Furious arguments sweep back and forth over the landscape about whether pasture-raised meat is better or worse than corn-fed meat. I think pasture-raised might be healthier food depending on the quality of the pasture, but when the debate focuses on taste, oh my. Years and years ago, a similar argument was popular: whether hogs fed on steamed slop (garbage) tasted better or worse than corn-fed hogs. A butcher could supposedly tell by finger-punching a hog carcass, whether the hog had been slop-fed or corn-fed by how soft or hard it was. We farm boys had a sort of ritual. We would finger-punch each other and, if praise were in order, pronounce the boy so punched as “corn fed.” If he were deemed soft and sissified for whatever reason, a finger punch would draw forth a derisive “slop fed.” In that kind of culture, pasture-raised meat was never going to have a chance over corn-fed even if the hams had no more give in them than anvils.
Then along came my father-in-law who raised and butchered his own hogs and smoke-cured the best-tasting hams in Kentucky, so everyone who ate at his table claimed. He told me that the way to do it right was to feed a hog for two years (none of this modern four to five-month wonder stuff) mostly on acorns and then cure the hams by his own special mix of salt (had to be a particular kind of moist salt he bought by the barrel), brown sugar and pepper, rubbing the mix into the meat every day for the first month of the curing process. He even specified how many rubs (ten) each ham should be given at each rubbing. Then he smoked the meat with hickory just so-so and left it hang in the smokehouse to age a month or more. Corn, or lack thereof, had very little to do with it.
I was out in Nebraska once talking to a tough old cowboy type whose flesh was as dark and sinewy as father-in-law’s hams. He sort of snorted at my praise for a corn-fed beef steak I had eaten in Omaha. He declared that a really tasty filet came out of the back strip of a four- year- old range cow that wouldn’t know an ear of corn from a watermelon. “Takes that long to develop real taste to the meat,” he drawled, “and that kind of steak is just about as tender at four years of age as at two.”
In time I raised and cured my own hams on a diet including corn, acorns and all the food garbage our family generated. I followed my father-in-law’s instructions to the letter. I made good meat, but not as good as his hams after mother-in-law worked her magic on them in the kitchen.
I also butchered a four year old beef cow I raised entirely on good clover pasture and found the meat every bit as good as Omaha steaks and almost as tender too. And baby beef from a 700 lb. calf fed entirely on mother’s milk and grass was even tenderer. But the real reason the meat tasted so good was because my wife had become as good a cook as her mother was.
Today we enjoyed pounded meat for dinner. You probably call it round steak, one of the cheaper cuts of beef because it is usually tough whether it is raised in a factory or in a jungle. That’s where the pounding comes in. Carol sprinkles flour on the meat, then beats the living hell out of it with the edge of a saucer. I helped today. In three minutes round steak became Swiss steak, tender enough that even a child can chew it up and swallow it without whining.
But the magic had only begun. Then Carol cooked the meat in a mix of sauces, spices, wines, garlic, and herbs that only she and “Fine Cooking” magazine know about. Out came meat as luscious as any New York Strip- Porterhouse- Omaha- Premium- Prime- Char-broiled steak ever to be produced from a truck load of Monsanto’s latest triple-stacked, borer- immune, Roundup- ready, Drone- resistant, super-biotech corn on the market.
Cheap chicken wings are great too, only now they are called buffalo wings for some weird reason. We practically lived on them in graduate school because they cost only 19 cents a pound back then. With Carol following her mother’s southern fried methods, those wings were manna from heaven. She could make cardboard taste good with those methods.
I’m sure the taste of our home-raised chickens today is influenced some by the way we let them run in the woods, and the way we butcher, chill and freeze them, but the real difference is Carol’s kitchen art. Her chickens taste great whether they eat mostly corn or mostly nightcrawlers and grasshoppers.