Deep Thoughts for 2010: Foer, Atwood, Hoffman, Barber, and Eating Less Meat

Meat Thinkers: Dan Barber Discusses Humanely Raised Foie Gras. The chef is one of many who might agree that not all meat is created equal.

In The Year of the Flood—Margaret Atwood’s new biotech dystopia where people eat Zizzy Froot, Soybits and ChickieNobs—the heroine was once a “meat barista” at the preeminent fast food chain SecretBurgers. Later, she is rescued by God’s Gardeners, a vegan survivalist sect. On NPR, Atwood told a caller that she ate exclusively vegetarian during the writing and book tour, and was mostly vegetarian in real life.

Another author with meat—or lack thereof—on the mind is Jonathan Safran Foer, whose new book, Eating Animals (which the New Yorker called “a playful yet serious vegetarian manifesto”) dissects the myriad reasons that meat can be cruel, wasteful and unappetizing.

His writing is wonderful, of course. But he stabs at the heart of a premise of growing popularity in the good food movement: not all meat is created equal. Foer argues that eating meat is morally questionable, no matter how the animals are raised or slaughtered. I’m not sure most chefs or farmers or educated eaters in New York would agree.

Still, Foer’s book made Gotham caterer Liz Neumark reconsider her own eating. She is in the middle of “a vegetarian experiment,” not eating any meat herself, and recording in a notebook the flesh-eating habits of colleagues, friends and family.

It’s all part of an effort to assess if clients will mind if Great Performances, Neumark’s company that caterers 50 events in New York City each day, starts serving smaller portions of meat, more meat-less meals, or meat that costs more (perhaps because it has been raised with the environment and the animal in mind). “I’m not sure people want to do the $1000-a-ticket gala without a big steak on the plate,” she told me over a meatless lunch at Café Mae Mae, “but we buy a lot of meat each year, so we can help influence the market.”

Ethicureans have been debating the meat course for decades, but suddenly it feels like everyone is talking about it, and the sanity of eating less of it.

“I think we should be reducing portion size of all proteins in general,” said Peter Hoffman, adding that fish and meat portions at his restaurant Savoy have decreased in the last two decades. But the nuance remains. At a sustainable seafood conference a few years ago, Hoffman told me, “the thing with seafood is we need to eat more meat.”

“With land-based proteins we seem to have a better handle on how to do it right,” he told me recently. “For wild fish, aquaculture and maybe just the fact that below the surface we can see less, evaluation is more challenging. We need to rely on methods that are more studied and proven to be effective and sustainable—that is, land based.” And, regardless of portion control, the butchering that his chef Shanna Pacifico does at Back Forty (and any effort to use the whole animal) reduces waste—to make each ounce of meat raised go longer. “When people either pay more for their protein or buy proteins that are raised right and therefore cost more,” said Hoffman, “they have more flavor, are more cherished and satisfy more in smaller portions.”

Over at Chelsea Market, which just got a new butcher singing the mantra of transparency, Jake Dickson also suggests that there’s plenty of waste to trim in the meat system. He has been pushing the off-cuts, which he said more and more customers are willing to consider. But he is also installing hanging racks (which few city butchers have), which allow whole or part animals to be butchered with less waste and damage—not to mention less strain to the butcher’s back and shoulders.

Nearby, Mary Cleaver, who buys meat from local farmers, and who lent Dickson her catering kitchen to make bacon and pâté, said that customers are not only open to new riffs on meat, they are demanding it. At a recent banquet, she paired deconstructed coleslaw  with short ribs—a cut she wouldn’t have been able to move at this event years ago.

And to round out these meat-centric interactions, there was Blue Hill, where I ate recently with a friend who refuses to eat shrimp (on ethical grounds), but dies for foie gras. We asked the server whether Stone Barns was yet serving its own foie—long in the works between Dan Barber’s research on the subject in Spain and the workings of that beautiful Hudson Valley farm, where as Chef Dan or Farmer Craig Haney will explain, the livestock are an essential part of the ecology, an important economic product, and a welcome ingredient on the menu. There would be no force-feeding for these geese, but instead a thoughtful, naturally-fattening, grazing regimen.

Alas, the goose liver wasn’t ready yet, although the goose meat was being served. But Barber did send out tiny, wondrous and delicious squares of pig liver sandwiched between paper thin chocolate. Yep, (serving) size does matter.

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Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.