Tuesday, May 13, 2008

...for want of a hamburger...

Nick Ronfeld and Kim Stewart have their way with Chicken Marsala over Linguini

Where we used to TGIF immoderately and with great enthusiasm at the Back Home Café – the original – back in The Day, nowadays we’ve formed a habit of walking down to Sal’s South in Wallingford to have a carafe of red wine and a bite to eat. It’s a most enjoyable thing to do, as well as prudent if the carafe is a large one – we can walk home. Walking is good after celebrating, almost as good as dancing.

But the point of this whole thing is that I find myself unfairly stigmatized because I ordered a hamburger the other gorgeous evening, sitting on the big stone patio and watching the sunset. Yes, of course, Sal’s is known for their pasta dishes, the delicious Chicken Marsala (with mushrooms) over linguini, for instance. But sometimes a person just wants a bit of protein without all the starch and cream so, though I searched the menu over for that very thing and did not find it, I knew there must be a hamburger hiding there somewhere.

Not only that, but Kim, who once was my favorite waitress in the world, waited patiently while I said I wanted a hamburger, even egged me on, asked me, with one arched eyebrow, “And how would you like that done,” and stood by patiently as I decided that it would be medium instead of medium rare, and asked her – rather, told her – that of course that would be free-range beef, right? Maybe from Ann Tiplady’s farm down on Hartsboro. “Oh,” I added, no bun, of course, but “with a thick slice of onion?” Kim stood there with her pen held over her pad. I noticed she wasn’t writing. It was getting busy. She’d humored me enough. She has a baby at home, and a husband, and a life, and customers clamoring at every table before she could go home to them. Everyone was looking at me. “What?” I said. “What!”

“I’m waiting to find out what you’re really going to order,” said Kim.

“I’m ordering...” I began. God, I’m slow.

I ended up with an appetizer portion of meatballs, mostly because I’d held everyone up for too long already. They weren’t exactly what I was looking for. That would’ve been the dark, crusty, salty bite through the hamburger’s well-grilled outside to the spilling of pink-to-red juiciness inside, complemented by the crisp sweetness of the onion.

Well, Sal’s might never have stooped to serve a hamburger – as everyone and his brother have told me gleefully since – but times are’a changing, and maybe they should.

...jiggidy jig...

Perhaps you don’t know how Sal’s got its start. It was on Friday Nights at the Back Home Café – the real Back Home Café, started by Will Patten back in 1971 – when Sal Gullo started hand-making pizza with a genuine, hippy-dippy whole-wheat crust. Friday nights were live music nights at the BHC, and a pizza or two along with a jug of wine was the perfect stimulus to get you out on the floor dancing your fool head off, then back to the table for a sip and a bite. Some of you remember, eh? It was great fun, kids and all. We lived in Rutland then, on Oak Street, so it was by way of Shanks Mare or bicycle that we got home again, jiggidy jig.

In the way of things, that tradition ended but, soon afterward, Sal and Jack Elliott started Sal’s Italian Restaurant – somewhere around 1977 out on Woodstock Avenue – serving hearty home-made and home-inspired food in the Italian manner. Not too long after that they moved to their long-time home on West Street. Jack Elliot, who’s no longer involved, reminded me the other day that it was the first non-smoking restaurant in Rutland, maybe even in Vermont. And I do remember conversations revolving around that very thing: “Let’s go get a Sal’s pizza.” “Yeah, but you can’t smoke there.” “Oh, right.”

Jerry Kyhill, along with Steve (Rebo) Abraham, bought Sal out in ’81, then Nick Ronfeld bought out Rebo 11 years ago, and Jerry and Nick started the Wallingford’s Sal’s in 2001. Got that straight? Well, in any case, they must be doing something right. They’ve been around for a long time.
Stone patio at Sal's South in Wallingford

A few nights after my gaffe on the stone steps of Sal’s South, I told the story to a few friends over cocktails down at the beach. Carol said, thoughtfully, “We had some of Ann Tiplady’s hamburgers last night, and they were good, but I couldn’t really tell any difference between that grass-fed beef and what you get in the grocery store. A little more expensive.” As it turned out, Leo and I had Ann Tiplady’s hamburgers the night before, too. I thought they were juicier and also crumblier, probably due to the fact that store-bought meat is fattier and mushes together more. Otherwise I couldn’t tell the difference in taste between grass-fed and the best commercial hamburger that I used to get at the Locker, but I am perhaps more aware than most people of the way factory farmed beef is raised, and I am increasingly reluctant to buy it and eat it.


