Sunday, April 8, 2012

I am the Resurrection and the Life

           Every year I dreaded Easter. Not because I have anything against bunnies, little chickies and pastel colors, but because we would be forced to go to our local Korean church.
            Yep. I was that atheist kid. Never got the God thing. Never got the prayer thing. Never understood why I reading some funny book would get me anywhere. And what’s the deal with Good Friday[1]? What’s so good about getting your hands and feet nailed to a cross and being left to rot? I would not exactly call it good for anyone, much less Jesus. For me, church was a waste of three hours in which I could be doing something else…ANYTHING else. 
            But that was all for naught. Like many other Korean families that immigrated to the United States in the 70’s and early 80’s,[2] I was stuck going to church. Not because my parents were particularly religious – mainly because churches had become the meeting ground for the Korean community. Between the Praise God sessions (which I never fully understood) and singing Amazing Glace, there were aborted Korean language classes (the American part of Korean-American kids was just too undisciplined for native born Korean teachers), rumor mongering (Korean mothers make Gossip Girl look like amateurs), and Dr. Lee & Dr. Kim yapping about Dr. & Dr. life.
            But when it came to Easter, the youth minister, Dr. Rhee, would attempt an egg hunt in the churchyard (which we had to finish in an hour before the people who actually owned the church, some white Methodist Church, wanted it back) and that was the end of it.
            This seemed in stark contrast to the rest of Chicago. The Ukrainians had batik painted eggs that beat the pants off of any Paas set. The Poles would bring baskets of food to be blessed by the pastor for Easter. Even Jews, who didn’t have Easter, got those macaroons, brisket and matzo sandwiches.            
Suffice it to say, we were pretty clueless about celebrating Easter, beyond gorging on bad chocolate eggs. In fact, I exclusively went to Passover Seders (I make a killer Matzo brei) for years because all my friends were Jewish. That Easter thing? Meh.
Until I met my current husband. My husband is European, and they are big on Easter. As soon as the Christmas decorations are gone, out come the Easter creep – bunnies, chickens, beer (yes, they have Easter beer). And starting around Palm Sunday, the entire continent takes the week off to be…uh…European.
And when it comes to Easter in Europe. It’s lamb. Yes, that cute fuzzy little lamb. While lamb isn’t very popular in the US[3], in Europe, especially in Europe, there is a great tradition of eating lamb due to the traditional pasture practices.
 But when it comes to sustainable eating…gulp. Lamb is really not very sustainable. In fact, it’s dead last in terms of environmental impact, according to Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change. This would seem counter-intuitive. Sheep has been used for over millennia as a source of meat and wool. They graze on grass. They don’t need much care beyond shearing.
Doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? Because sheep generate the same amount of carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) but are far less efficient in producing edible meat, they deliver pound per pound of meat, far more greenhouse gas emissions per weight.
So it’s worse to eat lamb than beef. So I should eat more beef, right? Wrong. It’s all about comparing the relative to the absolute. The problem here in comparing the two types of livestock lies in the overall statistics of livestock ranching and consumption of the two different animals. When it comes to the amount of sheep raised in the US versus that of cattle, the number of cattle in the US vastly outnumbers the number of sheep raised in the US. (2.5 million sheep vs. 96.3 million cattle in 2006.) Multiply that number with the amount of their total CO2 impact, beef is far worse to eat in absolute terms. How much worse? 216 million pounds of C02 equivalents total for sheep vs. 5.739 BILLION pounds of CO2 equivalents – basically beef beats the pants off of sheep by a factor of 27 times in the total number of CO2 equivalents.
But when it comes to husbandry practices, it’s a toss up. According to the USDA, 98.4 percent of all sheep farms have fewer than 500 heads.  Unfortunately, the other 1.6 percent count for about 50 percent of the sheep raised in the US in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), aka, “Factory Farms.”[4] These farms, instead of raising sheep on grass, feed their sheep grain (usually corn, just like cattle) and predictably, have all the same husbandry, food safety and environmental problems that CAFO’s have: water pollution, decreased air quality, animal welfare concerns, antibiotic resistant bacteria, higher levels of diseased animals, and higher incidences of salmonella and E. coli.
So why bother eating lamb or any meat at all? Well, here’s the deal. People aren’t going give up eating meat. Even though there are several good ethical and environmental reasons for giving up meat, it’s not going to be possible for many – because people like it. Stupid, I know, but people like the taste of meat. The question then is how to make a better system that minimizes the environmental and animal welfare issues associated with industrial livestock husbandry.
What does this have to do with sheep? Even though the problems with concentrated sheep husbandry is just as bad as with cattle, unlike cattle, there is still hope to change the sheep business. First, as majority of sheep ranches are pasture-raised, the public health, disease and environmental impacts of CAFO’s are automatically decreased. According to several studies[5], grass-fed meat has less fat and more nutrients (vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, lineolic acid) as well as being less expensive to produce (don’t have to pay for all that expensive grain). Secondly, because grass-fed sheep use less energy intensive inputs (e.g. grain) and are constantly moving across pasture, they not only help decrease the total energy needed for growth, but also encourage forage growth in spreading manure across a field. This field management system helps with carbon sequestration as well as preserving soil and local biodiversity.[6] Thirdly, and this is most important for many ranchers, the margins on grass-fed meat are huge. Consumers will pay for both the environmental and health benefits of eating organic or pasture-raised meat – as much as 200 percent more. One agronomist has placed the natural or organic beef market at $350 million dollars, with a potential growth of 1billion dollars in the next five years. Sheep is a ready-made market for this potential – it has already the land and some of the husbandry practices. The demand is there as well – the US is a net importer of sheep and lamb meat. By adding on the premium for pasture-raised sheep, CAFO’s could profit themselves out of existence.
But why isn’t this done? It’s not just a lack of political will, but also a question of economics. CAFO’s make money on volume. But ultimately, it is the consumer that has to do the hardest work. As the case of pink slime and Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) has shown, consumers can and should demand a better food system. The hardest part is not convincing Congress or some Federal agency for more regulations regarding antibiotics, welfare standards or public health initiatives regarding livestock. The hardest part is convincing the American public to demand change with their dollar. By choosing NOT to purchase meat that is made in factory farms, we as a collective can get change. The FDA ain’t gonna do it. Neither is the USDA. It is incumbent upon us to make that change and resurrect a better food system for all.

