Before going to Pensacola this Christmas, I wanted to avoid some of the stress of previous visits having to do with meat. It was easier when I was a vegetarian, and my family eventually got used to thinking about swapping chicken stock for vegetable and so forth. But my "ethical carnivorism" of the past few years has been more of a head-scratcher for them.
Don't get me wrong — if I go to a dinner party and the hosts pull a roast chicken out of the oven, I don't ask whether it is pastured or free range and then lecture them on battery-cage horrors before picking up my fork. I just eat it. (Albeit as little as possible — visions of debeaked, half-bald chickens squawking in my head — as I can while still being polite.)
But at home, I don't buy, cook, or eat factory meat. Given the paucity of options for ethical meat at Granny Sweet-n-Sour's local Winn-Dixie — this was before I'd finally been to Ever'mans Co-op — I decided this Christmas I would make things easier for myself and just order enough pastured chicken, grass-fed beef, and humanely raised pork off the Internet to get my family through the week.
I started shopping by reading the multistate provider list at Eatwild.com. Since we wanted a roast beef that would feed eight people for Christmas dinner with leftovers, plus chicken and pork, my options appeared somewhat limited. I really wanted to try the beef from American Grassfed Beef in Missouri, having been impressed by an interview I'd read with rancher Patricia Whisnant, but she didn't offer roasts. Alderspring Ranch, which earned top honors in a Slate.com steak taste test, did have roasts but not as big as we needed, nor any chicken or pork.
So I ended up going with U.S. Wellness Meats. Despite being initially put off by the collective's name and rather cheesy website, which features way too many exclamation points and questionable-sounding blurbs from weightlifters, they met my primary criteria. Although not certified organic, which would have been nice simply for third-party verification of their claims, they offer mini-profiles of the farmers who supply the beef (although not, oddly, the pork or chicken), emphasize that their cattle is not only grass-fed but grass-finished,that none of the animals eat animal byproducts, and that the chickens are raised on pasture and the hogs on dirt.
Good enough for me.
I ordered a 6-pound roast ($37) called "heart of shoulder," a cut with which I was unfamiliar but was described as a premium roast; a whole 5-pound chicken ($25), and two 1.85-pound pork tenderloins ($18 each). The prices may seem high, but they do include shipping; U.S. Wellness charges a flat $7.50 handling fee per order in addition.
The meat arrived promptly and quite frozen at Granny Sweet-n-Sour's by FedEx. We had the chicken first, after thawing it in the fridge. Its label said it was a free-range chicken from Grossman's of Preston, Iowa; I was unable to find out much about them. Roasted and rubbed with rosemary and butter, the chicken was really good, with a strong chicken-y flavor and plenty of meat — enough to feed seven people.
The pork was from Heritage Acres, whose website is short on details but claims to be a collective of family farms that do not practice confined feeding operations and use union labor. The tenderloins turned out to be bigger than I was expecting, and also very tasty: juicy, with lots of nutty, fatty flavor. For Christmas Eve dinner, my mother coated them with flour and roasted them too, then improvised a totally awesome accompanying compote from some dried pluots I'd brought from Blossom Bluff Orchards, wine, sugar, and butter. We had a whole tenderloin left over after, with which we made sandwiches for the rest of the week.
The roast beef was slightly disappointing to me. We coated it with salt, pepper, and a mixture of fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme, and roasted it until medium rare. While it was fork tender, I found the texture oddly mushy, almost spongy. I don't think it was the cut — on further research I believe "heart of shoulder" is the same as "shoulder center," which according to my new "Field Guide to Meat" is supposed to be similar in flavor and texture to top sirloin. In all fairness to U.S. Wellness Meats, the texture problem could have been a slicing-with-the-grain mistake, as we went at the roast from all directions trying to find well-done pieces for a particular Cuban picky eater among the group.
But also, the flavor was just not as … well, intensely "beefy" as I'm used to tasting with grass-fed meat. This could possibly be a function of the beef being wet aged instead of dry aged. U.S. Wellness vacuum-seals its primal cuts and leaves them for a few weeks to allow natural enzymes to break down the collagen and tenderize the meat before it is cut into the subprimal portions. However, I'm used to dry-aged meat like Marin Sun Farms' beef, in which the beef is hung exposed to cold air and loses a lot of its moisture, intensifying the flavor. (Read more about the differences between the two processes.)
That said, both the Dairy Queen Mother and my Auntie Pathy, who have both had grass-fed meat before, thought the roast beef was very good and disagreed that the texture and flavor were unusual.
All in all, I estimate we got about 40 servings for my $102 investment in ethical meat for the holidays. Which seems like a bargain to me!