The case for a more sustainable steak with Jon Wipfli and Erik Sather
I suffer from a chronic condition that I keep mostly under control. You haven’t heard of it. It’s called Sustainability Exhaustion.
Most days I live just like you. I stand blinking in the fluorescent glare of the pre-wrapped meat section, trying to parse the label copy—straining gamely but a little hopelessly to catch, between the lines of soothing pastoral boosterism, a glimpse of the actual life and death of the packaged bit of animal in my hands, whose manner of living and dying I will implicitly endorse with my purchase.
Most days, I can take it. I look over my choices and pick my compromise—a little higher price here, a little less cruelty there, local-ish but non-organic today, distantly raised but certified organic tomorrow—and I shuffle off behind my cart to the plastic cheerfulness of the dairy section, to wrestle with pastured whole milk versus organic skim.
But then I’ll have one of my flare-ups. And I’ll be standing in the same place, looking mostly calm, but thinking to myself that the saddest two words in the English language are “Grocery Store.” And I’ll be talking silently to the stack of boneless skinless chicken breasts in the cooler in front of me, saying, “I’m sorry little tortured chicken, who lived your short, miserable life breathing powdered feces over the course of a single, oven-hot, under-ventilated Alabama summer. I’m so, so sorry. But I can’t care about you today. I can’t plug the forces that make you possible into my moral-philosophical dinnertime decision-making matrix. Not today. Today, I just want to broil your extremely affordable, hormone-laden, water-injected flesh for dinner, and pretend that it’s all okay. Please forgive me.”
And, bright lights notwithstanding, I lose myself in dark thoughts for a time, as, softly over the loudspeaker system, Sting winds into verse two of “Every Breath You Take.”
It was in the midst of just such a relapse that I walked into Jon Wipfli’s kitchen on a recent Sunday afternoon, to find him at his counter, hammering a monstrous two-bone ribeye steak with a baseball bat.
“Hey,” he said, pausing to wipe a speck of raw meat from his glasses.
“Hey,” I said.
“Grab a beer,” he said, and resumed pounding. And although he couldn’t have known it at the time, he was the medicine I needed.
The fact that Jon Wipfli was going Hank Aaron on a beef rib roast for The Growler’s Conservation Issue meant a number of things. It meant, first, that he had something up his sleeve, technique-wise, which generally worked out extraordinarily well for whatever guests happened to be gathered in his kitchen.
It also meant that we would be spending the afternoon celebrating sustainability with, of all things, beef, which was a message at once gratifyingly cheeky, and slyly serious. Yes, in an America perfectly free of its current context, a blanket insistence on eating less meat and no beef might be the path to true sustainability, in the same way that preaching abstinence is by far the best way to avoid pregnancy among teenagers with high executive function and low sex drives.
But in the actual America we live in, an argument for good beef might just be more valuable, for now, than an argument for no beef. The implicit point of Jon’s sustainable Sunday meal, in other words, was this: That turning eaters of badly raised beef into eaters of well raised beef might create more overall sustainability in our food system, than trying to turn eaters of badly raised beef into eaters of well raised chickpeas and organic mesclun.
But ultimately, what Jon’s ribeye meant to me was that I had help. I wasn’t standing alone, exhausted by choice and ashamed, in front of a cooler full of anonymous cuts of meat. If I knew Jon, he had bought his beef at Lowry Hill Meats. And if I knew Lowry Hill Meats, they had sourced their beef from a farmer who lived in my bioregion, and who probably cared that I cared how he had treated my dinner while it was alive. And I knew, by way of this chain of trust, that the animal we would eat tonight was an animal I could have looked in the eye, and felt I had kept some promises with it. Promises that I sometimes broke in the prepackaged meat aisle. Promises that, when kept, made my uneasy peace with eating other mammals something like a sustainable proposition.
There are maybe a thousand more lucrative ways to sell food than opening a butcher shop, establishing communicative and time-consuming relationships with actual small farmers, insisting expensively on hormone-free, pasture-fed, and locally slaughtered meat, ordering whole animals instead of muscles in a box, and custom cutting everything in front of your customers. People like Erik Sather at Lowry Hill Meats, or Kristin Tombers at Clancey’s, among very few others, aren’t just asking you if you’d like your bacon sliced this thick or that thick. They aren’t just sort of working virtuously hard, in a picturesquely Old World artisanal way. They are simplifying an entire, massively overcomplicated food system, that offers choices ranging from mostly healthy and beneficial, to cripplingly damaging to millions of acres of land, to billions of living beings, and, in many cases, to our own psyches. They make room, at great expense to themselves, and moderate expense to us, for pleasure to find a place again in a process that, most everywhere else, is contingent at best, and soul destructive at worst.
They are saying, in a way that used to bind almost all merchants to their customers, “Trust me. I won’t let you down.”
In Jon’s kitchen, he was explaining how the flattening process did more than just tenderize the meat. It exposed more surface area to the flames of the grill, and created little dimples and tears that maximized the amount of char and crust the heat could create. He ran his hand over the now tennis-racket-sized expanse of beef, and his palm lifted tiny flaps and folds of loosened flesh as it chattered across the surface. Then he tossed a handful or two of salt and pepper on each side, and rubbed them in.
A guest arrived through the side door, and pulled the smell of charcoal smoke behind her into the kitchen. Other guests arrived by ones and twos. No one knew everyone else, but no one was separated from anyone else by more than one degree. We tottered outside to stand on an icy concrete apron next to Jon’s garage, drinking beer around the grill, shivering, pretending it was spring. We watched Jon flip what looked like a brontosaurus steak back and forth, to a flare of coals and a cloud of hardwood smoke that, each time it cleared, revealed a new surface more darkly charred than the last. We took turns carving spoonfuls of beef tallow from a shallow plastic tub, and we watched them melt glisteningly into the rough landscape of flattened ribeye.
We reached out now and then and prodded the meat, eventually arriving at a consensus that the looseness we felt beneath the dark salty crust constituted medium rare. And we were right. When Jon cut the steak, the slices were just exactly the right crispy black outside, and tender rose at their hearts.
We ate the steak with pickled vegetables and hot pepper jelly on lettuce leaf wraps. Everyone used fingers to load up their plates. It was much less hygienic than the plastic-wrapped portions in the meat aisle. We had no labels to tell us how good it was. The light in the room blinded no one, then fell slowly as the winter sun set.
By the end of the meal, I was feeling mostly cured.