Elite Meat

By Goodyear, Dana | The New Yorker, November 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

Elite Meat


Goodyear, Dana, The New Yorker


ELITE MEAT

A food entrepreneur offers a delicious--but pricey--solution for guilty pleasures.

Anya Fernald, with employees, at the Belcampo farm, in Gazelle, California. She wants to restore meat to its status as a luxury: delectable, expensive, and rare. "Ex-vegetarians are our target market," she says.

Thirty seconds after I met Anya Fernald, the co-founder and C.E.O. of Belcampo, a sustainable-meat company whose ambition is to seduce Americans away from industrial food, she offered me a plate of lamb tartare. Fernald is thirty-nine and nearly six feet tall, with growing-out ombre hair and the exuberant energy of a team of wayward ponies; we were sitting at the counter of a butcher shop and restaurant she had recently opened in downtown Los Angeles. I said no, as nicely as I could. Something that a retired U.S.D.A. safety expert had once told me about raw lamb, stored grain, barn cats, and Toxoplasma gondii was ricocheting around my brain. Fernald looked at me quizzically and immediately delivered a mug of bone broth, a grayish, mildly animal brew that tasted how I imagine stone soup would. If I am ever recovering from hypothermia, I hope there is some handy. Then we split a succulent twelve-and-a-half-dollar steak-grind burger with homemade ketchup, and a Moroccan-flavored goat-leg sandwich.

The shop--a butcher case and a counter with six seats--is in Grand Central Market, a covered food court opened in 1917 and filled with sellers of Mexican mole , neon signs for chop suey, and macadamia-nut lattes: the Harrods of Los Angeles. Fernald told me that the first time she saw the place she thought, "Boom, I want to do that. I want to be a brand from the nineteen-twenties, a late-agricultural or pre-industrial brand." In 1920, she says, people ate four ounces of meat every three or four days; they all had a tub of lard in the cupboard; and their hips were wider than their waists. (Today, the average American male eats 6.9 ounces of meat a day, and women eat 4.4. Lard has all but disappeared, and so have waistlines.) The location was a winner: between demand from Latin-American grandmothers and adventurous young urbanites, Fernald was selling four or five lambs' heads a week. The chef, a CrossFit trainer, had attracted a muscular, grain-averse crowd. One diner customized a bunless sandwich of lardo smeared on headcheese.

Belcampo, which has its offices in Oakland, California, and its core land-holdings near Mt. Shasta, owns a farm, a slaughterhouse, restaurants, and butcher shops, and grows most of its own feed. "Tyson figured out that vertical integration is the key to profitability," Fernald says. "That's the same thing we're figuring out." Tyson, the apogee of the industrial meat system, was founded during the Great Depression and succeeded in making meat plentiful, cheap, and commonplace. Belcampo, born in the teeth of a historic drought that is devastating California agriculture, in a country flooded with three-dollar-a-pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts, wants to restore meat to its status as a luxury: delicious, expensive, and rare. As a proponent of bones and skin, Fernald prefers her customers to eat whole quail but nonetheless reluctantly sells boneless, skinless chicken breasts, for $15.99 a pound.

As ranchers across the country aggressively destock--cattle inventory is at its lowest since the U.S.D.A. started keeping track, in 1973--Belcampo, which opened its first shop in 2012, is expanding rapidly. In addition to Los Angeles, it has butcher shops and restaurants in Palo Alto, Marin, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. In the coming months, the company will open in Santa Monica and in West Hollywood. Within a couple years, Fernald plans to replicate Belcampo on the East Coast: farm, slaughterhouse, and retail. The problem, she said at lunch, is beef, the Escalade of the livestock industry. Without more water, Belcampo cannot increase the size of its herd. Even though the company has raised its already steep prices five per cent, people persist in buying beef, and the farm is running out. …

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