"Eating raw or undercooked foods is potentially dangerous to your health," a standard disclaimer warns at the bottom of the menu. But at Waterbury's Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill, 30 daring diners are about to dig into bright red patties of steak tartare - chopped raw beef - served atop fried fingerling potatoes and garnished with arugula, crispy capers and truffle aioli.
The HOTW doesn't typically offer the uncooked delicacy, which can be traced back to medieval Russia. But tonight's meal is special. The three-course "grass-fed beef dinner" is a benefit for Slow Food USA, a culinary movement that promotes traditional production methods and cooking techniques. To that end, the $50-a-plate meal includes brief talks by Doug Flack of Flack Family Farm and Sean Buchanan of Wood Creek Farm Beef. Those two operations supplied all the meat on the evening's menu.
What's so revolutionary about grass-eating beef? Our elementary-school image of bovines has them happily grazing on emerald-green pasture. While that idyllic portrait may hold true in parts of Vermont, many of the 28 billion pounds of beef consumed in the U.S. last year came from cattle that spent time in feedlots in California, Texas and the Midwest. In these "factory-farm" environments, animals are crammed into small spaces and fed grain rather than grass or hay.
Animal-rights activists protest feedlot beef for many ethical reasons. But how much does a cow's cud really affect what ends up on the plate? Farmers like Flack and Chip Morgan, Wood Creek's owner and "barn cleaner," think it matters a lot.
At Wood Creek, where the farmers process 400 head of Angus and Hereford cattle each year, Morgan opts to raise his animals on pasture. The word "pasture" is important, he explains, because "you can say something's grass fed and still feed it hay in a barn." Unlike Flack, who uses pasture and grass exclusively, Morgan gives his cows a "supplement" of grain that makes up about 1 percent of their total feed. "We think it makes them healthier and gives a good balance of nutrition," he says.
But is there such a thing as too much grain? Morgan thinks there is. "The reason that it's done that way is that it's the cheapest way to fatten them up," he says. Confining the animals speeds the process, too. "If you wanted to fatten people up as quickly as possible, you'd put them in a box all day and have them talk on the phone . . . oh wait, that sounds familiar," he jests.
But if it's more expensive and slower, why does Morgan go with grass? "We think that animals . . . raised in a natural environment are healthier, happier and taste better," he says.
Morgan describes Wood Creek as if it were a spa for steaks of the future. He believes in maintaining a low-stress environment for cattle. For this reason, he doesn't encourage visitors to the pastures and protects the beasts from loud machinery. Once again as at a spa, a healthy diet and lots of movement are key. Cattle "walk around and exercise their muscles" as they graze, Morgan says. The lucky animals get to enjoy views of the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain with their dinners.
Flack doesn't spend much time talking about the landscape that surrounds his animals - he's more excited about what's going on inside of them. "Grain feeding changes the microbiology and chemistry of the rumen," he explains. In layperson's terms, this means that the pH of a cow's gut and the bacteria that reside there are altered by what the animal eats. Flack suggests that, just as snacking on yogurt and fiber-rich foods promotes health in the human digestive tract, eating grass does the same for cows. He believes grain doesn't.
And, in Flack's view, healthy animals make for wholesome meat. "A grazing animal actually has huge powers to determine what to eat and what not to eat," he points out. The cow's food choices affect the nutritional profile of its meat.
"The fat that's put on feedlot beef with corn is not a beneficial fat," Flack says. He mentions that certain salutary substances are more prevalent in animals fed on well-managed pastures, namely conjugated linoleic acid, an antioxidant that may promote weight loss and fight cancer, and Vitamin K2, which allegedly prevents Alzheimer's and stroke. Human meat eaters can promote their health by choosing nutrient-rich organ meats and cooking meat as little as possible, Flack asserts. Ditto for using bones to make broth rich in joint-friendly glucosamine and chondroitin.
Environmentalism is another reason why Flack believes wholeheartedly in pastured meats. "We've never had a CO2 level as high as we have in the atmosphere right now . . . we have what's called a greenhouse effect," he says. As most people know, the greenhouse effect is partially caused by pollution from cars and even methane from cows.
But what many people don't know is that plowing soil releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Says Flack, "Really good grass farming can reverse that effect, and that's called carbon sequestration." But, he continues, you can't just turn animals out on to the land, "you have to actively manage for the benefit of the grass." Other environmental benefits of pastureland? It helps prevent soil erosion and preserves water quality.
Flack brings up the situation in California's San Joaquin Valley, where air and water pollution are large-scale problems. Tests reveal that one-third or more of the manure from the region contains pathogenic E coli, according to Flack. But the 400 cows in one particular herd of grass-fed cattle come up clean every time. "It's a reflection of the fact that a grass-fed animal is very healthy and a grain-fed animal's health is compromised," Flack suggests.
In fact, studies link the dangerous O157.H7 strain of E coli, which was responsible for recent contamination of spinach and lettuce, to manure from grain-fed cattle. In one report that appeared in the September 11, 1998, edition of Science magazine, researchers from Cornell University maintained that a diet of grain makes the digestive tracts of cattle more acidic. Flack observes, "It just so happens that one of the particularly nasty strains of E coli is acid tolerant."
Because of this tolerance, O157.H7 can also survive in human stomach acid and go on to infect a human host. The study concluded that grass-fed animals were much less likely to harbor the deadly bugs. Flack takes its conclusions a little further, saying, "There's probably good evidence that this scenario created the particular strain of E coli."
Not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. On October 12, 2006, researchers from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University printed a compilation of results that refute the Cornell study [see WSU results]. At the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Ag Development Specialist Ed Jackson hasn't made up his mind on the question. "I don't think that the research is evidence enough to stand on it," he says. "There is evidence showing it going in either direction. We don't take a position on that."
Reactions to the food at Hen of the Wood suggest that, whatever its actual health benefits, there's a market for "green" beef. Diners polished off apps such as Pete's beets with kumquat, potato-leek soup "shooters," and crostini topped with roasted-garlic Jasper Hill blue cheese and wild honey. Then they wolfed down Wood Creek Farm skirt steaks with organic Maine white beans, herb butter and kalamata olives. How did they take to the tartare? HOTW chefs Eric Warnstedt and Craig Tresser were initially concerned that people might just "try one bite," Warnstedt says. But the primal concoction went over well: "Almost every plate was clean."