Kansas may be the beef capital (PDF) of the United States, but people here aren't necessarily eating beef from the neighborhood.
To introduce people in the Lawrence area to local meats — including many that are not from cattle — the Downtown Lawrence Farmers Market had its third annual "Local Meat: It's What's for Dinner" promotion and demonstration this past weekend. Mercedes Taylor-Puckett, the market manager, says the meat sampling is the market's most popular annual event, now that more people are becoming aware of industrial meat production. Perhaps Kansas is the king of beef because its ranches and feedlots are links to the old cattle drives. Fortunately, the miles of prairie grasses, which have always made Kansas a good place for ranches, largely remain. Thus, Kansas still is a good place for grass-fed and grass-finished beef, as well as the giant industrial feed yards.
The Lawrence market includes nine meat vendors, and local meat queen Hilary Brown, founder of Local Burger, prepared local meats from seven of them in a variety of ways to teach shoppers the possibilities. The samples ranged from the relatively mundane (hamburger patties) to the outright exotic (for most people), elk heart. The menu:
Hundreds of people worked their way past the samples. Taylor-Puckett said about 400 sampling plates were used, and quite a few people skipped the plates and just used picks to get their samples. One of the things I love about the farmers market is the way it draws customers from across the economic, political, and ethnic spectrum (although the ethnic spectrum here is relatively narrow). Given the nature of that customer base, I might have expected people to be timid about trying exotica. I was wrong.
By the time I arrived to help at 9 a.m. for the 8 a.m.-10 a.m. sampling, the bison meatballs and roast were gone, the chicken salad was gone, and there were just a few bits of goat ribs left (and my sample was delicious). When it was over at 10, the only things left were a few elk steak samples remaining from the dozen steaks that Brown grilled, some elk paté, and hamburger samples. I guess everybody knows what ground beef tastes like. The paté and the heart probably got bypassed by more people than any of the other products. The people who tried it, though, were enthusiastic. I'm among those who hesitates at organ meats (which I recognize I probably need to eat if I'm going to eat the rest of an animal), but I sampled the elk heart after listening to Brown's enthusiastic description to passersby of its being "like really rich steak." Tasted to me like liver, not my fave.
It was fun to compare the two kinds of summer sausage (the emu version was spicier), and to watch people's reactions, which were pleased, occasionally surprised and, rarely, negative. In fact, Don Edmonds of Rocky Hills Elk Ranch said afterward he doesn't usually bring heart to the market, but he did this week and sold several pounds of it.
Brown, who is four weeks from her first child's due date, warned customers that they would get pregnant if they ate elk, but that didn't seem to stop anyone. She gamely shared her techniques for cooking the meats with her cardinal rule against overcooking these products; they'll dry out because they're so lean. Presumably, slow-cooked with a sauce, as for the two bison dishes, which Terri Gibbs of Lone Star Lake Bison Ranch prepared, is an exception.
As everyone was cleaning up, Brown and Taylor-Puckett already were talking about next year, maybe offering breakfast-type fare, such as pork sausage and eggs. I guess we'll have to wait and see. The other contributing vendors were: