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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.