Monday, April 19, 2010

Talking to the butcher

After years of buying my meat from the last local butcher in Chicago (well, not quite, there are lots of carnicerias in my neighborhood, my Spanish just isn't good enough), I switched to the mail-order meat from for the past couple of months.

I can't tell you how guilty I felt about this, because I basically abandoned a local, multiple-generation, family-owned business that I feel very strongly about supporting. He knows me by name. I know when his daughter got married, and his grandchildren's ages. He remembers where my kids are traveling. It finally occurred to me, duh, to switch all my paper goods and cleaning supply purchases to him; I'm not even sure why I wasn't buying these things from him anyway.

Today I went in for the first time in nearly three months. Of course, being a neighborhood butcher, he immediately wanted to know where I'd been, and how the kids were. So I took a deep breath and fessed up. "I stopped buying from you because I don't know where your meat comes from, or what's in it."

And I got an education.

He knows where his chickens come from, because they come from a local, sustainable farm. He can do this because his customers seem to tolerate the slightly higher price of these birds. But pork and beef are too expensive to buy from known provenance; in fact, as he explained, it's impossible for him to know the original farm source of his beef and pork. He buys from an abattoire that doesn't give that information. This was new information-- that butchers don't necessarily know the source of their meat because of the way the slaughtering industry is set up. It makes me admire the effort that has gone into setting up this alternative slaughterhouse system that tracks the meat back to its farm source. I just never thought about it before, which I suppose is the entire problem with our food system. No one thinks about it.

I will tell you, if you're lucky enough to be able to have this conversation with your butcher, he will look at you like you're crazy. I hope more people do this, so maybe these small stores will start buying meat from certified organic/sustainable slaughterhouses.

I'm going to switch my chicken purchases, and special-order meats for holidays back to Don down the block. I'll buy my dry goods and paper products from him. Supporting locally owned businesses is part of the new web we're trying to create, after all.

Shredded Chicken and Pearl Barley with spring vegetables

• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 large yellow onion, diced
• 4-5 celery stalks, with leaves, diced
• 5 large garlic cloves, finely minced
• 2-3 large carrots, peeled and diced
• 1 medium sweet potato, diced (I used apples, having no sweet potatoes at hand)
• 2 tablespoons dried thyme
• 1 tablespoon dried sage
• 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
• 1 tablespoon dried fennel
• 1 cup pearl barley
• 32 oz. chicken or vegetable broth or stock
• 2 1/2 cups cooked, shredded organic chicken breast
• 2-3 cups peas (didn't have any-- I used swiss chard)
• sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

*Note- this dish is so versatile. Any combination of vegetables and spices may be used. Tofu may also be substituted for the chicken, if desired.

The recipe didn't say how the chicken got cooked, so I've added that step.

In a large stock pot over medium heat add the olive oil until shimmering but not smoking. Brown the chicken (cook on each side until the skin "releases" the pan; about 5 minutes per side).

Add the onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent - about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, carrots and sweet potatoes and cook for about 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the thyme, sage, rosemary, fennel and barley and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add broth/stock and stir to incorporate. Bring to a boil and reduce to low heat to simmer. Cover and let cook for 20-25 minutes or until liquid is reduced and barley is cooked through.

Add chicken if using pre-cooked, otherwise remove the chicken, allow to cool then debone and shred it (make stock for a future meal with the bones and skin). Put it back in the pot with the peas or other greens, sea salt and pepper and stir to combine. Cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and re-season if necessary.


  1. Good for you for having the conversation. After watching Food Inc last night on PBS (again) I can understand how he does not know where his beef and pork come from. Our food system is so screwed up!

    Supporting local businesses is so important...

  2. It's an important conversation to have. Especially since on Tuesday I watched Frontline's "Earth Days" about how the energy giants screwed us over, and yesterday I watched "Food, Inc." Today I am so angry at how our elected officials and businesspeople betrayed us. We are not going to get any help from them, because they cannot see past their next bribe, ahem, campaign contribution. We need to talk to the people who can and will act, out of community and compassion.