You’ve surely discerned by now that we’re a vegetable-friendly family. I love exploring and experimenting with what’s in season, and am forever impressed by veggies' versatility. You can do amazing things with pumpkins, potatoes and peas. Vegetables kind of taught me to cook, actually; I was a vegan for about five years, back in the day, and developed my familiarity with cooking tools and techniques by devouring one cookbook after the next in the interest of feeding myself (and my peeps... vegans tend to travel in packs, as you may have noticed). Now, food politics can be touchy, so I'll just put it out there up front-- in case the title of this post wasn't clear enough—that I am no longer a vegan. Not even a little (we can still be friends if you are, though). My own ethics of eating have evolved since college to include the consumption of fish and meat, combined in moderate balance with other local fresh things.

In fact, the ‘local’ element is, for me— as my information base around all of this has grown— now the most important factor in deciding what lands on my plate. I became a vegan because I love animals, and didn’t want to participate in the suffering or environmental (not to mention social) destruction that factory farming and large-scale food production create. When it comes right down to it, though, I don’t have a problem with eating animals, specifically, and eating animals doesn’t necessarily contribute to those destructive trends.  The provenance of meat (and vegetables) makes all the difference on that score. So while I’m not ruled by ideology—my passions around food still revolve around cooking for a crowd, and food culture (an inclusive approach)—I do what I can to seek out and eat what I like to call “happy meat.” Hormones, antibiotics and stress do not nourish animals, and those animals therefore can’t nourish us optimally. Fresh air, sunshine, and a wild and satisfying life make for the happiest, healthiest animals, food and people.

Buying vegetables locally is easy. Farmers markets are everywhere, and seasonal produce is generally less expensive (and, um, WAY more delicious) than what you’ll find in the grocery store. Most farmer’s markets offer meats, cheeses and other specialty foods, too, but these items break the bank if you’re shopping on a budget. One simple solution is to eat meat sparingly, making meals heavy on whole grains and vegetables, with samplings of meat here and there (this is common in most Asian cultures… And as a side note, my acupuncturist encourages me to eat meat, noting that TCM favors balance above all), or to eat meat-based main courses only a few times a week. Buying a twenty dollar chicken is more doable this way. Thing is, Kaspar’s allergic to all but a few vegetables and fruits at this point, so we rotate those regularly (he eats veggies at every meal), and otherwise feed him meat. Meat he can do.

Read about my amazing local meat-source discoveries, and how I almost skinned a buffalo, by clicking on "read more" below.

Buying meat for Kaspar, and some for us, each week made buying only Happy Meat kind of hard to do. First of all, Kaspar can sometimes eat an entire pork chop in a sitting, so I often found myself needing to pick something up on the fly, for his next meal, not having expected him to go through that kind of quantity. I’d buy the natural stuff offered at the store, but this wasn’t usually produced locally, and I wasn’t sure of how high the quality really was. On the other hand, buying all of our meat from local producers got really expensive.  As we signed on for childcare this fall and looked at scaling back our food budget as one way to even out the expense, I wondered if I could figure out a way to feed our family almost entirely locally: meat, veg and all.

We joined a community supported agriculture program (CSA), so our vegetable bases are covered. One habit that jacks up our food expenses each week is that I tend to choose recipes I want to make, and then shop for the individual ingredients. This is time consuming and costly. The CSA presents the fun challenge of working with whatever arrives in the box. I have enough of an instinctive cooking sense at this point to be able to do that simply (super fresh produce lends itself to simple preparation, anyway).  My mom then told me that she purchases “freezer packs” from the meat sellers at her local farmer’s market in New Hampshire. She purchases, like, half, or a quarter of an animal, in all different cuts, at a discounted rate, and then freezes the meat for later use. I figured that taking stock of both our CSA box and a freezer full of different cuts of meat could serve as a good starting point for meal planning each week, and started calling local farmers in my area to see about getting a similar deal here in Austin.

I was particularly interested in bison meat, which is good for digestion, and also for healthy skin, both of which Kaspar can benefit from. It’s also lean; as one rancher explained to me, the meat may be 10% fat, but we only digest about 1% of that—the result is lots of flavor, without excess fat (we need some, but it’s generally best not to overdue it on the red meat variety). I also learned through making inquiries that local buffalo populations have been ravaged by this summer’s draught. One farmer told me that she’d just ordered hay in from New York (“New York! Can you believe that?!”, she said). I finally landed on one staggering offer from a bison farmer who said he could sell me half of a buffalo, like, on a hook, for $4.50 a pound. I briefly imagined myself skinning a buffalo on a hook—I’d do it for you, readers, I would (helluva photo gallery that would make)—but finally said that I don’t know how to butcher a buffalo, personally, and he offered the name and number of the guy he uses. I asked how much half a buffalo weighs, and he said about 350 pounds. Holy shit.

