|November 13, 2014|
Can steak save the planet?
|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 ombré 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 landholdings 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. "When people want rib eye and tenderloin, they really want it," one of Fernald's employees said.
More than any other food, meat focusses cultural anxieties. In the seventies, beef caused heart attacks; in the eighties and afterward it carried mad-cow. Recent decades have brought to light the dark side of industrial agriculture, with its hormone- and antibiotic-intensive confinement-feeding operations, food-safety scares, and torture-porn optics. The social and environmental costs, the moral burden, the threat to individual health---all seem increasingly hard to justify when weighed against a tenderloin.
To the concerned consumer, Fernald offers broad permission to indulge again. Her animals are raised in seemingly ideal conditions, and die about as calmly as food animals can. The ruminants eat only grass; the omnivores eat grain grown on the farm, supplemented with organic, G.M.O.-free feed that the farm buys. Her handlers practice low-stress stockmanship, gently coaxing the animals into trailers and corrals and into the twenty-thousand-square-foot slaughterhouse she designed in consultation with the animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin. The last sounds a Belcampo animal will likely hear are "Sh-h-h, sh-h-h, sh-h-h," whispered by a handler it has known since birth. After that, the "knocker," equipped with a bolt pistol and headphones, renders it unconscious with a pop. The breakdown of each animal is painstaking; Belcampo processes only eight cows a week. The result of all this care is a product that is precious in every sense: Belcampo's premium cuts can cost four times as much as their equivalent in conventional meat. For internal accounting, the farm charges the shops "high market plus twenty per cent."
"I live in a bubble and I'm trying to create a bubble," Fernald told me. "I recognize that we're creating a product that is financially non-viable for a lot of people. But I'm also prepared for when the health impact becomes undeniable and people decide to reprioritize their budgets. I think my bubble's going to get bigger. Not because I'll find more rich people---I think more of the rest of America is going to decide this is worth it."
or an artisan-food producer, Fernald is unusually fluent in the zippy, acronym-packed language of an M.B.A. She is always pinging someone, setting a North Star, calling out an R.O.I., or taking it offline. "This is a punch list for what we're achieving for Q4," she says. "Jerky, jerky, jerky, jerky." She is a prodigious drinker of kombucha and a rugged eater. Days with Fernald, a friend of hers told me, start with bacon and end in chicken liver. Her idea of road food is a ziplock full of leftover tonnato made with raw farm eggs and Belcampo top round: a second-tier cut, because the financial model and the corporate ethos depend on using every last bit, and a cow is not made up of filet mignon. Her daughter, Viola, who is two and has the rounded forehead and fair curls of a Madame Alexander doll, teethes on goat chops and eats lard by the fingerful. Fernald calls her Cave Baby.
Every week, Fernald and her team hold a meeting they call Kill It, a reference, she told me, to the money they want to make, not the dispatch of animals that enables them to do so. On the morning of the meeting, I found Fernald, wearing a silk wrap dress and snakeskin heels, at a standing desk in the middle of Belcampo's office in Oakland, her laptop propped on a pile of cookbooks from the high-integrity British mini-chain Leon. The space was large, with raw-concrete columns, tomato-soup-red walls, and a pair of bronze cow heads. The magazine rack was filled with issues of The Stockman Grass Farmer and Entrepreneur ("Young Millionaires: how they did it and how you can, too").
As Fernald worked, sipping iced coffee from an old jam jar, I read a story in Paleo Magazine about the benefits of letting dirt "ferment" on your kid. She had told me she subscribes to the magazine in order to keep tabs on a growing consumer segment that seeks to approximate the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, who lived and died thin in a pre-agricultural paradise: no grains, no animals fed on grains.
When it was time for the meeting to begin, I followed Fernald into a conference room, where the president of the retail division, Bronwen Hanna-Korpi, passed out agendas.
"Start us off, Bron," Fernald said.
"Our goals for 2014 and 2015," Hanna-Korpi, an upbeat woman in her thirties wearing oversized eyeglasses and a short black dress, said. "Achieve eighteen million in revenue in 2015. How do we do it?"
"Increase non-middle-meat sales," the brand director, Matthew Runeare, formerly the design director at TiVo, said. Middle meats are the expensive, tender ribs and loins that take no expertise to cook and that sell themselves.
"Increase sales of non-beef species," Fernald said. In addition to beef and lamb, the farm raises pigs, goats, quail, geese, ducks, chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, partridges, rabbits, and squab. Rabbits, Hanna-Korpi says, are the meat of the future.
