Monday, December 27, 2010

Psychedelic Reindeer Meat

As part of NPR's recent "Spirit of the Season" series, they posted a story on their Facebook page titled "Did 'Shrooms Send Santa Flying?" - which outlines the history of the archetypal "Toadstool Mushroom", or Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), and it's impact on the mythology of Santa Claus and his Reindeer.

The simple gist of the story is that these hallucinogenic mushrooms are commonly consumed by the native reindeer of Siberia, as well as those men who herd them around as draught animals. The implications being that the magical Christmas Eve flights taken by Santa and his team of ruminants, are in fact fueled by this primitive psychedelic drug coursing through the veins of both man and animal. (the video at the bottom provides a visually stunning continuation of these details)

As a student of both livestock and fungi, I have been familiar with this story for years....but this season something seems to be different. What once was merely fodder for goofy late-night party chatter, has entered a realm of public discussion that even I would not have anticipated. On NPR's Facebook page alone, this story received just shy of 3,000 "likes" and over 300 "comments" - by far surpassing the interest level of most all other stories on the docket , and slightly trailing only one compelling piece about Jon Stewart assisting 9/11 Heroes.

So why the emergent interest? Certainly it's a humorous idea to think that our beloved jolly gift giver is actually jacked up on some kind of crazy drug......and for many, that may have been the underlying cause of interest. But I think this story goes much deeper than humor or drug-lust, and I think it's growing acceptance is due to far more complex cultural causes.

At it's heart, this story reminds us that much of religion and cultural mythology is built upon evolutionary principles originating from ancient cultures and mentalities that few of us can scarcely imagine. There are relatively few people left on this earth that did not grow up with the co-opted Coca-Cola version of Santa Claus imagery. To transcend this commercialized icon, and instead connect with the authentic, dynamic transitions of meaning inherent in any cultural myth is a powerful experience.

And yet there is even more meat to this story than just 'authentic connection'. While the catchy part of the shroomed-up Santa myth is clearly the hallucinogenic component, there is a still more powerful subtext about the relationship of man and beast.

Whether or not you ever 'really' believed in Santa, as adults we all now accept it as myth, however valuable or commercial we may view it to be. The story of Santa's Fly Agaric mushroom obsession, with all it historical verifiability, is the first time we are being told that HE really did exist - with all the magic and wonder we were promised as kids. What's more, the story outlines incredible geographic specificity. No, it's not the North Pole, but the similarly arctic regions housing the Lapps of modern Finland, and the Koyak tribes of central Russia. These details transform Mr. and Mrs. Claus into semi-nomadic farmers - of whom we can know quite a bit - specifically regarding their relationship with their cows.....errr....reindeer.

To think that Rudolph, Donner, and Blitzen have long since been ground up and turned into hamburgers may be unsettling to some.....but for both the original and modern-day "Claus Family" - the meat and milk provided from their reindeer herds were likely a major, if not the major, reason that these beasts are the ones "delivering" gifts to the community. Grass and fungi-eating ruminants (cows, goats, sheep...and reindeer) have long been symbols of the fecundity of the earth, and the recipients of eternal human thanks. Assuming that the genetic defects producing Rudolph's red nose didn't also render him sterile, his great descendants are undoubtedly still roaming the steppes of north central Eurasia. It is the immense respect for these animals, combined with sustainable patterns of consumption and work from the very real and yet still mythical "Claus Family" that we have to thank for this.

As you enjoy your holiday meats this season, take time to give thanks to the many incredible creatures and genomes we work with to keep this food on the table.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Canvas Made of Meat: New Horizons in the World of Sausage

Late last night, shortly after I retired from my studies, a ravenous hunger befell me. I busted into my secret stash of hog snouts and congealed bone protein, spreading it's insanely textured contents over thin slices of gouda, and a heaping of sweet bavarian mustard. As I ate, I reflected on my evolving perceptions of German food, and even the very nature of meats themselves.

