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.
Rich and succulent, most of a squab’s meat comes from the breast and haunches. It is lean, reddish-brown in color, dense with a flavor that gently borders on that of beef liver. The skin is delicate. Restaurants that serve it tend to be fancy restaurants, but there is a more modest option: Chinese restaurants.
While they are on many Chinese menus, squab are not huge sellers. I ate a whole, roasted squab, scented with five-spice, at Bamboo Village near Green Lake for about $13. Listed as a house special, it is served in quarters and includes the head, beak and all. It is hard to go wrong with a Chinese chef. The squab at Bamboo Village was tender and not over-seasoned and retained all its juices.
Quail is also typically a fine-dining option but can be eaten less expensively at Asian restaurants. The Lemongrass Vietnamese restaurant near Seattle University has a marinated, grilled quail appetizer (two for $6.50) on its menu. Quail meat is lighter in color than squab, and closer in flavor perhaps to chicken. Only a few nibbles of meat come from a quail’s limbs and thighs. Most of the meat, about four bites worth, comes from the breast. The meat is surprisingly dense with a subtle mineral flavor.
Rabbit, it seems, remains a fine-dining option only, although it can be purchased uncooked at the HT supermarket on Aurora Avenue North and 100th Street. There is another option: raising your own. For the urban or suburban hobby farmer, there are few animals easier to raise.
Rabbits consume grass, alfalfa, and vegetable scraps, and yield about the same amount of meat as a chicken. Rabbit meat is very lean, with a firm texture and a sweet flavor that resembles chicken. They breed like proverbial rabbits; a doe can give birth to eight kits at a time, three times a year. Rabbits are easier to harvest than chickens (no plucking required) and mature to slaughter weight in two months. (A heritage breed chicken can take up to six months to reach slaughter weight.)
"Eating small animals does make more sense," said Washington native and urban farmer Novella Carpenter, who raises rabbits among other creatures on a 4,500-square city lot in her blighted Oakland, Calif., neighborhood. "They are less energy-intensive. You don't have to clear a rain forest to raise them. You can raise them on your deck or in a shady spot in your yard."
It seems unlikely, however, that the backyard, urban chicken craze will quickly lead to an urban rabbit movement because of the animal’s particular public-relations issue: rabbits are cute.
"People are getting more creative; if something bad happens, maybe guinea pigs (as food) will become hot,” said Carpenter, who studied journalism at Cal-Berkeley under famous food journalist Michael Pollan and wrote a book called "Farm City," a memoir about her urban farm. "But assuming there's no apocalypse, I doubt people will raise more rabbits for eating. It's very controversial."
"I’m very fearful I’m going to get hate mail when people read this," she said. "I mean, it's funny but it's not. It's really scary. I've had people threaten me. The House Rabbit Society has an amazing phone network."
Carpenter's farm has come to include bees, turkeys, chickens, duck, geese, goats, and pigs, all of which forced her to face the reality of what being an omnivore means.
"If you eat meat, something cute dies," Carpenter said. "Pigs are really cute too …"
"If you're randomly eating anything that comes across your plate, and not thinking about it, that's not good. We have to ask ourselves why we eat meat, and think about the ramifications. We might eat less meat if we all did that."
If you go: Bamboo Village, 4900 Stone Way North, Seattle, 206-632-8888. Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; open 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Lemongrass (three locations): 514 12th Avenue, 206-860-8164; 1207 South Jackson Street, 206-568-8788; and 365 South Grady Way in Renton, 425-228-2000; www.originallemongrass.com. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.