A pound of hamburger from the supermarket, or even from your local butcher, is not meat from one cow, but rather a mixture of several, possibly hundreds, with perhaps traces of thousands.

A typical beef was born out west somewhere, in Colorado or Montana or the Dakotas, and lived the life of Riley for the first 6 months, with its mother, nursing at will, roaming the grasslands it fed on as it was designed to do, free as a bird.

Then things began to get a little rough. First of all it was weaned, taken from its mother, put into a pen and taught to supplement its grass with grain and corn. After a month or so there, it was shipped to a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) somewhere, most likely Kansas, where it was confined in even more crowded conditions with huge numbers of other cattle, wading around not in grass but in excrement – they slept in it too – and were fed even more grain and corn.

The centerpiece of the CAFO is the feed mill. On one side of the mill, tractor trailers feed 50 tons of corn into it every hour upon the hour. On the other side, tanker trucks pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat – often beef fat, in spite of the danger of disease from cannibalizing beef – and protein supplements made of molasses and urea, which is a form of synthetic nitrogen made from natural gas, similar to fertilizer spread on corn fields.

All of this is mixed with synthetic vitamins and the hormone, estrogen, as well as the antibiotics Rumensin and Tylosin. A cow was designed to eat grass; making them eat corn and grain makes them sick. Most of the antibiotics sold in America today go into animal feed. It’s as simple as that.

This sludge is fed to the animals in confinement before they are slaughtered for our dining enjoyment. Immobile confinement and a diet of grain and corn and antibiotics and hormones gets a beef to slaughter in 16 months where it used to take anywhere from 2 to 5 years.

Read that again, and repeat after me: We are What We Eat and We Are What We Eat Eats, too.

In the grasslands, on the home ranch, the sun shone, the grass grew, the cattle ate it, created cow-plops which fertilized the grassland, completing the great cycle of nutrition naturally. In the CAFO the great lakes of manure created by these confined and poisoned animals cannot be spread on neighboring farmers’ fields for it burns and poisons them, too. What is done with it? Well, besides it seeping into waterways downstream, I don’t know – it’s a little like burying spent rods from Vermont Yankee on the bank of the Connecticut River. It creates big sores in the earth’s hide that are not capable of healing themselves, and the infection spreads into our waterways and air.

Michael Pollan didn’t seem to know either – he followed his steer and the corn it would die on, but he seemed not to’ve gotten too far with that manure lagoon. For this short outline of our meat’s origins, I am heavily indebted to Michael Pollan for his thorough research in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In it he outlines several different meals and traces the components of them from sun to grass to table. The industrial meal, involving corn and beef, is an eye opener involving the mass poisoning of the American people and their air and water and land by a few companies, notably Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland who, in the midst of hunger riots, recently announced record-breaking profits.

I’ve been quoting from the Omnivore’s Dilemma since it was published, and I’ve skipped around in it, but only recently sat down and read it from cover to cover. It’s absolutely breathtaking – I know a lot of you have it in your To Be Read pile, and I encourage you to read it now. The facts are so horrific in our food industry that sometimes your eyes glaze over because it’s like everything else – it’s too big, it’s too hard to grasp, “there’s nothing I can do!” But we can do something, we can not buy industrial food, we can vote with our pocketbooks.

Ann Tiplady’s Red Houses Farm beef spends its whole life, like the first six months of the industrial steer, munching grass. If she had her druthers, though, she’d rather have a portable slaughtering station so the beef wouldn’t be stressed out at the end of its life by being loaded on a truck and shipped to a strange, grassless place to be slaughtered. Ann sells her beef at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, both inside and out.

Ann Tiplady's ladies amble down the path to pasture

And that’s the hamburger I was envisioning as I sat out front of Sal’s South the other night. Owner, Jerry Kyhill tells me I might have to wait a long time. “We’re an Italian restaurant,” he says. “We don’t do hamburgers!” but then he tells me, “Give me some advance notice...” Please, Jerry, I’ll spend more for a grass-fed hamburger. All around me people are eating pasta or pizza for $8 to $15: I’d gladly buy into a really good hamburger for that! And sometimes I’d gladly go for Jerry’s favorite Shrimp Fra Diablo. “It’s spicy shrimp over spaghetti – nothing out of the ordinary, but tasty. Really good,” he tells me.

