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Commentary: ’Tis the season

 Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator

Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator

As sure as the autumn leaves and Black Friday “deals,” you can bank on the holiday season spawning dozens of articles touting alternatives to traditional holiday fare.

Most of them are simply vapid vegetarian makeovers of what the rest of us are enjoying on Thanksgiving—and usually not very appetizing ones at that. Like the “Mushrooms and White Bean Loaf” that one veggie website insisted was “so tasty no one will know the difference” (allegedly) between some mushroom-mush concoction and real turkey.

Nice try.

But one such approach to altering the routine of planning and procurement that typifies holiday meal preparation actually made some sense—and not just because the writer didn’t advance the idea that tofu, almond paste and soy sauce can headline a holiday dinner.

However, the story didn’t start out very promising. Titled, “Why We Don’t Eat Beef for Thanksgiving,” it would have been easy to assume it was yet another veggie screed condemning animal foods and the villains who produce them—especially since it appeared in the noted lefty mag Mother Jones.

Instead, the author, Maddie Oatman, suggested that the logic we apply to produce—that fruits and vegetables are best eaten in-season—also applies to farm animals. More precisely, to the process of farming animals.

We all know the lyrical version of such seasonality: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” But do those cosmic rhythms apply not just to “a time to plant, a time to reap” but to a time to harvest livestock, as well?

“Farm animals respond to temperature and light,” Oatman wrote. “In fact, some food experts believe that we should wait for the right season to eat fresh meat. Cultures throughout history have slaughtered animals at certain times of year, and many of our traditional holiday meals—Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham—came from this practice. Steak also was once an autumn delicacy: After the first frost, ranchers would flood the market with steers fattened on summer’s pastures.”

True enough, as far as it goes.

There certainly were historical constraints on year ’round livestock production throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century—not because of Biblical strictures about the timing of animal feeding and harvesting cycles to align with the seasons, but because the lack of tools, technology and transportation infrastructure were hugely limiting factors.

For most of the country’s history, it just wasn’t possible to contemplate anything other than seasonal meat and poultry production, as much because of marketing complications as any limitations imposed by the weather.

A different marketplace

Oatman makes the point that the postwar developments changed all that, starting with government programs that subsidized and spurred the production of corn and soybeans that could be used for feeding livestock, particularly cattle. Again, correct as far as it goes.

Along with technological and regulatory changes, however, consider simply the way the demographics have changed. Prior to the nation’s entrance into World War II, the U.S. population was only 130 million. California was home to only 6.9 million people; now it’s pushing 40 million. Most importantly, 26 million Americans were engaged in farming, many as their only means of support. That represented fully one-quarter of the population. Now, less than 6 million Americans are farming or raising livestock, and many of those folks would be more properly classified as part-time or hobby farmers.

Not only do food companies now have a vastly bigger marketplace, plus a wealth of processing and packaging innovations that facilitate marketing 12 months a year, but far greater numbers of people now need a steady supply of food products because they aren’t growing their own crops or animals.

When you examine wildlife, it’s easy to document the impact that seasonal patterns have upon their feeding, breeding and maturation cycles. But that doesn’t mean that growers and producers should be locked into those limits, any more than farmers should forego irrigation, the use of fertilizers or the use of trucks, tractors or tilling machines. Since the first humans left their caves, people have been busy plowing the soil, cross-breeding plants and figuring out ways to shorten animals’ growth cycles.

Millennia ago that activity was essential to our survival. Now, it’s fodder for critic such as Oatman to wail against farm bills, synthetic fertilizer and—the Holy Grail of activists—confinement production.

Not to say that food producers should try to bypass Nature, or pretend that the effects of ecosystem disruption can simply be deleted. The best agricultural systems are those that blend art and science, ancient and modern wisdom, that incorporate nature and technology.

For those who can afford it, organic grassfed beef or heritage-bred, pastured pork are wonderful choices. If your income supports such purchases, God bless. For reasons frequently cited here, those products are all good—for many reasons and on many levels.

But here’s the irony. After casually dismissing the fact that the seasonal, natural, organically grown foods she espouses are pricey ($22 a pound for Niman Ranch ribeye steak!), Ms. Oatman then suggested a way around the issue of how to handle meal planning if you’re slavish enough to purchase meat “only in season:” Buy a freezer and stock up.

Now there’s a back-to-Nature solution right up there with selling off your herd after the first frost. □

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

 

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