agriculture (CSA) that yields a weekly basket of fresh produce, eggs and even meat to its shareholders. At Kendall, we have a small farm next to the Chicago River that supplies our dining room. Growing Power, the Milwaukee farmers' cooperative that manages our little plot, sells the overflow of product to local consumers. Some chefs have even taken to planting rooftop gardens to have greater control over their product, like our own Rick Bayless of Topolobampo/Frontera Grill/Xoco fame. The food industry has a monumental impact on our health, environment and economy, and our choices have consequences well beyond our stoves.

Part one | Part two