"O.K., top of mind," Fernald said, and quickly ran through the most pressing items: the distress sale of a competitor's business in L.A., the layout of the West Hollywood store, and the possibility of turning the Santa Barbara location, which had shown lacklustre sales, into a trim shop, a place to sell ground beef in the form of hot dogs and hamburgers. (Trim is the meat---up to forty per cent per cow---that can't be marketed as stand-alone cuts.) She was hoping that a new initiative, a five-dollar "fastburger," would take off with college students. In the middle of the meeting, her phone rang: a call about an accident she had been in a few days earlier, when the Uber she was riding in was rear-ended on the way to the Burbank airport. "On an upside, my Uber driver posted a link to Belcampo on his Pinterest page," she said cheerily.
Fernald stood up and faced a white dry-erase board. On it, she and Runeare had written a list of marketing messages, and she wanted a show of hands for "resonance."
1. We can make you healthier.
2. We are vertically integrated.
3. We care about your safety.
4. We know a lot about meat.
5. Everything we sell and serve is delicious.
6. We love your family.
Vertical integration, Fernald said, was central to Belcampo's identity. Controlling the whole process allows her to charge a premium---the animal-whispering results in meat that is pure of stress-induced dark streaks and other flaws that devalue a product---and to put that premium directly toward her bottom line. The company can gross some ten thousand dollars from a cow that would be worth three thousand on the wholesale market. With shoppers worried about everything from E. coli to pink slime---to the point that McDonald's has hired one of the guys from MythBusters to prove that its burgers aren't made of lips and eyes---Belcampo's company structure also has a strategic marketing function. "The ownership of the entire supply chain insures that we can guarantee that everything we're doing is what we say we're doing," Fernald had told me. "In the industrial context, you can't look anyone in the eye. There's no individual company that's responsible for anything and there's no traceability."
But it was hard to get the point across without sounding like a high-school economics teacher. At the meeting, Fernald tried again. "We own the whole supply chain for your safety?" she said.
"Wo-o-o-onk," Hanna-Korpi said. Fernald tasked Runeare with finding a more soulful phrase.
Another marketing message, "We can make you healthier," was powerful but tenuous. Proponents of grass-fed beef often cite its nutritional advantages over conventional beef, including more Vitamin E, antioxidant-rich carotenoids, and conjugated linoleic acid (which is thought to prevent breast cancer), and fewer calories and total fat. The essential fatty acid omega-3 is up to five times more prevalent in grass-fed beef than in feedlot beef. (Never mind that a plateful of grass-fed steak has about the same amount of omega-3s as a bite of salmon.)
"The idea is that eating our steaks is as healthy as eating salmon, that our meat can allow you to have a healthier life, be in better shape, all those things that are associated with eating a good-quality product," Runeare said.
"How about 'We care about your health'?" Fernald offered.
Better, Runeare agreed. "Whether it's 'We care about your health and you're a paleo CrossFit junkie' or 'We care about your health and you're buying burgers and hot dogs for your kids,' the essence is the same."
"Families are a great demographic for us," Hanna-Korpi said.
"If you're a parent, you're freaking out about whatever you're putting in your kids' bodies," Runeare, the father of a toddler, said.
"New moms, man."
"Or pregnant ladies."
"Forget about it."
Later that afternoon, we went to the Palo Alto store, for an opening party. The store is in a prosperous, tasteful mall, with tile roofs, and tenants that include Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In Foundation and the Bar Method, an exercise technique involving grip socks and a ballet barre, whose adherents it is easy to imagine a CrossFitter dragging away by the ponytail. Fernald served chubby little chicken hearts and massive goat chops, which she touted as drought-resistant. "For a while, buying a steak was like smoking a cigarette---a guilty pleasure," she told me. Just as a decade ago mothers became obsessed with organic food, a new crop of women have begun to advocate for grass-fed meat, offal, and full-fat dairy, in the belief that it will keep their children fit and off Ritalin. "Anything where women are doing it to protect their kids to me is a really good leading-edge indicator," Fernald said. "That's when I thought, This is going to be a frickin' jackpot. This is going to go big."
One June night, I had dinner with Fernald and some of her employees at the Belcampo farm. In a garden strung with fairy lights, watching the sun set on Mt. Shasta, I ate a sausage, packed in a pig bung, which had cured for three months in a nineteen-forties root cellar. It was my first time on a farm with perfect Wi-Fi, a Polycom conference phone on the dining-room table, and a hand-cranked coffee mill in the kitchen, for triceps exercise. The gate code was 0314, as it was the third quarter of the fiscal year.
