Where did you go, variety?

Imagine standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.  In front of you are six or seven different varieties ranging from dyed sugar crispies to whole bran fiber flakes, and that’s just the beginning: the assortment of bowl ballast expands in both directions to the ends of the row you’re facing.  The selection, for someone seeking cereal, is mildly exhilarating isn’t it?  A person could reasonably spend a month trying different textures and flavors.

While the image of the overstuffed breakfast department is still fresh in your mind, mentally stroll over to the meats cooler.  Ignore all of the processed junk; think only of the raw beef, pork, and chicken.  Again, this image is strikingly average, but for the opposite reason than glut of options in the cereal aisle: all we see is beef.  And pork.  And chicken.  Shoppers subconsciously expect precisely the same brand names, packaging, and selection in every grocer in their town, state, and, truly, the country.  Meat’s most apparent attribute is how nonspecific it is.

A chicken drumstick is a chicken drumstick no matter where you are, after all.  Ditto for a porterhouse; it’s beef, and beef doesn’t change simply because you crossed a state line.  For decades, eaters have increasingly believed our options are beef, or no beef, and that’s the extent of it.  You either like pork, or you don’t, period.  Heaven knows chicken is so universally tasteless we don’t even identify it as its own flavor anymore, instead differentiating meal options by the sauces poured over our tenders, e.g. buffalo chicken salad or rosemary-garlic wings.

What happens if we change that reality?  Instead of the key descriptors of beef being either ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ our food landscape has the potential to offer limitless variations that are as specific as the farm on which the animals were reared.  This is one arena the wine people have it right: they take great pride in appreciating characteristics of grapes in relation to climate, soil, and growing conditions, to name a few.  Two steaks from two regions can be just as unique as two wines from two chateaus.

There are probably a few people reading who are rolling their eyes and thinking this all sounds like muddy water that’s too complicated to be viable.  It sounds difficult because we’re comparing a new idea to our current paradigm, and our current paradigm is so singular that any deviation from the course seems radical.  Yet, our diets long for variety.  People enjoy having a selection. 

Imagine the thrill of mealtime discovery when your family is trying something truly unique!  If shopping for meats offered options and intrigue instead of generic dross dumped out by the centralized system we’re accustomed to, our society would see a resurgence in food value like most have never experienced.  The results are good for our farmers and small town economies.  They’re good for our environment.  They’re even good for public health, moral, and, yes, our tastebuds.

The book Craft Beef: A Revolution of Small Farms and Big Flavors just arrived on my desk, and I can’t wait to dive in.  Regional reorganization of our eating habits is the next step to better food, and people are beginning to catch the vision.  Clarion is the perfect place for a food renaissance because we’re close to large population centers, our landscape is perfectly suited to accommodate diversified farmsteads, and we’re still largely isolated from the constriction of vertically integrated industrial agriculture.  Instead of one section at the grocery store, the whole county can act as a shopping center to provide a plethora of abundant, unique sustenance.  Better food: coming from a small town near you!