Hugo Kugiya, all rights reserved
The night after the slaughter, Bernie Nash does not sleep very much if at all, spending most of the evening packing small carcasses into boxes. Deep into the night, he drives his cargo three hours and nearly 200 miles from his farm in Ephrata to south Seattle, where he unloads his Ford pickup truck at a warehouse just as dawn breaks.
He makes this trip twice a week, sometimes adding a second drop of meat on Orcas Island before returning home to Ephrata, again in the dark.
Nash is the farmer of choice for many of the area’s fine restaurants, with names many of us know well, a real guy with a real farm who raises real animals. When we talk about fashionable concepts like organic, free range, and local, we are talking collectively about people more or less like Nash, a one-person operation mostly (he gets help from two of his children) that he calls Mad Hatcher Poultry.
"People these days just want to know where their food comes from," Nash said, "and who raised it and under what conditions. You don’t have to be certified organic to raise animals in a good husbandly way."
His distributor in Seattle is Corfini Gourmet, which buys most of his eggs and birds and sells them in smaller quantities to chefs and grocers. (In a nutshell, that is pretty much what goes on in the SoDo area of the city day after day; large amounts of things, be they fish, countertops, electrical cable, or fabric, get sold off in smaller amounts to individual merchants.) Nash's truck is a half-ton, which he is outgrowing. He is such a reliable supplier that Corfini intends to give him a used, refrigerated van to deliver his stock, which typically consists of a few thousand eggs.
He raises free-range chickens, killed and plucked hours before they arrive at Corfini, of various ages and sizes. The youngest and smallest chickens, about a month old and weighing a little more than a pound, are sold as poussin. Slightly larger chickens are sold as game hens, the largest as roasters. He also makes a November delivery of heritage-breed turkeys. But what sets him apart are the less common critters that are growing, albeit slowly, in popularity: squab, quail and rabbit. He raises all three mostly for high-end restaurants and sells them through Corfini.
Small game has been a part of traditional diets around the world for centuries (for example, guinea pig is relatively common food in South America, sparrows in Asia, rats in Africa) but is mostly absent from the modern American diet, which favors big animals and revolves around the trinity of beef-pork-chicken. Turkey hits the table once a year in whole form and hangs around the rest of the year in sliced-and-processed form. Duck makes a special guest appearance once in a while, as does lamb, and occasionally deer or venison. Elk, beefalo, ostrich, and alligator are about as exotic as meat gets, but like our mainstream meat, they are large animals. Even our preferred fish tends to be large: salmon, halibut, cod, tuna.
Our tendency toward large animals is probably related to our preference for filleted meat, and our denial mechanism that allows us to eat animals we do not recognize as such. A slab or rectangle of meat is less jarring, and easy on our senses. A halibut fillet does not look unlike a piece of tofu or a slice of bread, whereas there is no disguising a small critter served whole on the bone, which is about the only way you can serve something the size of squab or the even smaller quail.
Whether it out of habit or preference, or because of the head-and-bones issue (we don’t like them), we do not eat small animals. But if we care about sustainable animal husbandry, if we are trying to take back the night from Big Corporate Food Inc. (and the farmer’s markets on every avenue suggest we are), then perhaps we should, if only in the interests of diversity. With food and with stocks, the safer way to go is to diversify. Own a little bit of everything, and eat a little bit of everything.
Large animals provide a lot of protein but also consume a lot of resources and put a bigger dent in the ecosystem. Large species of fish tend to be overfished; small fish are plentiful, their flesh uncontaminated by industrial pollutants. The food industry tends to rely on specialization, efficiently producing a lot of one variety of crop or animal. But as we have come to discover, there is a price to pay for that kind of efficiency.
In the backlash against feedlot meat and bio-engineered food, what gets talked about the most are the harmful additives and the living conditions of animals. In other words, the culture of sustainable, ethical eating concentrates on the process instead of the product. Organic feed and grass-covered pastures are important, but they are not the only avenues to becoming smarter, more virtuous eaters.
How about making a point, when eating large beasts, to eat the entire beast? Who is the more honorable diner, the person who dutifully eats the intestines and stomach and head and tail of a feed-lot beast? Or someone who eats just the tenderloin of a grass-fed, pasture-raised ruminant? I vote for the guy who eats all the slippery, nasty parts of the animal from snout to rump.
As smug as Northwesterners can be about their food-chain politics, we do not always back them up with our stomachs. We might look for the wild-caught, free-range label, but we are still eating the same over-resourced animals everyone else is eating, and going for the same choice cuts.
If we eat tuna, we should eat not just the pristine fillet, but the collar and tail and head. If we eat steak, we should be willing to eat organs. And if we eat large animals, we should be willing to eat small ones too, which brings us back to the humble pigeon.
"I don’t think squab has hit Seattle very hard," said Sean So, the sales director for Corfini. "It's a seasonal, fine-dining dish. It's definitely not a pub dish. It's bigger in places like Chicago and New York."
Squab, by the way, is more or less the same animal as the familiar pigeons that flourish in our cities' parks and rooftops. Therein lies its marketing challenge. Weighing about a pound, a whole squab works well as a single portion of food. Stuffed, it is a fairly complete meal for one person.
Nash feeds his squab whole grains and peas. They grow quickly and can be slaughtered 25 to 38 days after hatching.
A mating pair of pigeons usually produces two offspring at a time, about 16 per year, and the birds care for their own young, making squab easy to raise from a farmer's perspective. People who cannot separate their sentiment from their appetite are going to hate this, but squab mate for life, Nash said. If one of a mating pair dies, the other will not mate with another partner and therefore stops reproducing.
From a consumer’s perspective, squab can be expensive and difficult to find. That could change if the meat becomes more popular. A catchy, marketing slogan would be a start. I have one: squab, the ultimate dark meat.
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