A New Yorker cartoon shows two sharks in the water. One has a foot dangling from his jaws. "I'm eating more locals," reads the caption.
When it comes to eating, lots of Detroiters are going local, too. Yet, while veggies are in abundance much of the year (OK, unless you totally love root vegetables, maybe not so much right now), what about meat?
After all, this is not just the vegetarian's dilemma; it's the metro Detroit omnivore's puzzle, too.The good news: It's actually quite easy to consume locally grown meat, raised on small farms and often in methods that would make folks like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan smile.
More good news: Local farmers say they are seeing an increase in demand for meat and eggs grown locally, and especially those raised with more natural, eco-friendly methods.
What's it matter?There are many good reasons to seek out producers of local food, and not all of them suggest you wear cork sandals, eat buckwheat, or have named one of your children after an act of nature.
In fact, some of the best reasons sound almost -- gasp -- fiscally conservative.
Maybe you want to support the local economy and Michigan farmers. The "buy local" movement tells us that if we spent $10 a week on Michigan products, the state economy would gain $36 million every week. If the real payoff is even half that, that's still not too shabby.And maybe you want to decrease the country's reliance on petroleum. If your blueberries have to get a passport stamp before hitting your cereal bowl, it's obvious the energy cost of that meal is significantly more than eating berries grown down the road. (Maybe it's time to think about the real cost of eating fresh blueberries in Michigan in January, but I digress.)
There are other reasons, too, that skeptics may find too granola-ish to consider, but basically boil down to this: Is there a better way than a food system that is so automated and impersonal it's nearly impossible to trace the origins of the sandwich you ate for lunch back to the field where it grew?But that brings us back to our dilemma: What's a girl who likes a perfectly grilled steak now and then or her eggs with a side of bacon once in a while to do?
All around Detroit, thankfully, we have many options for eating locally produced meat. Your best bet? Find a farmer. How? Easy: a farmer's market or the Internet.
Flash back to a few days before Thanksgiving. A local woman -- let's call her Clare Ramsey -- decides she wants a locally raised, free range, happy turkey on her table. Eastern Market Saturday has passed, and may not have helped, so she turns to Google. She finds far more producers of turkey within 100 miles of the Motor City than she's ever imagined.
And many farms actually have Web sites. (Those of you who knew this already, sorry, but it was news to a city kid who can't come up with answers to her young daughter's questions about agriculture, like, "Do chickens eat flies?")
Getting back to that turkey: She likes the sunny, bucolic farm pictures posted by Sunshine Meadows Farm in Ortonville in northern Oakland County. It's a small family farm. She thinks she sees the animals smiling. The problem: The turkeys have been reserved since October. No dice.
She finds the same "try us next October" response at several other farms, including Harnois Farms near Pinckney, where John Harnois lets his turkeys roam around the wooded farm until the big day gets near.
She ultimately finds a turkey, this one raised at Roeske Farms in Hartland, about an hour northwest of Detroit, near M-59 and US 23. Patricia Roeske's farm is blanketed in snow, and in cold months when the local farmer's market is closed, the family runs a store out of a huge unheated garage attached to her house, complete with industrial walk-in coolers to keep the meat fresh.
Patricia hasn't always been a free-range hog and turkey farmer. It just kind of happened. It's actually such a beautiful supply and demand story it'd make an Econ 101 a little misty eyed. "We had a lot of people requesting some of our meat, because that's how we always raise our meat for ourselves," she says. Then Hartland started a farmer's market, and the Roeskes, whose kids are big into 4-H, decided they could make this into a business. "We've got the property, and we're already doing a few, so we thought we might as well do more. It just got little a bit bigger," she says.
The turkey was huge -- over 19 pounds – and cost about $50 -- maybe about twice as much as an average store-bought one, but not too much more than an "organic" or "free-range" bird at a fancy grocery store. The results were divine, and the fresh bird had less icky gooiness than a previously frozen fowl. Clare slept well that night.
The T-day scramble also revealed this fabulous site -- Eatwild.com. It features all kinds of purveyors of grass-fed meat, many in this region. It's a great resource, especially if you can't for some reason go the super easy-peasy route for finding local meats: farmer's markets.
Todd Wickstrom, owner of Heritage Foods USA (a web site that supports small farms' products) and part owner of Corktown's new Mercury Coffee Bar, is as picky as it gets when he buys meat for his businesses and his home. His best suggestion for home chefs is to find a farmer, and visit the farm if possible, but at least talk to them at the market.
"People are dying to know the source of their food and where it comes from, and the farmer's market allows people to have a direct relationship with the people who are growing their food," Wickstrom says.
Detroiters are blessed with a farmer's market that's open year-round. And even on the coldest of cold January days, Eastern Market has many, many options for the discerning carnivore.
One eye-catching vendor is Johnny Gyergyov of J & M Farms in Allenton, MI, in northern Macomb County. He says he raises "happy hogs," and his signs portray cartoon swine looking quite chipper.
It turns out Gyergyov's another accidental farmer. A former autoworker and city kid, he had moved his family to the country in the '70s. They started raising animals -- just a few -- and then got "the farming bug." Gyergyov invites people to stop by the farm and see where the hogs grow. He keeps them free of antibiotics and hormones. He takes his meat to a USDA facility for processing. At Eastern Market, he sells other products like sausage, chickens and beef. The prices are competitive to what you'll find at a meat counter at the grocery store, and sometimes better.
At Eastern Market, you'll also find a great number of egg producers -- many of whom regulars may only know as the "bee guy" or the "potato guy." But don't be afraid to ask them how they raise their birds -- or their real names. And if the eggs look multicolored and multisized, that's a good thing, people.
A scan of other area farmers markets also shows some good producers (staunch Detroitists cover your ears). Royal Oak's Farmers Market, for instance, offers a handful of meat vendors.
Gary Otto hauls his free-range chickens from Middleville on the west side of the state about twice a month. He sells many different cuts, and even smoked chicken and a particularly tasty chicken breakfast sausage that beats out most pork versions I've sampled from local vendors.
Otto is a fourth generation poultry farmer. He used to run a more standard, tightly packed factory farm as a producer for a big U.S. company, but it never sat well with him. He says he won't go back to that type of production. "I decided if I was going to do this -- raise chickens -- I was going to do it differently," he says.
Elmer Miller also drives a ways to sell at the Royal Oak market. The farmer from Up North in Marion offers grass-fed beef -- something not easy to come by. (Most U.S. cattle is "grain-fed," meaning usually fed corn, which according to Pollan's book, is not the preferred bovine diet.)
Miller also sells pasture-raised chickens and "natural" pork. Asked what natural means, he says free of antibiotics and hormones, and with pigs given the freedom to do what pigs are meant to do -- wallow in the mud, move about as they please, etc. If you think this is what every pig gets to do, you might want to read the aforementioned book.
When cows, chickens and pigs are allowed to grow in a more natural setting, and given the freedom to exercise and move about, it "changes the flavor of the meat" for the better, Miller says. I believe the guy. He wears suspenders. I bought a big roast and it was great. I slept well that night, too. Some of his beef prices are higher than grocery store averages -- about $6 a pound for most cuts, including ground beef.
Miller says he sees more customers seeking out his products. "The public awareness of the food system has made people look around for better options," he says.
And in Detroit, options abound. Finding them is as easy as taking a few minutes, going to the Internet or market, finding a farmer, and asking a few questions. Oh, and if you are looking for a Thanksgiving turkey, it's probably not too early to get your order in.