“This tastes like fish,” stated my sister, looking a little surprised.
“That,” I responded quite proudly, “is proof of all the extra omega threes found in grassfed beef.”
“Mmmm. Cool,” came the response as Kate bounced her eyes between me, the sirloin in question, and the door, hedging with noncommittal noises lest a more in-depth response prompted another bite.
It turns out my confident grassfed wisdom couldn’t be further from the truth, though at the time I’d read enough backyard beef summaries to accept my conclusion as undeniable certainty. In hindsight, the only fact that came from the encounter is that even the most die-hard health fanatics will refuse food that doesn’t taste like it should.
If you can believe it, this cringeworthy interaction was actually an improvement over the penultimate scene several years prior. Armed with a newfound curiosity for grass-only beef and backed with precisely zero practical experience, I had simply placed one of our young Holsteins from the grainfed herd out onto a patch of vegetation and let him rip. I sold the beef to couples in Pittsburgh, all doctors with refined personas and expensive cars, who to this day will not speak to me, so bad was the final product. One woman did email me several years later to remind me of the blunder, stating that she was sure I had deliberately sold them junk beef because there is no way a person could accidentally yield such horrific results. Still today the thought of that entire unfortunate experience invokes a strong desire in me to find a large rock, crawl under it, and die.
It’s a total lack of knowledge that plagues grassfed beef’s future, and I fear that scenarios similar to my fateful mistakes still take place on a daily basis at farmer’s markets and storefronts across the country. Though interest in grassfed everything was pegged through the roof during consumer enlightenment in the early 2000s, enthusiasm waffled when folks set out in search of beef that has no relationship with a cornfield. Not only did they encounter an undeveloped production system, many put something simply atrocious at the center of their dinner table. After the kids ran away from mealtime a few times, beef was either forgone entirely or the family reluctantly returned to the grocery store beef. At least it was edible.
It turns out, as I learned the hard way, there is much more to grassfed beef than a steer standing in a pasture. If grain is predictable and straightforward, grass is a wild thing that requires mental agility on par with what’s required to successfully keep a cat in a bathtub full of water. Approach unprepared and you’ll get scratched.
Management and intelligence are the keys standing between fields of grass and happy beef customers, and it’s a wholly different style of organization than that firmly planted in our collective farmer psyche. Grassland is a living thing that constantly changes from day-to-day, month-to-month, season-to-season, and year-to-year. An individual yearning to market craveable grassfed steaks must learn to be a grass farmer first; the livestock are a tool to manage it, and good management makes good livestock that taste like extraordinary beef. Instead of feeding a consistent diet of grain to the animals, cattle must instead migrate around subdivided pastures to obtain enough quality forage to get fat.
Yes, fat is important. Lean beef is an indication of undernourishment of the living animal, and undernourished beef tastes like fish (not extra omega-3 fats). Perhaps the greatest downfall of grassfed has been the widespread amateur proclamation that it should taste strong, like organ meats, and even fishy. My sister’s reaction to a bad steak proved that people will avoid unsavory foods at all costs, even if the sustenance is proclaimed to be better. I suspect this may be partially the cause of our newest obsession with fake foods; too many people had too many unsatisfactory experiences with a chuck roast, so they perceived no alternative but to eliminate beef entirely.
Since my tumultuous early foray into grassfed beef production traumatized me enough to yearn for more knowledge, I’ve studied and improved dramatically. This year, after trying a grassfed sirloin, a young man told me he actually liked it better than our grainfed offering. My friend Ty, who is an avid food fanatic, commented that grassfed from our farm had such a mildly different flavor from grain fattened beef that he struggled to tell the difference. Even my sister agreed that progress is palpable, stating excitedly “this is good!” If I may risk sounding haughty, such feedback wells me with pride, for I remember too vividly where the project started all those years ago.
I’m savoring a grassfed chuck eye steak fresh off the grill, and, wow, is it delicious. Juice flowed over the whole of my plate. The flavor is beef; good, wholesome, grass fed beef. Not one cent went to industrial grain conglomerates as a result of this steak. Not one acre was tilled to make it happen. The scent of grassland is heavy on our screened porch that overlooks summer’s verdure. Birds are swooping low over the cattle as the sun sets. This is how food should be: good, wholesome, and enjoyable from start to finish.
Can a grassfed steak taste good? Why yes, it can. What a bright future.