Yangrou Paomo
            This is specifically a mutton recipe NOT lamb. Why? The likelihood that you can find an organic or pasture raised lamb in spring is very unlikely (or very expensive) due to the life cycle of sheep. Spring lambs were not born in spring…they were born in winter and probably never saw the light of day by the time they got to the butcher. Not very sustainable. Muttons, on the other hand, are about 2 years old, and if pasture-raised (and by now you should be convinced of buying as such), they are usually also used for wool and milk production – which I think is what the animal should be used for. In the taste department, mutton has richness that lamb simply does not. And for this recipe, that gaminess is needed to stand up to the complex spicing of this dish.
            As for the origins of this dish, this is specifically a Xi’an dish. Xi’an, the former capital of the Tang Dynasty (9 A.D.), due to its location on the Silk Road, brought Islamic religion and culture to China. This is not only reflected in the native Chinese Muslim population, but also in its food: Xian dishes often contain Arabic ingredients, such as mutton or cumin, as well as pita-like flatbreads common in the Near and Middle East.  I think it’s a nice antidote to the usual boring roast and the best part? You really don’t have too much. Dump in a pot and let it sit. The long braise let’s you spend your Easter doing other things…like looking for chocolate eggs. Happy Easter!

2-2 ½ pds. of mutton, in large chunks, trimmed of excess fat
large mutton bones
2 large onions, roughly chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
2 in. piece of ginger, finely minced
½ pd. glass noodles (can be found at any Asian grocery store)
1 dried red chili
10 white peppercorns
1 tsp. ground cumin
3 star anises
Cinnamon stick, about 3 inches
1 tsp. ground cardamom (if have whole cardamom, add 4 pods, crushed lightly)
¼ c. of Chinese Shaoxing wine or other rice wine
4-6 loaves of pita bread (try to get it at your local Middle Eastern specialty shop)
For serving
Chinese chili sauce (garlic chili sauce or Sriracha are both fine)
Chopped cilantro
Pickled garlic (Chinese if you can get it)

1.     Place mutton, bones, onions, garlic, ginger, chili, peppercorns, cumin, star anise, cinnamon stick, cardamom and wine together in a large stockpot. Pour about 10 cups of water (enough to cover everything) over the ingredients and let it come to a boil over medium high heat.
2.     Turn down the heat to a simmer and skim any accumulated scum floating on top. Simmer 3 hours uncovered or until mutton is soft. (If the broth appears to be too little, add more water to the pot)
3.     Remove spices and bones and keep stew hot while preparing noodles according the directions on the package.
4.     Add salt to taste and place noodles on the bottom of a large serving bowl. Add stew on top and garnish with chopped cilantro.
5.     To serve: Ladle stew into individual soup bowls. Have diners tear peanut size chunks of pita bread into soup and serve with chili sauce and pickled garlic on the side.

[1] In Danish, Good Friday is called Lang Fredag, which makes far more sense than Good Friday.
[2] Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, which had native populations in the US before WWII, Koreans were not a large Asian minority in the US until 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  The act closed the previous quota system of previous immigration laws and instead determined immigration status upon skill level and family relationships. Thus, the joke about every Korean being a “Dr. Kim” or  “Dr. Lee” is due to the number of highly qualified professionals that were given admittance starting in the late 60s.
[3] Lamb makes up only 1% of all meat consumed in the US. While still popular amongst certain ethnic groups, mainly Muslims and Greeks, many Americans consider lamb too “gamy” for their taste.
[4] USDA defines CAFO as "a production process that concentrates large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined places, and that substitutes structures and equipment (for feeding, temperature controls, and manure management) for land and labor." MacDonald, J.M. and McBride, W.D. (2009). The transformation of U.S. livestock agriculture: Scale, efficiency, and risks. United States Department of Agriculture.  I have written an post on the problems with CAFO’s and cows in an earlier post.
[5] Duckett, S. K., S. L. Pratt, and E. Pavan. 2009. Corn oil or corn grain supplementation to steers grazing endophyte-free tall fescue. II. Effects on subcutaneous fatty acid content and lipogenic gene expression. J Anim Sci 87:1120-1128.  
UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists). 2006. Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating.
[6] Johnson DE, Phetteplace HW, Seidl AF. 2002. Methane, Nitrous Oxide and Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Ruminant Livestock Production Systems. In Greenhouse Gases and Animal Agriculture (eds J. Takahashi & B. A. Young). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier. (Food and Agriculture Organization). 2009. The State of Food and Agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome. Accessed online 7/12/11;
Pelletier N, Pirog R, Rasmussen R. 2010. Comparative Life Cycle Environmental Impacts of Three Beef Production Strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States in Agricultural Systems.