Earlier that day, a good friend of mine looked on in disgust as I showed her this new jar of artisan organic pork I had purchased. "Someone needs to reel you in Dustin!" she exclaimed, referring to my increased willingness to venture deep into the dark ocean of exotic processed meats.

Indeed, 2 months ago, I would have been the first to agree with my friend. Before I left the states, I could frequently be heard ignorantly deriding German meats as "strange organs turned into grey mush" - and I'll admit - one would be hard-pressed to argue that this description doesn't offer an accurate physical portrayal of many of the "sausages" I've experimented with lately. Accurate, perhaps, but missing the point entirely.

In the USA, many of us are conditioned from birth to view processed meat, especially those meats in cans or jars, with a great deal of skepticism and bias. We conjure up hideous images of production processes, and adopt often erroneous measures of judgement in deciding which processed meat items we will consume (e.g. hot dogs). Making matters worse for the lowly canned meats, are the imprudent levels of additives and preservatives in nearly all commercially available products.

After much research into the matter, I have discovered several brands of regionally to nationally produced artisan-quality organic canned pork and beef here in Witzenhausen. These shiny little jars offer incredible nutrition, flavour, culture, and ecology - all for an unbeatbly low price (...more on how this can be true in a future post).

The discriminant use of organ meats, blended with traditional whole-muscle cuts, provides a foundation of meat processing that truly offers a final homage to the livestock we, as a society, raise. Just as Native Americans utilized all of the buffalo as a sacred sign of respect - so too the perpetuation of these delicious old-world recipes opens an amazingly diverse way to connect with the food we eat at a much deeper level.

If we conceptualize meat as a blank canvas for artisan butchers to craft their masterpiece upon, this family of cooked sausages, or kochwurst, is the equivalent of finding a chest of forgotten paintings by Da Vinci in your grandfathers attic. We need to dust these beauties off and take a second look - perhaps for the first time...

And for those who are still not sold on taking a wild trip to the land of canned meats, don't worry - I am still working on traditional, fresh, grillable sausages....they're important too :)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The World's Largest Pig Nipple: Adventures at Euro-Tier

So here it is - the world's largest pig nipple - it's actually not as gross as it sounds..... A pig nipple is just an attachment for the end of a water pipe to allow pigs to efficiently drink water - this is a ~5ft tall wooden replicate!

Yesterday I joined 140,000 fellow livestock farmers and specialists in attending "The World's Largest Event for Animal Agriculture", Euro-Tier, held at the expansive expo center in Hanover, Germany.

There were almost a dozen gigantic exhibit halls - each filled with hundreds of companies, from a total of 49 countries. While true "innovation" was harder to find than I would have hoped, there was a handful of exhibitors that really impressed me.

I was very intrigued by a modest booth with only a museum-quality skeleton of a
dairy cow on display. I approached the exhibitor, who explained to me that their booth was not a company, but rather a project of Prof. Dr. Martin Kaske of the Veterinary School at the University of Hanover. He was there to promote the latest research from their department - which documents the specific health problems we have created in certain cows by creating a "bigger is better" system of breeding. This project was promoting that cattle breeders work towards a significantly smaller cow size - pointing to impressive gains in profitability, not to mention animal welfare. I greatly appreciated this, after years of working with the "miniature" breed of irish dexter cows. In addition, through working with Dr. Elkins at the Buck Run Farm in eastern Pennsylvania, USA, I have become very much convinced that small to moderate sized cows (~1,000 lbs or 453 kg) are best for both people and animal.

Next I met a soft-spoken and intelligent Swedish fellow who was displaying a very clever feat of engineering. Yes.....another pig nipple - but this one is real and quite brilliant. By simply changing the location and shape of the 'button' the pig pushes to release the water - this new design has proven to reduce water waste by 40%!! This, and a few other swine-oriented exhibits, made me dearly miss my days of breeding pigs....

