The Seasonality of Meat
by Cristina Wiley
It’s May 10th and I’ve checked on the rhubarb plant in the abandoned lot down the block from my house nearly every day for a month. From its humble beginnings as a shiny, red knob, poking through the barely thawed soil, until now, when ruffled leaves the size of my head hide the gorgeous pink stalks beneath. I’ve daydreamed about baking these stalks into sweet and savory treats.
Spring is an incredible time for growth. After months of squash and root vegetables, hearty soups and brown breads, the earth finally shifts and the colorful vegetables that signal warmer days ahead shyly present themselves. To an even semi-informed consumer, it’s common knowledge that vegetables have seasons—no one in their right mind would look forward to a tomato in December.
But sitting with pounds of fresh rhubarb stalks in my kitchen, feeling privileged that I was raised to appreciate fruits and vegetables seasonality, I am irked by a conversation I recently had with a childhood friend in Berkeley, Calif. She mentioned the idea of thinking of meat as seasonal.
Just as you crave certain vegetables during specific times of the year, the same could apply to craving and expecting certain types of meat.
What did the seasonality of meat mean? I had never really thought about buying or consuming any particular meat in any particular season. I grew up with an abundant vegetable garden in our backyard, but a mother who would buy ten of any given steak on sale and freeze them for later consumption. Occasionally we would split a whole hog with the neighbors and keep it in the extra freezer, and there was that one time a failed lawn care experiment with a dozen “Chinese Weeder geese” ended up as an icebox full of dark meat. But in general, I had put little thought into enjoying meat relative to the season for the majority of my life.
But animals have seasons just like vegetables. Times when their lives are more relaxed, food is readily available and stress is at a minimum lend themselves to more flavorful, tender meat. If you’ve ever seen a buck wander out of the woods in the early spring, you would be wary of the venison steak it would put on your plate next fall. Just as there are seasons for hunting that promote tracking and killing wild game at its prime, conventional meat consumption can and should reflect a similarly conscious attitude to eating what’s in season, year round.
Dan Barber, in his celebrated book The Third Plate, discusses the idea of the new American dinner, where meat-based protein takes a backseat to vegetables and grains, becoming an accompaniment to dinner rather than the lead player. But how do we make this shift? How does the meat-centric American meal shift from an oversized serving of protein seven nights a week to associating vegetables with something other than “rabbit food”?
Educating ourselves about the seasonality of meat harvesting is a start. Knowing where and when to eat certain meats, tying animal based protein consumption to an understanding of when it is at its best, or when meat is “ripe,” will give omnivores a more conscious relationship to the animals on their plates.
Rather than purchasing a pound of chuck at the grocery store without giving it a second thought, what if we understood what beef was truly supposed to taste like at its best, and knew the difference between grain-fed beef slaughtered in March and grass-fed beef slaughtered in September? Just like you’d never eat that December tomato with the same kind of devotion as you would an August heirloom tomato, you can demand the same type of flavor-conscious consumerism from our meat producers. If it can’t be a decision based on being environmentally conscious, let’s make it about the flavor.