My first inkling that I was getting in over my head was farmer John Priske’s incredulous tone on the other end of the line. “How many kids do you have to feed?” he asked. None, I said. It was just my wife and me. “Do you understand what we’re selling you here?”
I thought I did. For a while now, I’d wanted to buy a side of beef directly from a farmer. That is, a steer cut down the middle. I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy, but after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and learning about the horrors of modern industrial feedlots and mad cow, I was leery of supermarket meat. I’d love to eat Whole Foods grass-fed beef. But rib-eyes there are $14.99 a pound—much more than I can afford on a regular basis. I’d heard tales of people saving buckets of money by buying entire sides of beef. The thought of having frozen great-quality meat all year round sounded magical.
To start my quest, I visited the Madison, Wisconsin, farmers’ market. A farmer there turned me on to Eat Wild, a website that lists hundreds of farm and retail outlets in every state that sell grass-fed beef. From there, I phoned a dozen farms before deciding on Priske and his Fountain Prairie Farms, in Fall River, Wisconsin, almost three hours north of Chicago.
Fountain Prairie has over 250 Scottish Highland cattle, a lean heritage breed that lives well outdoors because of its thick fur. Though purely grass-fed beef contains less fat and more nutrients than beef from cattle that were raised on corn, raising cattle on grass is arguably more ethical (as they have four stomachs designed to eat grass; corn-fed cattle are usually raised in a factory-farm situation). But a lot of people complain the meat’s so lean that it’s tough and flavorless. Being a first-time pasture-raised-beef buyer, I decided to hedge my bet. Priske’s cattle are raised on grass but are “corn finished.” That means the cattle eat grain mixed with their normal grass diet for the last few months of their lives, which makes the meat more fatty. (Niman Ranch raises its cattle this way. That seemed to make it OK.)
When I called Priske, he told me I’d be charged by the “hanging weight,” as is customary on many small farms: by the weight of the animal after it’s been slaughtered but before it’s been butchered. They’d dry-age the meat for better flavor before butchering, and it would lose 10 percent of its weight. A lot of the animal would get tossed in the butchering process that I’d wind up paying for. Even so, it seemed like a shockingly good deal, at $4 a pound.
Despite my enthusiasm, Priske couldn’t quite believe I knew what I was doing. Nobody had called with a request like mine in years.
“Do you know how much an entire side of beef is?” he asked. “Do you know how much 200 pounds of meat is?”
Where’s the Beef?
I’d heard about families who buy sides or quarters of beef and rent freezer space from their butcher to store them in. I called every butcher in Chicago I could find, but none of them would rent me freezer space. The website of the Fulton Market Cold Storage Co. company in the meatpacking district says, “No job too big or small,” but the owner didn’t want to lease me space until I helpfully reminded him about the slogan. He sighed, “You’re right.” But the smallest size I could rent was one pallet at $100 a month.
Fortunately, I found a five-cubic-foot chest freezer at Sears. That, with my refrigerator’s freezer, would, I hoped, be just big enough for the 200 pounds of meat I was about to acquire.
A few weeks later I drove to the farm to pick up my meat, which had been butchered and frozen in anticipation of my arrival. Pulling into the Priskes’ drive, I was confident that I’d made a good choice. They live in a Victorian house on several hundred acres of green, rolling farmland in central Wisconsin filled with shaggy, golden-haired cows lazily chewing their cud.
The Priskes had lunch laid out for me, and while we ate, they filled me in on the steer I had bought (now dead), whose name had been Prairie Red Oak. He’d once been entered in a Scottish Highland competition, but unfortunately for him, he didn’t win and was put out to pasture as steer #400.
The Priskes work with a federally inspected slaughterhouse. That means they can ship meat over state lines. Other small farmers exercise a loophole in federal inspection law whereby people can purchase either all or a share of a live animal, and then come get the meat after it’s been slaughtered in a facility that’s not federally inspected. While it’s illegal to sell uninspected meat to the public, it’s perfectly legal to eat a farm animal you already own.
Priske opened his big freezer unit and took out six big cardboard boxes full of packages of meat. His butcher labeled each package with the cut inside: chuck roast, heart, and so on. Riffling through the boxes, I counted 120 packages. There were 31 steaks, 11 roasts, soup bones, heart, tongue, liver, and 60 pounds of ground beef. As I loaded up the trunk of my rental car, it finally began to hit me: This was a lot of meat.
He’d once been entered in a Scottish Highland competition, but unfortunately for him, he didn’t win and was put out to pasture as steer #400.
Not Steak Again
The next day, I looked inside my packed my freezer and thought, “Gee, I hope it tastes good.” At first I didn’t know how to cook the meat. Grass-fed beef is leaner than corn fed. Even though mine was corn-finished, I noticed it was redder and had less marbleization.
The first hamburgers I cooked up were dry. Uh-oh. Then I eased up on cooking times so as not to dry out the meat. I learned how to add a little cream to burgers to compensate for their lack of fat, and a little onion for more juiciness. I also started quickly searing off my steaks. When I did these things, the meat was the most delicious I’d ever had. Full of flavor and juicy, with a good, chewy texture.
But there are a lot of ho-hum cuts in a side of beef. Like the heart, kidneys, and liver. No matter how much you like hamburgers, 60 pounds of ground beef is a lot. And there are a lot of unusual cuts, like shanks, that I had no idea what to do with. I would’ve preferred more filet mignon.
No matter how much you like hamburgers, 60 pounds of ground beef is a lot.
Then there was the sheer amount. After three weeks, my wife and I had eaten only a tiny fraction. At that rate, it would take us over a year to finish all the meat. And you really can’t keep it in a freezer longer than a year. I started dreaming of steak, but not in a good way—in an “I have to get rid of this” way.
So I decided to throw a beef party. I borrowed two crock pots and went to work. Hours over the stove produced chili, Italian beef, steak-and-kidney pie, beef bourguignon, and spicy beef short ribs. I invited seven of my friends and family members over, and everyone crammed into our little kitchen and started eating.
My wife made gift bags with spices, a beef recipe, and a couple of pounds of frozen ground beef that the guests were required to take home. We also loaded them up with cooked meat in Tupperware.
At the end of the night, I had unloaded only 50 pounds. I still had easily 100 left.
In the course of my research, I learned there are more sensible ways to buy a side of beef. The aptly named Angus MacDonald organizes a “beefening” each year, in which a group of 20 friends in New York City and Brooklyn split several sides of beef acquired from a farmer in upstate New York. (They also do the same thing with pigs.)
“We’ll often convene late at night, sometimes right on the street in Williamsburg [Brooklyn], and spread out blankets and divide it up right there from the trunk of my car,” says MacDonald. “It must look pretty suspicious to have 15 to 20 people trading white wrapped packages on the street.”
Each person gets an eighth of a steer, or about 40 pounds of meat, for $100 to $150. They trade based on which cuts they prefer. One woman hates the chewiness of steaks, so she trades hers for hamburgers.
Much more sensible.
Although Priske had warned me that this was a lot of meat for two people, I still found the experience rewarding. I got to experiment with new recipes I never would have made otherwise, and still have enough beef to load up my friends and family. I loved the experience of buying direct from the farm, meeting the Priskes, and seeing how my meat was raised. And it’s great to have meat in my freezer when I want it.
Did I save money? Probably not. Do I have a clue what to do with the heart? No way. But I’m open to suggestions.
Photographs by Jim Newberry.