The last exhibitor I'll share really impressed me - for the shear
simplicity of the idea, and the very real impact it can have on animal welfare and farmer profitability. was described to me as "ebay for cows" by co-founder Godehard Gerling, a Bavarian from the information technology field with surprising insight into the realities facing cattle producers. The website is very simply, an on-line trading portal for regional trading of all matter of livestock. This in itself, may not sound like a big deal, but consider the alternatives. Livestock auctions, the traditional way to sell animals, creates insanely risky conditions for the spread of disease, undue animal stress, and low prices for farmers. Having a dedicated, professional forum for the direct farm-to-farm trade of livestock is a need I am sure will grow into the future.

At the end of the day I was astounded by the power of technology to shape our food system, but even more impressed by the role of human intent as a determining factor in the real impacts that these technologies will have. We can clearly do anything we desire- so let's make sure that we really do know what it is that we want!

Just to end on another crass note, here is an amazing taxidermy of a boar being collected for semen ;) I can't even tell you how many bizarre photos I could be posting from this event....

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Feldkieker...

Just came back from Tegut with a freshly matured batch of Feldkieker! A fermented-sausage unique for many reasons - but loved for just two - taste and texture...

The Feldkieker seems to have originated, or at least been perfected, just under 1 hr from here in the Eichsfeld region. Starting with 12 month old pigs (as opposed to the usual 6-8 months), the butcher then uses a unique and challenging casing of pig skin to ferment and age the mixture of meat and secret spices. The end product seems to be prehistoric in nature. Irregular in shape, the meat inside appears almost as uncooked ground - yet the enticingly familiar aroma assures you it is absolutely prime for the spreading on a slice of cheese and topping with mustard!

This sausage was made in an innovative meat plant in Fulda (the same city I study in each Monday) - working directly with a small number of certified-organic pork producers to make a very traditional sausage, sustainably - and at a reasonable if fair price (~$18/lb)

I'll end with a very roughly translated quote from a recent German blog - "Wurst-Sucht" [Sausage-Obsession]. The language is passionate if not shocking - yet I have no doubt that it describes the magic experienced by any child lucky enough to have been raised in a family rich in regional meat tradition:

"Whenever I visited my grandma, my cousin and I snuck in from time to time in this chamber. We lay on the stone floor, our arms behind our heads, looking longingly into the sausage heaven. The Stracke, the bubbles, and the ham gave off an intense smell of smoke and spices. Fat droplets glistened on the ends of sausages in the sun, which stole through the wooden slats like magically sparkling stalactites. We passionately breathed in the aromas like old connoisseurs and with a bite, the water shot us in the mouth. I still have this taste in my mouth. It was the first orgasm."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Month of Meats: Getting Settled in Witzenhausen

My first month in Germany has been a wild ride - a European vacation and ruthlessly challenging 60hr work week at once....but there is definitely no complaining. I am located in the heart of Germany, the state of Hesse, in the fairytale village of Witzenhausen. The former home and inspiration for the Brothers Grimm, Witzenhausen is a small river town where the hillsides are dotted with gingerbread houses and rosy-cheeked women cloak themselves in abundant woolen warmth. And the meats ain’t bad either ;)

Here in town, on both sides of the river Werra, lie the two campuses of the Faculty of Biological Agriculture for the University of Kassel. It is here, and, for one day a week, at the southern urban center of Fulda, that I will master a wide variety of practical skills needed to manage a small-scale sustainable meat processing plant upon my return to the US.
While I am confident I can gain the skills here that I need to create an innovative meat operation at home - many readers might be surprised to learn
of the wide diversity of interpretations that the word “sustainability” has here on the academic front-lines of the world’s food trade. When I talk to some students and teachers around campus, I can tell I am viewed as ‘an extremist’ in my views on producing cows with out any grain. Yet, when I talk with many others, I can equally ascertain that my complete lack of interest in Organic Certification is disconcerting to that segment of the school. For me, this plethora of thought is an environment we should always seek to immerse ourselves in. Only through critical thinking and frequent discussion will our food system become what we know it can be - ideal!

Tomorrow - I go to Gottingen after class to the fleischereibedarf (butcher supply store) - and pick up the few remaining pieces for my newly obtained hand-crank meat-grinder.....Get ready for a rainbow of sausages the likes of which few Americans have ever seen!