Friday, April 6, 2012

Meat and potatoes

Meat and potatoes have gotten a bad rap over the years, and they don’t deserve it. I’ve changed how I source and prepare my food so that I can be sure it’s good, healthy food, all the way to its source. Your meat and potatoes are probably going to kill you, but it’s not for the reasons you might think.

Frying potatoes in freshly rendered suet
Let’s start with the potatoes. How do you take your spuds: pre-fried and then individually quick frozen? Pre-fried, frozen, and then refried? Mash from a box? Unless you’re buying organic, chances are your convenience potatoes are grown with an eye for convenience to the supply chain rather than nutrition and flavor. Conventional agricultural practice requires so many toxic pesticides that potatoes are on the EWG’s “dirty dozen” list of vegetables you should never buy from conventional growers. Who does buy from conventional growers are the commercial producers of potato products: the companies that sell you frozen fast food French fries, hash browns, potato chips and other industrial potato products. And it’s not just the cheap meals that are made with conventional potatoes: just about every restaurant uses conventional produce and frozen convenience foods. Whether you’re washing down drive-thru hash browns with coffee, having a bag of chips with your sandwich, or order a baked potato with your steak dinner, the potato is likely to have been conventionally grown in a monoculture of Russet Burbanks that are sprayed with poisons, as well as being genetically modified to make their own pest killing chemicals.

Doesn’t that sound delicious?

Then there’s the frying oil. If you’re old enough and were raised within a few miles of a McDonald’s, you can remember what potatoes fried in beef fat smell like. According to “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, for decades McDonald’s used a mixture of mostly beef fat with some cottonseed oil to fry their famous shoestring potatoes. In 1990, they switched to pure vegetable oil, although they still add “natural flavor” from “an animal source” to their French fries to evoke that beefy flavor and odor. Vegetable oil might be a step up from shortening, which really will kill you, but it’s still several steps back from the healthiest frying choice: their original, beef fat.

People have only started using large amounts of vegetable oils recently. In antiquity, we ate oils from fruits like the olive, which are evidently oily to the casual observer, and can be pressed by hand. The kinds of vegetable oils used today in great quantities, like canola and cottonseed, are extracted from tiny, hard seeds using pressure and heat, changing the chemical structure of the oil and generally making it rancid. Rancid oils are carcinogens. Wellness Mama’s blog post on why you should never eat vegetable oil or margarine includes a flow chart the describes the process of manufacturing vegetable oil. Margarine is typically made from hydrogenated vegetable oil (like Crisco) and has had its fats warped in such a way that they are recognized as harmful: New York City banned trans fats in city restaurants in 2008.

Dr. Mercola points out that Crisco was originally developed for candlemaking, but when that industry declined in favor of electric light, they began marketing it as a healthy alternative to saturated animal fats. Suet has also been used in candlemaking. It is very firm and waxy, and once rendered, is snowy white in color. Old-school cooks in the South and elsewhere swear by rendered animal fats for the flakiest pie crusts and light, crispy fried fish.

Two hundred years ago in Ireland, a family could support itself in good health on an acre of potatoes and a milk cow. Potatoes are a nutritious food, not only energy dense, but full of potassium, vitamin A, protein, and fiber. Raw dairy supplied more protein and other vitamins, as well as the saturated fat essential to life. 

Traditionally raised and prepared pork ribs, collards, and fried potatoes
A hundred years ago, people ate virtually no vegetable oils, and the average American ate about 18 pounds of butter a year. Today, people eat half that amount of butter, but have added 70 pounds of vegetable fat a year to their diets.

The idealized diet in the West now looks like a meal you can buy at McDonald’s: a small amount of lean flesh from grain fed animals (like a chicken breast or beef patty), and the rest of the diet being made up of high-density vegetable fat, like cooking oil, and carbohydrates from vegetable sources, either naturally dense or made so with refining: the white flour bun, soda, and fries. This is a long way from a buttered roasted potato, as it was commonly eaten and enjoyed two hundred years ago, in every regard: ratios, sources, methods, the length and complexity of the chain from soil and sun to dinner plate.

This week, I made a dinner of French fries fried in freshly rendered beef fat, and slow-cooked pork ribs, with a side of slaw. The next night, I ate the leftovers with some garlicky collard greens. The fried potatoes were surprisingly light, not greasy, and the scent reminded me of how fries used to taste when I was a kid. The ribs, from a locally raised pig that foraged, were strong in pig flavor and muscle fiber, not mushy like grain fed pork can be after slow cooking. The meat was delicious and tender and pulled away from the bone cleanly.

This weekend, having ground beef, bacon, mushrooms, Cheddar, suet, and potatoes all on hand, I will probably make a gluten-free equivalent of the fast food classic: a beef burger with all the fixings, and a large serving of French fries. The meat isn’t going to kill us, any more than the fat will, because we’re supposed to eat animals that lived naturally. The ground beef and tallow both came from a grass-fed bull. I might eat some kale with it, but I don’t need to add greens to redeem this meal. Food made the right way, all the way back to its origins in the Earth, will nourish, and I can trust my senses to tell me when I’ve had enough of any part of it. A restaurant meal can end in bloat and regret, but this never seems to happen when I make it myself from scratch.

A meal of conventionally raised meat and potatoes can look identical to one prepared with the right ingredients. Thanks to the flavor industry, you may even be fooled into thinking they taste very similar. Yet the two meals can be different in every important and measurable way, from its genetics, to the health of the organisms when they were alive, to its current chemical composition and nutritional profile. These differences extend to including whether the two meals in question---one produced traditionally, the other, produced industrially---will feed you or poison you, and in what measure they will satisfy and nourish, or discomfort and deplete.