Ethical Eating (Critter Edition) – The Continuing Saga

So I lent The Omnivore’s Dilemma to a friend of mine, and she and I were chatting about it and she said that it’s got her thinking about how she sources the meat her family eats, and how to find ethical sources of critter now that she’s paying (more) attention to this stuff. Conveniently, she knows me and my lovely wife, and we are making more and more connections (most of them, unexpectedly, through my wife’s day-job, although maybe that isn’t too surprising) in the ethical-livestock-farmers neck of the woods. We get our monthly rabbit. We’ve got a lady looking to split a goat with us (and there may or may not be a bag or three of angora goat hair – in need of carding, but otherwise ready to spin… apparently – in it for me, as well). A friend of one of my wife’s other partners raises a wide variety of pastured livestock. And then, of course, there are folks like Barb or John & Lorraine who run meat CSAs, sell at farmers’ markets, and do (some) home deliveries or bulk orders.
So we’re pretty set. The main trick is scraping up the money (getting there!) to regularly drop $8/lb on critter when you’re used to paying $4 or $5.
My wife was saying, yesterday, that she either needs to start eating ethically-raised animals, or she needs to stop eating animals, and she’s game for eating fewer animals if that means being able to afford the ethically raised folks on a more frequent basis.
I’m in a similar boat, though I admit that knowing I don’t thrive on a vegetarian (let alone vegan) diet, definitely has an effect on how much meat I’m willing to cut out of our diet.
Related Sidenote:
When I buy coffee – which we drink a lot of (a kilogram per month, easily) – I sometimes buy the relatively cheap $15/kg dark roast stuff from PC. And I sometimes buy the 100% organic-and-fair-trade (or Rainforest Alliance, or whatever label a given brand is being certified by to show that it fits with my ethics) stuff from Kicking Horse or Bridgehead or whatever local roastery is available. I tend to do this more often when said items are on mark-down, BUT I do it when they’re not, too.
And then there’s the rest of the time. And the rest of the time, I get this stuff that is “up to 60% rainforest alliance certified”. While the “up to” part definitely gets a bit of a side-eye from me, because it’s not the same as saying “at least”, my general rule is that some is better than none, and that if at least some of my coffee beans are coming from a source that doesn’t screw everybody over, then the message I’m sending is “Bare minimum: You have to be on board with this for me to buy your product. You have to be doing something in line with my values if you want to get any of my money”.
Like ethically-sourced coffee, ethically-sourced animals are expensive compared to their not-so-compassionately-raised counterparts.
Part of why I’m so happy to finally have our chest freezer set up is because it means we have the space to freeze a bulk-order of animal-of-choice, and bulk-orders are frequently less expensive per pound than individual cuts. (Depending on the size of the order – a “small variety pack” or a “sample cooler” or whatever is probably going to be priced the same per pound as individual cuts. A quarter (or a half or a whole) butchered animal, however, will be much closer per pound to the prices that you get in the grocery store for the not-so-ethical stuff.
Other options include:
(A) Buy the “free from” or “traditionally raised” (or whatever your local store-brand is) animals from your grocery store. These are raised without growth hormones or antibiotics (that’s the PC “Free From” sub-brand, specifically, but this is the general gist of all of them). While “free from” beef isn’t going to have the same quality of life as pastured beef – for example – rules about No Antibiotics mean that each critter does need a certain amount of personal space and general preventative health-and-wellness just to avoid infection spreading among the cattle (or the pigs, or the chickens… you get the idea). Some is better than none.
So I buy “free from” sausages and, when they’re on a discount, I buy “free from” pork picnic/shoulder roasts, too. I buy “free from” pre-cooked barbicued chicken because it’s only about $2 more than the not-free-from stuff, and my chicken probably had a (marginally) better quality of life before slaughter.
(B) Buy braising cuts. These are the cuts of meat – shanks, hocks, flap, brisket, stewing cubes (AND whole stewing hens), and organs – that are tougher muscles (or just plain organs) which are more flavourful, but which also take longer to cook. (They are where “simmer steaks” and “marinating steaks” come from, fyi). They tend to be cheaper as a result, regardless of whether you’re getting them from Trillium Meadows, the fancy organic grocer, or the freezer section of your local Metro or Loblaws or whatever. Sausages tend to fall under the heading of “Cheap Cuts”, too, for fairly unsurprising reasons.
NOTE: You can definitely barbicue these kinds of cuts, but it’s Traditional Southern Barbicue[1] (sort of) – like cook it for 12 hours on really low, somewhat indirect, heat, with a few pices of vinegar-soaked oak/maple/apple wood sitting on the grill next to the cut, and the lid shut (except for the odd vent, of course) – not a high-speed grilling, the way you’d do for a really tender cut of steak or a par-boiled sausage.
Related Side Note: I just shot a note to the Trillium Meadows folks to see if they’d consider doing a “Braising Box” as a (less expensive per pound) winter counterpart to their summer “BBQ Box” – a sample of grilling cuts that, given the price ($80) is probably about 10lbs of critter, total[2]. E.G.: Maybe $100 would get you about twenty pounds of critter, with a breakdown of, say, three different 4lb braising roasts – maybe a venison chuck, a venison brisket, and boar shoulder OR a boar butt roast, a boar ham, and some venison spare ribs – along with 3lb of mixed shank, 3lb of mixed stewing cubes, and maybe a dear heart and a boar kidney or something. I live in hope[3] and will let you know.
