Eating meat with integrity
How I went from an ignorant meat shopper to a discerning supporter of organic practices.
Joel F. Brown
On a sunny day in the spring of 1986, I was brought home kicking and screaming to my home in the heart of Toronto’s Corso Italia. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a tax man at Canada Packer’s, and his forefathers tilled Ontario soil for generations to raise good, clean meat. As a chef who prepares meat every day—and who aims to do it with integrity—I would eventually follow their footsteps. Raised in the swell of a fast food nation, however, I had to find my way back to these roots on my own.
Learning to eat conscientiously didn’t come easy. At twenty, living in Montreal, I was subsisting off 99 cent pizza and dry bags of ramen while pursuing a degree in “the arts” and working as a dishwasher. Eventually, I traded my dishrags for knives and began slinging meat off a grill in a resto-club on St. Laurent. I loved the kitchen and began to take my work home with me, trying out new recipes on friends. One December evening, shopping for one of these dinner parties, I threw a cellophane-wrapped hunk of meat into my shopping cart and had an epiphany: I didn’t know anything about it. (It being a pale, greyish pink piece of meat arbitrarily labelled PORK.) I didn’t have any idea where it was from, what part of a pig I was going to be eating, or what kind of life it had lived. I took it home anyways, but every time I shopped after that, my discomfort grew. I decided then to make a change—if I was going to enter the binding contract that comes with being a carnivore (taking the life of another being to prolong my own), I wanted to find the most straightforward and caring approach.
My homework from the restaurant soon became my life’s work—the world lost another English Major, I enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and, after graduation, returned to Toronto to work for a “progressive butcher.” There, the learning curve was steep. Organic. Artisanal. Naturally raised. Terms that all sound similar, but an honest butcher must know the difference and use them accurately. Following that were anatomy lessons, learning my way around the structure of a carcass: blood, sinew, bone, fat and muscle. Seeing a carcass in its entirety gives you an appreciation for the fact that an animal has given up its life so that you can eat porchetta, for example. And you come to realize that this porchetta is made using part of the shoulder muscle. Changing your view of the word meat to muscle means you can logically connect it to the heart, tongue and tail—also all muscles. Understanding that, it’s then easier to believe that every part of the animal—nose to tail—should be used, respected and celebrated.
When receiving a week’s worth of meat orders, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of Ontario’s best farmers. And from them, I’ve learned the virtues of good animal husbandry—animals that have been raised in humane conditions, free from disease, apex predators, the stresses of the wild and fed with an ample supply of good, clean food and water. The nutritional benefits of organic meat for consumers are manifold: the meat has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (the ones that reduce inflammation and improve cognition); is less likely to contain superbugs due to overdosing with antibiotics; and the animal is more likely to have grazed on pesticide free feed. These same farmers have taught me about going “beyond organic,” the practice of integrating a farm into the ecosystem—using crop cycling and beekeeping, for example—instead of destroying it. In this way, the farm becomes a stand alone organism and the farmer gives back to the land that gives so much to us—a relationship lost on most living in the city.
After reintegrating into the world of fine dining, I’ve tried to work for employers who support these practices. I rest easy knowing that the meat I’m cooking for guests have been pasture-raised, without antibiotics or growth hormones, on low-impact farms. I eat far less meat than I used to, and when I eat it, I spend more money on it. When dining out, I choose restaurants that only use suppliers who ethically source their meat. It may sound difficult, but it’s worth it: the dense nutritional benefits, the natural flavour and the peace of mind are but a few of the great returns.
Joel Brown is a Toronto-based freelance chef and writer. He regularly does both of these things for Bespoke Craft Foods and Provisions Catering & Events. He is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu's cuisine program. For Modello, he writes regularly about ethical eating.