August 18, 2015

Photo Essay: Exotic Farm to Table Dinner

I love animals. I mean, I really love animals. I get along with them better than I do with most people. But I also respect evolution and the food chain—that is, the fact that my species is omnivorous, and we're natural predators of certain species of animals.

Although I'm a great shot, I've never been a hunter. I think artillery gives humans an unfair advantage over these poor creatures, many of whom could outrun us (or even an arrow) but not a bullet. I even find fishing too barbaric, and I can't even imagine the sport of killing animals you're not going to eat.

There's natural predation, and then there's just pointless violence. And I've had enough violence in my life.

In the natural balance of the world, as humans developed and became more sophisticated, there were the hunters and gatherers who brought home dinner, and then there were the farmers—those who cultivated crops over a period of time for the long-term survival of the species. They kept chickens for their eggs. They milked cattle. And when they needed to, they ate their own farm animals.

There's not a lot of necessity anymore in our diets. Food has become packaged and abundant. Most of us don't even know where our dinners come from anymore, and catchphrases like "grass-fed" and "cage-free" and "free-range" get tossed around so much, no one even really asks what they mean.

So many of us forget that a lot of our food once had a face.

In American society, it's hard to understand why we think it's OK to eat a cow but not a horse, or why we frown upon game meats and offal. Why is it OK to overbreed cows, slaughter their young and call it "veal," grind them up and wrap them in plastic and serve it with cheese on patriotic holidays? Why do cows and pigs deserve this treatment, if other animals don't?

So, I am an animal lover who also loves eating meat. But if I'm going to let an animal be sacrificed so that I can have it for dinner, then I'm going to eat all of it—nose to tail, ears, liver, cheek, brain. And I'm going to be more or less equal opportunity, big and small, with the exception of babies. I really don't want to eat veal or lamb or squab or any other infants besides baby carrots and baby corn.

And most importantly, I like to see where my food is coming from.

So, I accepted an invitation to visit the farm run by Exotic Meat Market owner Anshu Patak in Perris, CA.

We got to meet the goats and llamas and other exotic animals (no cows or pigs) that are raised here...

...and used for breeding, but also for dinner.

You can't save every turkey from Thanksgiving.

And man, visiting the farm, it's so easy to be charmed by these beautiful, gentle creatures...

...who are sometimes goofy, but genuinely seem happy.

Even a baby goat seemed to be smiling at me from under her mother while she was nursing.

All the animals greeted us and allowed us to pet them, running towards us rather than away from us.

If they'd been mistreated, they would be scared of us—or, on the other hand, would try to attack us.

It was almost as though modern civilization had ceased to exist for just a few hours, and we'd been transported to some other place where we could watch a two-day-old take some early wobbly steps.

And we could get kisses from llamas...

...who seemed to pose for every picture...

...each time we pointed our cameras at them.

Of course, the emus pecked at our lenses, jewelry, purses, and shoelaces...

...but that's just what emus do.

Sure, I don't know what happens on the farm when I'm not there...

...but the animals listen to Anshu and the farm hands without a harsh word spoken or a hand ever raised. They even seem to trust them.

Once the sun began to set, the courses of dinner began to arrive. We only found out what we'd eaten after the fact...

...which included a turkey deviled egg (which really tasted like turkey) with lamb (ugh) brain.

For the second course, Anshu served us drob, which he says is a traditional Romanian dish similar to a haggis.

It's basically a meat terrine made with minced goat and lamb (ugh) offal wrapped in caul (ugh) and stuffed with quail eggs, roasted and sliced like a meatloaf, served best with mustard and cornichons (and would've been great with a glass of beer or wine, if alcohol had been allowed).

We also ate grilled burgers made from ground eland, an African antelope raised in Hawaii (which we also got to taste tartare-style)...

...slow-cooked Nubian goat in a mild curry broth, and chital (a spotted deer from India) that had been cooked sous-vide style, topped with a creamy red curry sauce.

The final meat course was also the pièce de ré·sis·tance:

...kobe beef so fresh, we ate slices of it raw...


It was so well-marbled, it was perfect for cooking under the rising flames of the grill...

...which produced probably the best-tasting meat I've ever had in my life.

None of the animals we ate are illegal to eat in the U.S., though the common eland's distribution density is in trouble because of over-poaching in Africa. I didn't know I was eating a threatened species. I'd never even heard of the eland before. Now I know, which is a good thing.

There are good farms and bad farms, just like there are good people and bad people. But is any one species of animal better or worse to eat than another? Is one type of animal intrinsically "bad" and therefore deserving of mistreatment and violence? Is it simply a matter of supply and demand?

I want to know what everything tastes like, so I think it's important to know what I'm putting into my mouth, and where it came from. It's unfair to eat something while turning a blind eye to its origins. I choose to eat meat, and I think that's OK on principle. But I'd like to have a good conscience about it. If I can't reduce the suffering in the world, at least I'd like to not add to it.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Gentle Barn, Healing Hearts in A Forever Home
Photo Essay: Gone Fishin'

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