(C) Start with free-run eggs. No, really. There are about a billion different kinds of “quality of life for the hens” eggs. I tend to aim for “nest laid & free run” whenever I can swing it which, because eggs are pretty cheap to begin with and can be stretched really far if you’re not eating quiche all the time and know a few tricks for subbing out the eggs in your baking[4], is pretty often. Also, since laying hens typically have some of the WORST quality of life of any livestock animals in Canada, and since people in general go thorugh more eggs per week than, say, pork chops or ground round, this is probably the place that is both (i) the easiest, money-wise AND (ii) where you’ll actully be doing the most good. It’s nice when things work out like that, eh?
(D) Check your fish supply. This one’s a bit of a tricky one because it usually involves importing fish from a long way away. My $6.99 frozen pollock and hadock fillets – along with these handy items – are MSC certified, but they apparently come all the way from China – which doesn’t exactly have a great environmental track-record, and which is very far away. Some is better than none, and you make your own decisions on that one.
(E) Make soup stock. Yes, for real. Save up a zip-lock bag of onion skins, carrot peels, celery leaves, tomato cores, random bones, and other odds and ends in your freezer. When it’s full, you just chuck the contents into your crock pot with about 8 cups of water and a bay leaf, and let it cook (topping up the water every twelve hours or so, if neceesary) on LOW for 24-36 hours. You don’t even have to be home that much.
Yes, it’s kind of cheating. When I make 2+ litres of stock from a saved up chicken or rabbit carcas, my mental math says “Hey, check it out! Rather than getting two meals for two out of that roast chicken, I got six (or more) out of it! Go me! :-D” Suddenly that $20 rabbit is working out to less than $4 (or $2 or less per person). Not bad! Also, see footnote three[3] for how bone stock can be used in non-meat-centric meals to make them more palattable to a meat-favouring person (such as myself).
(F) Grow (or forage) your own. No, I don’t mean start a possibly-illegal rabbit-farm in your back yard and put a bee hive on your roof. (Although if you’re up for it, go for it!) I mean, if you have the luxury of a yard – or even a balcony/patio space that can hold a few containers – growing some easy and prolific veggies and perenial fruits[5] in your own space[6] can free up a LOT of cash in a good year (and in a bad year, you still get to garden, right?) even if you buy tomato, cucumber and herb Starts rather than planting everything from seed. If you’re like me and don’t have a yard (or a balcony) you can guerrilla garden the local traffic calming islands, harvest fruit from city trees, get friendly with fruit-growing neighbours and acquaintances, or get involved with a Food Sovereignty organization like Hidden Harvest Ottawa for the opportunity to (legally) harvest people’s back-yard fruit trees.
Being able to save a little money in one area can be a big help when it comes to splashing out in another. E.G.: by making all of our bread, I save us about $2/batch. Which means I save us about $16-$20/month. Which means I can get a kilogram of ethically raised pork – grilling sausage or salami, either way – from Seed to Sausage up the street, OR a 1kg+ “Free From” pork shoulder roast for full price at the grocery store. Every month. (Or, alternatively, I can buy myself a skein of fancy yarn from some co-op in Peru and then take my wife out for an organic, fair trade, locally-roasted coffee date during the same month. You get the idea. Whatever your motivating factors may be).
So there you have it.
Those are some ways that I try – in fits and starts, admittedly – to up the Ethical and Sustainable content of my grocery cart.
What do you do?
Meliad the Birch Maiden.
[1] Yes, I read Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation as well. It was also good. Heh. I told my Mom about it, and she assumed that he was suggesting everyone go Raw. Nope! Not even slightly! 😀
[2] I admit, that’s one thing I don’t appreciate about Trillium Meadows’ website: They’ll tell you the price for a bulk order, but they won’t give you the per pound (or per kilogram) breakdown of the specific cuts they offer. They aren’t the only people who do this, by the way, I’m just picking on them because I’m talking about them right now. I appreciate it when a given farmer put their price-list on their website so that their potential (and returning) customers can kind of plan their grocery list around what they know they can afford.
[3] For those who are keeping track, that’s about six dinners for 3 adults OR about $5.50/person per meal. Not cheap. But not awful, either, and you can stretch those meals to provide more servings by adding cheap legumes (think: red lentils that disolve into the sauce); hardy whole grains (pot barley is particularly good for braises); chunky, filling veggies (primarily roots, but also button mushrooms); and cheap OR free greens (shredded green cabbage OR dandelion & grape leaves – pick the latter fresh now, and blanch-and-freeze them for use through-out the year) to your braising pot. You can also use bone-based stocks and items like blood sausage or liver tartar to add meat -flavour AND benefits (if you’re like me and have an easier time accessing animal proteins than plant ones) – to a stew, pottage, or chili that gets the bulk of its, well, bulk from beans (or other legumes) and grains.
[4] The best ways that I’ve found to do this are (a) use fruit butter in lieu of BOTH the sugar AND 1 egg (1:1), and (b) use 2 tbsp nut/seed butter in lieu of 1 egg. Use boiled flax seeds or commercial egg-replacer if you like, but this is the way I do it.
[5] Think red currants, rhubarb, fiddlehead greens (AKA: ostrich ferns), Vietnamese garlic (“garlic chives”), grapes, and maybe a serviceberry, super-dwarf apple, or other 8′ fruit tree for the perenials plus stuff like rubby chard and Tuscan kale – maybe in hanging baskets to that the slugs can’t get at them! – cherry tomatoes (they ripen MUCH faster and are good for our short growing season), cucumbers, winter squash, pole beans, and Various Herbs for the annuals.
[6] Mulch and largely-subteranean water reservoirs – AKA 2L pop bottles with drainage holes (and sponges) in the bottom, burries up to their necks in the dirt – are SO your friends when it comes to making gardening easier! Whether we’re talking in-ground or in containers. Seriously.

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