Aaron said I was crazy and that we don’t have space for 350 pounds of buffalo in our freezer. All true. We were both pretty intrigued by the whole idea, though; it’s kind of awesome that I can buy half a buffalo, right? I spread the word among my friends, and actually have about ten people who’d be willing to partake in this adventure, and I might go ahead and green light it in the near future (because, why the hell not?). In the meantime, though, I also found a local ranch that serves as an “artisanal purveyor of high quality, free-range venison, antelope, and wild boar meat from truly wild animals.” They’re willing to treat me as a restauranteur (no shipping charge, and some kind of discount) if I buy in excess of 20 pounds. We can fit 20 pounds of meat in our freezer, and the benefit of going this route is that I can pick and choose from the types of meat, and cuts, to meet that quota. If we went the buffalo route it’d be all buffalo, all the time, for a long time. I think we’ll prefer variety as we make our way through our stash.

I did the math, and if we commit to cooking this way— locally, improvisationally, simply—we’ll spend less each month on food than we spend when we go the grocery store route (and yeah, I shop at the fancy natural grocery stores, so this may not be true for everyone making this kind of change). That even includes $100 monthly for incidental food expenses. Like, say, date night.  I even found a hookup for local raw cow’s milk (Kaspar can’t drink it, but he can eat yogurt, which he loves), but I’ll tell you about then when I tell you how to make yogurt, later this week. The backstory on that one has been an adventure in itself, too.

Anyway, here we go locavore.

Do you eat meat? Do you buy it locally? Would you call yourself a ‘locavore’? How do you feed your family high quality, local and organic food on a budget? Ever skinned a buffalo?

A couple of links you might like, since you’ve read with such rapt attention this far.

A good friend of mine wrote this story on ‘cow pooling,’ and sent it my way when she got wind of the buffalo thing. Let the meat hoarding begin!

I’ve sung this book’s praises before—it’s a fun and informative read, and really sold me on local eating. The website's good, too.

09/12/2011 21:00

Pretty wild about the buffalo. What a good idea to go in on it together with friends. If you do, please do a photo gallery! We do something similar with bulk items like flours and rice. We organized a small cooperative among fifteen different families and split the food up between us. The same items would cost five or six times more in the stores. I hadn't thought of doing the same thing with meat.

09/13/2011 01:16

whoa! My dad is a hunter and would fill our freezer with elk, venison, pheasant etc...I grew up eating elk burgers and elk tacos ha! If you got enough people on board this could be a very cool way to eat well and keep cost down. Let us know how it goes!

09/13/2011 08:51

We do that all the time where I live here in WV! Of course, we normally split beef, but bison - that sounds incredible right now! It has such a good flavor, and it does have more health benefits in comparison to beef... :) In addition, hunting season is coming up soon for us, and deer meat is pretty fantastic, too! (ummm...sorry about your experience though...didn't mean to bring that up again for you!)
I would definitely recommend this to anyone who can manage it! We personally have a huge freezer, and having all of that meat is such a relief! But look out for any potential power outages!! Nothing can make you more sick than losing everthing in your freezer... :( Needless to say, it does happen! So plan accordingly...like hijacking an understanding soul's freezer who still has power OR a huge cookout...whatever is more appropriate! :)

09/13/2011 18:43

We eat entirely local. Unless we go out, and even then. But when your electricity goes out, you are effed. Sorry, but really, it's a lot of money that you get to cook REALLY fast or throw away. I love our local ag program, though. The amount and what you get vary by the week. One week, I got three potatoes and a head of cabbage and a carrot. So it's a little hard to depend on. And one week, I got three bushels of apples. Um, not a veggie, which is all I had signed up for. When I called, I found out it was a sample for a fruit program they're starting. A sample??? I made applesauce and apple butter, which we're still eating jars of ... My sister lives in Austin, and I've heard that peach orchards are amazing for jam and such, too.

09/16/2011 18:46

Oh right... the power. I guess I'd better be ready to cook like a freak if the freezer unexpectedly thaws. I'm still game, though, especially since I think we're gonna go the 20 lbs. at a time route, mixing up our meat supply (with venison in there, too, Chelsea-- I'm not scarred!). French Cannes Cannes, I'd give my left eyeball for an elk taco right now. Except that I just killed my appetite thinking about paying for a taco with an eyeball. I'll keep you all posted on our adventures in meatland! Thanks for your comments. xo

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