First Person

Wedding Cows

Giving the gift of humanely-raised beef

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Usually, when I go to a wedding I bring a check as my gift. But one Saturday morning in November, I found myself trying to explain in my neatest small penmanship inside a sparkly wedding card that my present for the bride and groom was waiting for them in my basement chest freezer.

I bought them a fraction of a cow.

It was 20-some pounds of local, grass-fed, CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)-free beef to be precise. This may not at first seem like the ideal wedding gift. But hear me out:

These two are some of my closest friends, and moreover, they are probably my favorite couple to eat with. They’re the rare pair with no real food hangups, weird picky preferences, or dietary restrictions. At least they were until recently, when the groom became increasingly educated and concerned about the realities of factory farming and the meat that makes up most of the conventional food supply. Disgusted, he practically stopped eating meat.

Anyone who has ever read Fast Food Nation, which exposes the disturbing underbelly of fast food production, or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s famous manifesto on ethical eating, has been there. If you’ve seen similarly themed documentaries such as Food Inc. or Forks Over Knives, you know what my friend was going through. When you learn about the animal cruelty, antibiotic overuse, bad working conditions, and environmental destruction that go along with raising animals for food (at least the way it is mostly done today), it can make you never want to eat another bite of meat again in your life.

The trouble was, the bride is an unabashed carnivore who would probably cite a nice rare steak as her favorite meal. So I had to do what any true friend would do: I had to save her husband from becoming a vegetarian. Instead of a check for their wedding gift, I would buy them a “cow share.” It’s an arrangement where you buy beef in bulk–around 50 pounds or more–from a single humanely and sustainably raised animal. It arrives all at once in a box full of frozen steaks, roasts, burgers, stew meat, and ground beef.

The smallest quantity you can get from my local cow sharing operation is 1/8 of the animal. It’s approximately 43 pounds of beef, takes up three-quarters of your average freezers, and costs $410. That sounds expensive, and it is quite a lot of cash to lay out at once, but the meat’s price by the pound ($9.53) beats all other sources I’ve found by a lot. It also means that beef is on hand when you want it. As those who live in many of the country’s vast swaths of exurbs know, grass fed beef is not available in many regular supermarkets.

I bought the 1/8 share and gave half of it away as the wedding present. Recently, I made the brisket from the cow share for my newlywed friends (there was only one brisket and it seemed right that we all enjoy it), who said the cow share was among their favorite wedding gifts. I’m thrilled to hear they are enjoying steak dinners that no one needs to feel squeamish about.

Over the past three months, I, too, have enjoyed my own 20-odd pound stash of local beef. To my surprise, the pre-formed burger patties have been a particular favorite. I used to have a negative association with frozen burger patties because it seems they have been so frequently recalled for contamination. But I know, because of their natural diet and healthier living conditions, burgers from grass-fed cows are much less likely to make me sick. They were convenient weeknight dinner options that we went through quickly–I miss them already.

The beautiful ruby-hued steaks are also going fast, even though my husband and I share one steak between us and fill out the plate with a green salad. There were familiar slabs, like sirloin and T-bone, but lesser known cuts, too. I particularly liked the “Delmonico,” a retro cut from the beef loin, near the rib, bisected with a bone. There’s a ranch steak still awaiting me in the freezer. I’ve never tasted one, but it’s a lean, boneless piece of meat I’ve heard is flavorful if a little tough. There’s ground beef and stew meat aplenty waiting for me to cook it–at this rate, I will probably still have the building blocks of beef stew come next winter.

And that, I think, is what I like best about the cow share. Now, three months after its delivery, the money seems like a good value. Having that feel-good, wholesome beef socked away feels like a savings account, money in the bank. I don’t have to hope I can find grass fed beef when I scour the markets. I don’t have to pay double-digit per pound prices if I do.

There are cow share programs like the one I joined in many parts of the country–sometimes you need to rely on word of mouth, relationships you develop with farmers at markets, and sites like EatWild.com, but it’s well worth the effort to seek out a cow (or 1/8 of a cow) to call your own.

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