Your Guide to Heritage Meats

Your Guide to Heritage Meats

Left two photos by Edsel Little via Creative Commons. Right photo by Jim Richardson.

If you’re a fan of the TV show Portlandia, you’ll remember the first episode where Peter and Nance pepper a restaurant server with questions about the chicken they are about to order. The waitress obliges them with the chicken’s photo and curriculum vitae—the fowl’s name is “Colin”—and he was raised, we learn, on a farm just south of Portland. Peter and Nance put a hold on the table and excuse themselves to check out the farm in person.

A spoof on the farm-to-table mantra chanted by foodies and chefs everywhere, to be sure. But twenty years ago, it didn’t even occur to most of us to inquire about the origins of our food.

To whit, when I was researching and writing BBQ USA (Workman, 2002), pit masters couldn’t wait to talk about their barbecue techniques—the pit, the wood, the rubs and sauces, their unflagging patience. But curiously (in hindsight), no one discussed where the meat came from.

The new generation of pit masters—Peter Botcher from Butcher & the Boar in Minneapolis, Justin Fourton from Pecan Lodge in Dallas, Joe Carroll from Fette Sau in Brooklyn and Rob Magee from Q39 in Kansas City, to name a few—can’t wait to talk about the pedigree of their meats.

Where your food comes from and how it’s raised matters as much as how you smoke it. This is one of the key messages of my new public television show, Project Smoke. At home, my wife and I put a premium on grass-fed beef and heritage pork. And heritage breed turkeys for Thanksgiving. (They’re not as…err…chesty as supermarket brands, but the flavor is off the charts.

If you want to smoke and serve the best, learn more about heritage meats. They taste better and are better for your health, community, and the planet. Here’s a recent interview with Heritage Foods USA Director of Marketing, Alexes McLaughlin. Not familiar with Heritage Foods USA? Founded by former Slow Foods USA director, Patrick Martins, they supplied the gorgeous pork and turkey you see on Project Smoke. And, yes, you can order from them, too.

What is meant by the term “heritage” meats?

Heritage meats refer to once-popular purebred breeds (pork, turkey, beef, and lamb) that have been abandoned by the commodities market because they cannot be adapted to industrial animal husbandry. They’re mercifully free from growth hormones, confinement, and unnatural diets and environments. All the stuff that that makes industrial meat so cheap.

Why should you buy heritage meats?

Heritage breed meats are raised humanely, have more flavor, are more nutritious, and contribute to agricultural diversity. (The animals actually have sex instead of being bred artificially.)

Are they more expensive?

Yes. Sometimes a little and sometimes a lot more expensive, but they’re definitely worth the money. Or as food activist and New York Times columnist, Mark Bittman, says: “Eat less meat, but eat better meat.”

What should a conscientious consumer look for on the label to know he’s getting real heritage meat?

Unfortunately, there are no official USDA labeling standards or established certifications to designate the full range of heritage meats. (At least not yet.) But virtually all heritage meat is labeled by breed, for example, Duroc, Red Wattle, or Mangalitsa pork. Another thing to look for is the name of the farm or farmer. For heritage poultry, the USDA follows the standards set by the American Poultry Association (APA) for the use of the word “heritage” on the label. (i.e., “heritage turkey”) Most importantly, be sure it to find a purveyor you trust, someone who is able and willing to answer all of your questions, and having an open conversation about sourcing.

Are high-visibility chefs using heritage meats and poultry?

Absolutely. Mario Batali (of Del Posto in New York), Zach Allen (the new chef at Chi Spacca in Los Angeles), Lidia Bastianich (of Lidia’s Pittsburgh and Lidia’s Kansas City), Paul Kahan (of Publican in Chicago), and Thomas Power, Jr. (of the Fat Canary in Colonial Williamsburg) all serve heritage meats.

Where can you buy heritage meats and/or poultry?

Local farmers’ markets are one good source (and you get to support your local farmers). Or order them online from Heritage turkeys are seasonal, and come to market in November.

And finally, here’s a recipe from Episode 8 of Project Smoke that shows heritage pork off to its best advantage—West Virginia Pork Shoulder with Mustard Barbecue Sauce. For efficient shredding of the meat, use my Best of Barbecue Meat Claws.