Leo loves the Fettuccini Alfredo, and we often order pizza, either out or in. Nick Ronfeld is the chef who divides his time, as does Jerry, between Sal’s South and Sal’s Rutland, and his favorite dish is Shrimp and Scallops in Spicy Red Clam Sauce over Linguini. Yup, I’d go for that, too, occasionally.

Kim Stewart (okay, I still adore her – who could resist the deadpan manner in which she led me on) says the pizza is great! She, and her husband, are excellent cooks, too.

...what if?...

If I had my ‘druthers, smaller local restaurants like Sal’s would use more local ingredients, including chicken and beef and other meats, as well as vegetables and fruit in season. Nick looks thoughtful at that heartfelt sentiment, and then repeats the mantra – “It’s a matter of cost – we can’t keep competitive unless everyone else used local ingredients too.”

Of course, what’s really expensive is industrial food. The system is not sustainable and it’s making the American people sick – both long term, with all the chronic diseases we have, which include diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, cancer, and depression, as well as the various psychic illnesses our kids are prone to, and it sickens the animals, the land and the economy, as well. At some point we will have to make other arrangements, and the sooner the better. What if all the smaller, local restaurants – Sal’s, Sabby’s, Back Home Again, Constantino’s, formed a little union and vowed to keep up with each other buying local food?

Someone tossed of a figure out to me the other day – one of our supermarkets sells $250,000 worth of produce a week, and ninety-nine percent of that money goes out of state and to big corporations. What if we in the Rutland area took even one quarter of that business and gave it to our farmers at the Farmers’ Market or the Co-op? That money would stay in the area and support our farmers, our health, and our landscape, as well as our economy. What if Diamond Run Mall allowed a farmer to put some cows to graze on that big grassy area that surrounds it? They’d save a whole lot of money on chemical fertilizers and lawn mowing, for sure. What if, instead of yet another MALL (yet another mall?) proposed for the area across Rt 7 from Diamond Run at the intersection of Rt 4 – what if there were cows and tracts of vegetable fields, and incubator farms? Even fruit trees? What a statement that would make to visitors coming into Rutland! What a reminder that would make to each and every one of us which side of our bread the butter is on! What a valuable resource for new farmers and people wanting to eat locally!

Yet another mall? As the same person commented rather inelegantly – “Who needs more CRAP?!” That made me remember an incident that happened a month or so ago when we were driving from Portsmouth up to Portland on 95 in a heavy, wet blizzard. Humongous trucks flew by us with all the confidence in the world, and the last, that added such insult to injury that we got off at the next exit and made the rest of the way on Rt. 1, was a Frito-Lay truck that completely whipped our small car with slush. Yup. Fritos gotta get through in spite of rain or sleet or snow.

But of course Nick has a point – Sal’s probably wouldn’t be able to stay in business if its prices were higher than other restaurants who continued to serve industrial food. Why don’t you guys get together and get with the program? I urge you to. We have to start somewhere.

...thank you, mr. pollan...

“So yes, you should eat mostly plants, but if you’re going to eat meat, your meat should eat mostly plants. And I think that’s really a big part of where we’ve gone wrong with raising cattle in this country: feeding them grain.” Michael Pollan in an interview by Gourmet magazine.


Kitten Sink said...

Your ideas for the intersection of seven and 4--yes! An pact between restaurants to serve locally grown and humane and healthy food--right on! We need to work together! Thank you for writing this! (!)

Kitten Sink said...

Oh, this too. . . Farmers need our support, and it seems that the only responsible thing to do is pony up, much to the benefit of our economy, local food sources, our bodies and minds. I guess I'm glad, in a way, that you didn’t mention the poor industrial beef cattle being pushed around by fork lifts and walking on the backs of their knees down the killing shoot—you kept it positive. Basically. And you don't want people to be put off their lunch while reading a food column, although, the image is enough to make me think more than twice when I’m at the grocery store. Every time I want a hamburger, I think of that one cow with her knees bent backward and I put the meat down and step away.

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Thank you, my dear little Kitten Sink. Your words are always so freakin wise. LYM