Face it, the meats at most local chain supermarkets are roadkill. Plumped with antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides and raised in crowded pens ankle-deep in their own manure, they lead short, unhealthy lives and periodically pass on their bad health to eaters (Mad Cow, E. coli, etc.). If supermarket beef has any USDA grade, it’s Select — and a lot of it is ungraded, because the growers don’t want to pay the USDA to confer a bad grade officially. Neither tender nor flavorful, it’s not much fun to eat, either: Supermarket meats and chickens remind me of that old cult film Repo Man, which included a scene in a grocery that displayed cans generically labeled “Food.”
San Diego is drastically lacking compared to San Francisco, New York, or Chicago, where a lot of the “better” markets have live butcher shops — expats of those cities typically suffer horrible food-culture shock when they start shopping here. True, select supermarkets in upscale neighborhoods (e.g., Whole Foods, Jonathan’s, Harvest Ranch in North County, the Coronado and East Village branches of Albertson’s, occasionally the Hillcrest Ralphs) carry some USDA Choice beef, and even a few Prime pieces, while at Whole Foods you may find a pretty good selection, including “natural beef.” But in most neighborhoods, fat chance!
And have you ever rung the bell at a supermarket meat case to rouse a live butcher in hopes of getting the all-gone weekly special (sold out in the first two hours) or a special cut (say, a rack of lamb)? Lotsa luck. Eventually somebody will show up to tell you no.
When I was a yard-ape at the end of the Neolithic, butchers were really butchers, and they were better. Mom bought Tide at the new A&P in our neighborhood but bought meat from the friendly guy at the local butcher shop. She’d flirt or haggle to get the best meat at the lowest price, she’d have fun doing it and often actually get what she wanted — and it tasted like real meat. (As a grown-up, I’ve noticed that a lot of butchers, regardless of their looks or builds, are oddly sexy — perhaps their profession inclines them toward sensual pleasures, including flirting and haggling.)
To my joy, this backward way of life is starting a resurgence here, with the four “live” butcher shops discussed in this piece. Iowa Meats (owned by the same Cohns as the Cohn Restaurant Group) and Siesel, which recently joined the Cohn empire, are both reliable old-timers, while Home Grown Meats and Cowboy Star are brand new. All offer the joy of buying “live” from craftsmen whose artisanal medium is meat, whose knife skills are awesome, and whose wares are the best. But they offer many more products than the friendly guy on Flatbush Avenue: If they don’t carry something regularly, most can special-order it for you and have it in a day or two, and that “something” can be as exotic as lamb tongues (delicious cooked Persian-style — gently poached and swathed in a saffron cream sauce), calf liver (so much milder and smoother than beef liver, wonderful in a sauce of sweet wine and golden raisins), or brains (ready for a sauce of brown butter and capers), or even springtime baby billy goats (cabrito) to be marinated in olive oil, lime juice, and cilantro and grilled over mesquite.
(As a footnote, the larger Asian groceries in Kearny Mesa and Talmadge also have skilled live butchers with huge meat cases and live fish tanks; they’re not great on deluxe beef cuts, but they can be fabulous on birds like duck, squab, and the Asian version of poussins and nearly every possible part of the pig.)
The newest and potentially most exciting of the butcher shops is Matt Rimel’s Home Grown Meats in La Jolla, because its specialty is locally raised grass-fed beef, all of it from a family-run ranch on Palomar Mountain.
But even to mention the phrase “grass-fed” is to plunge into controversy. Much of the extraordinarily tasty, tender beef you get at steakhouses in Baja (such as El Nido) is primarily grass-fed in the state of Sonora, then dry-aged at length at the restaurants. Argentine beef, admired the world around, is totally grass-fed. When Argentines come to the U.S., they find our beef fatty and insipid — but we Americans love our fatty, mild beef, and that means corn-fed. Nearly all American beef, from low-grade supermarket hamburger to USDA Prime Porterhouse, comes from cattle that, in the last months of their lives, are crowded into feedlots and fed great quantities of corn mush.
This practice grew more widespread, starting in the 1950s, when the U.S. government encouraged the wartime chemical-munitions industry to convert to making fertilizers and agricultural pesticides. Simultaneously, the government started subsidizing commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice). This meant that the grain could be artificially fertilized for faster growth and sold for less than it cost the farmer to raise it. Where earlier in the century many family farms practiced mixed agriculture, raising both livestock and food crops (the manure fertilizing the pastures that fed the livestock, in a perfect circle of harmony), the new policies encouraged specialization in one or the other, as well as the growth of gigantic corporate-owned monoculture farms and ranches. As Betty Fussell writes in her new book Raising Steaks, The Life and Times of American Beef: “Cheap oil created cheap fertilizer which created cheap corn which created cheap beef.”
But there’s a problem: Cattle can’t digest corn. It gives them — oy! — such a case of gas! Not only do the cattle risk serious disease from this artificial diet (it’s like feeding a kid nothing but Hostess Twinkies), but their belches and farts (not to mention manure pollution in the confined areas where they’re raised) are causing ecological catastrophe: The United Nations says that the livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than the entire global transportation fleet. Turns out, corn-fed Bossie on the feedlot toots more than a Hummer with a road-raging driver.