I’m on the road this week, bound for Las Cruces, New Mexico. When I get there, I’ll report on the Southwest food scene, but now I’m driving through the raunchy stench of the Swift meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado.
The Swift plant, which gained fame in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation for its abused illegal workers, numerous infractions of meatpacking laws, and ruthless management, would churn out more vegetarians than T-bones if the public were allowed inside to view the grotesque conditions. Driving south on Interstate 25 towards Denver, and still miles away from the plant, the smell of thousands of cows, shoulder to shoulder in their own shit as they fatten up for slaughter, was unreal.
Did I mention the smell? That putrid cloud — and the human and bovine suffering behind it — reminded me why I don’t eat “mystery meat.” Because when you eat meat of unknown origin, chances are it came from a place like Greeley, Colorado.
Meat, like sex, is better when you don’t pay for it. You earned it, and you have a better idea where it’s been. Most of the meat I eat is deer or elk from my freezer, and when I do pay for it, I try to learn as much about it as possible. This requirement limits the amount of places you can buy meat, and tests the patience of many a waiter.
Eating through my elk stash, I’ve noticed that the backstraps — widely considered the best cut — take a back seat to the bottom round. The backstraps are more tender, but the bottom round, which comes from the rear quarters, has more flavor. And with a three-year old cow elk like mine, everything is tender, even the bottom round.
Not long after Greeley, I stopped in Golden, Colorado, home of Coors, and of a transplanted Missoulian friend who I’ll call WTF (short for What The “Heck”). Walking through its tranquil and funky neighborhoods, we couldn’t stop comparing Golden to Missoula. In typical Missoula-centric fashion we re-christened the town “Mini-soula.”
At the Golden City Brewery (“Golden’s second largest brewery!”) we got three growlers of perhaps the hoppiest IPA ever. Without a side-by-side against Blackfoot IPA — my local favorite — I couldn’t tell you which I like better. They also had a green-chili beer, which unfortunately reminded me of Weird Al Yankovich songs: cute, but not something I want over and over.
These growlers were accessories to the research we had planned: comparing backstrap and bottom-round cuts of grass-fed beef.
The beef came from Wild Oats, a Boulder, Colorado-based natural food supermarket chain that also runs San Antonio’s Sun Harvest stores. What a place. The samples were flowing, the deli counter was stocked with impressive prepared foods, the sushi was dangerously good, and the meat counter was plush with grass-fed options.
Pending the Federal Trade Commission’s approval, Whole Foods, the 800-pound gorilla in natural-foods retail, is merging with Wild Oats. I hope Wild Oats doesn’t get homogenized by the Whole Foods behemoth.
The bovine equivalent of elk backstrap is called rib-eye, which is analogous to the fleshy part of a lamb or pork chop. The bovine equivalent of the elk bottom round is also called the bottom round, which cost $5/pound, while the rib-eye cost $12/pound.
Rubbed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce, the crimson slabs went onto WTF’s grill, along with fresh asparagus and whole Anaheim peppers. Avocados were mashed with garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper, a green salad was dressed with vinaigrette, and our second growler was running on empty.
Normally I’d have called a foul for serving such a meaty meal without red wine. You need that balance of fruity acid to complement the meat in your mouth. But the balsamic vinegar on the salad fulfilled this function, while the hoppiness of the IPA provided it’s own distinct brand of joy, making me very, very hoppy.
As for the grass-fed beef rib-eye versus bottom round: The winner was whichever piece was in my mouth. When I bit into the bottom round, the rich flavor was impressive. But when I went back for a bite of rib-eye, it dissolved in my mouth with a juicy burst. In short, the rib-eye was juicier, fattier, and more tender. The bottom round was tougher and leaner, with more flavor.
I’ve uttered the mantra “fat is flavor” so many times that I’d come to believe it’s true. But if my little experiment proved anything, it’s that fat and flavor are not one.
Since elk is naturally lean, it makes sense that in a specimen like mine, where the whole animal is tender, the more flavorful bottom round would edge out the backstrap. But in beef, the bottom round is tough enough to cost it some points, while the rib-eye is marbled and seductive.
But I don’t mind the extra chewing. In fact, I’d take some dental floss and grass-fed beef over a smelly feedlot cow any day.