Conscientious flexitarians - eating the right meat

While a big salad or heaping mound of vegetables might be on your lunch or dinner plate, you won't find even a leaf of lettuce on the menu at Meat. Southern BBQ and Carnivore Cuisine in Lansing's historic Old Town.

With a packed house most every day of the week, Meat. is evidence of America's voracious appetite for beef, pork and poultry—particularly when it's locally sourced and humanely farmed.

"Humans wouldn't have evolved and survived without meat," says Meat. owner Sean Johnson. "It really hasn't been until the last 100 years or so that we even had the ability to preserve veggies for later consumption." A Lansing restaurateur, Johnson stays up on the taste and trends of what's hot and what's not in people's eating patterns, particularly in his hometown.

Opening in July 2012, Meat. has joined a steady influx of restaurants and businesses that appeal to flexitarians—or people who enjoy plating up meat dishes in between spates of meatless meals. "We're part of that farm to table trend," says Johnson. "We offer Lansing a traditional style southern barbecue that's straight off the smoker to your plate. We sell everything fresh, and we don't do leftovers."
 
Meeting halfway    
           
Although meat eating has dropped off in the last decade, America's insatiable appetite for beef has risen steadily since the 1900s according to the Earth Policy Institute.

While red meat no longer dominates the dinner table alongside a heaping helping of mashed potatoes, the average U.S. citizen continues to consume about 166 pounds of beef per year. Poultry and pork also make their way into occasional repasts, with a per person average of 70 pounds of chicken or turkey and 55 pounds of pork annually.

Trend watchers like the California-based Values Institute say that Americans will continue to become more selective about what they eat. And by alternating meaty and non-meaty meals—or flexitarian diets—many people will become more conscientious about menu planning and the sources of proteins on meatier occasions.

"Our customers today are a lot more conscious of the quality of meat they are eating," says Brandon Decker, co-owner and operator of Mert's Specialty Meats in Okemos. "We're working to integrate with vegetarian eating to accommodate flexible eating patterns."

Mert's Specialty Meats opened two years ago with the goal of providing high grades of meat and meats cut to order. A fourth-generation butcher, Decker boasts that Mert's always has a meat-cutter on the premises who can provide a requested cut of beef, pork or poultry from their old-fashioned service case. He says that staff, too, stand ready to field question on preparation, recipes and what cut or grade of meat works best for a particular meal.

"We can provide customers with a basic background about the meat and where it's from," Decker says. "We can tell them how it was fed and how it was raised. That's important to people now. You wouldn't have heard these kinds of questions 10 years ago."

Mert's locally sources the majority of its meats from farms and suppliers within a 150-mile radius. All beef sold through Mert's is 100 percent grass fed and hormone free, and all meat products—except some bacon—are free of preservatives and MSG.

"I'm proud of my generation for their interest in locally-sourced products," says Decker. "We spend a lot of time finding sources who can bring us those local products and we're constantly evolving into what our customers want."
 
Meaningful meetings        
 
Providing consumable meat through humane farming practices is so important to Kate Yelvington that she rearranged her life to come back to Greater Lansing.

A self-described Michigan girl, Yelvington had relocated West Virginia and then to Colorado to work in small-scale farming after a study abroad program in Italy changed her perspective on growing, raising and consuming her own food.

"I had stumbled upon a three-month internship on an incredible 700-year-old Italian estate my senior year at Michigan State," says Yelvington. "I decided I wanted to work with animals even though I had never worked with pigs and cows. It was crazy, but I realized when I was there how much I enjoyed what I was doing."

That crash course in sustainable agriculture equipped Yelvington with the basic know-how she needed to start her own homestead—first in Colorado—and now in Williamston with her fiancé Christian Spinollo.

In December, Yelvington and Spinollo purchased a 30-acre farm that they now share with four pigs, one sheep, three dairy goats, five adult turkeys, 25 egg-laying chickens and 14 ducks. They provide environments, she says, that allow animals to rout, wallow, peck and wander, including pastures, gardens and shaded areas for rest and relaxation.

"Humane farming is all about raising animals in a setting where they can be that animal," she says. "We work really hard for every animal to have what they need to fulfill their life."

Yelvington hopes to cultivate Ham Sweet Farm to a point where she and Spinollo can build all meals entirely on what they raise and grow--and then have some to share with friends, farmer's markets, local stores and restaurants.
"It's consumed our lives," Yelvington says. "People in my generation are going through a progression. The only way you can really learn about what you are eating is to get it from a local farmer, a friend, or to grow and raise it yourself."

Chef Ben Ackerman, owner of Lansing's Fork in the Road diner, mirrors the sentiment about preparing meats and produce in a manner that pays respect to life.

"We make it a point to honor what we're cooking," says Ackerman of the protein- and vegetable-based dishes that populate the menu. "We take care to practice techniques that will make our meats and vegetables really shine."

Part of that, Ackerman says, is understanding that all food comes from the earth and that people are involved in the process. About 70 percent of the food used in his west Lansing restaurant comes from farms within a 25-mile radius, and the rest from sources about 75 miles away.

Flexitarians, he says, appear conscious of wanting to know the source of their foods, particularly when it comes to meat-infused dishes. Customers, he says, are free to ask questions, and can also visit the restaurant's website for hyperlinks that connect to the providers of a particular entrée ingredient.

"We want everyone to enjoy their food—be it meat or vegetable—and to find out why it tastes so good by checking out these local farms," says Andrew Briggs, a self-described food ambassador who works with The Fork. "My girlfriend used to be a vegetarian, but she isn't any longer after eating at this place."

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Ann Kammerer is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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