Smoke from a rack of lamb roasting on a homemade grill drifted over us. In spite of the abundant summer vegetables on the table, it would have been hard, just then, to be a vegetarian---a habit I've observed on and off over the years, more for reasons of diet than of spirit. Lately, the bad news about meat had turned me into a timid carnivore. For about a year, I hadn't eaten it unless I knew something about the source, and I'd all but banned chicken from the house. Here in Fernald's bubble, where piglets scurried around in fields behind their moms and sheep calmly nuzzled the grass, I wiggled my conscience around but couldn't make it hurt.
"Ex-vegetarians are our target market," Fernald said. She sees vegetarianism as a phase---the moment in the life of a young urban person when she begins to care about food quality. "The early-life, twenties vegetarians, they're the people willing to spend money on meat later on in life," she explained. "Whole foods plus vegetarianism isn't going to get a lot of converts. Whole foods plus whole animals is a lot more fun."
The lamb came to the table, crackling with fat and smeared with vivid green chimichurri. Unlike some grass-fed purveyors, who make a virtue of leanness, Fernald slaughters her animals later in their lives, when they have put on more weight and show the marbling usually associated with the feedlot. She forked me a flap from the end of a rib. "This is the kind of cut that just never gets used anymore," she said. "But it's so good when you do it on the grill like this. There's just so much fat it seeps through. It's self-basting."
Fernald, like most of her management team, went through her own period of renunciation. Born on a farm in Bavaria, she spent her childhood drinking raw milk and eating liverwurst sandwiches. Her father, a professor of biology at Stanford, was working with the animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, and her mother, who now directs a laboratory devoted to language acquisition at Stanford's Center for Infant Studies, was apprenticed to a goldsmith. The family were tenants on a baronial estate, living over the dairy barn in a loft that was previously used to teach milkers. A rubber udder hung from the ceiling; the cows below provided heat. On a trip to London, Anya, passing a butcher shop, pressed her face against the glass and declared, "There is nothing so beautiful as freshly squiggled meat." She was twelve when the family moved to Palo Alto. She became a vegetarian and then, for one dark summer after her sophomore year at Wesleyan, a vegan, grinding her own flour from cattails.
In 1999, Fernald went to Sicily to help a consortium of cheesemakers manage an E.U. project to produce Ragusano, a cheese made from pasture-raised cows. She taught the locals how to use Excel, and they taught her how to negotiate. Her mafioso accent, her American parentage, and her car---a BMW with Catania plates---earned her the nickname the Daughter of Al Capone. She could valet-park anywhere, for free. "She picked up her business sense in Sicily," her father told me wryly. After two years, she went north, to Bra, where she started a job at Slow Food International, travelling the world to find local foods that were in danger of extinction and helping the sellers to develop and market their products. She worked with Bosnian makers of plum jam, Bolivian llama farmers, elderly vanilla growers in Madagascar. In Sweden, she found the only indigenous population in Europe that made dried reindeer meat. "I got enough knowledge to be dangerous at any type of food," she says.
A funny thing happened while Fernald was in Italy. Having given up vegetarianism and the fat-free ways of her adolescence, eating farm animals and butter and drinking a lot of milk, she grew slimmer, and noticed that she no longer had split ends. After six years in Italy, she came home to California and within five months gained forty pounds: American processed food. It took two years to lose the weight, during which time, missing the salamis she'd feasted on abroad, she started a meat C.S.A. She distributed whole cows from the back of a van and had to duct-tape her freezer door closed; she and her friends spent Sundays breaking down pigs to make bacon.
In 2008, Fernald launched an artisan-food consulting business, aiming to do for disorganized picklers what she had done for the reindeer-meat sellers of Europe. Todd Robinson, a retired financial executive, had recently bought a few derelict old family farms near Mt. Shasta, with the idea that he could restore them by raising grass-fed beef, and he hired Fernald to help him write a business plan. At first, she was skeptical of dilettantism, telling him, "Every time a high-tech company goes public in California, there are eight more goat-cheese farms." But as she built the business model she began to believe in the economics, and when Robinson said he would go forward only if she would run the operation she agreed. As the sole investor, he has put in fifty million dollars so far.
Fernald's working name for the company was Butcher Shop 2.0.; she wanted to improve on the nouveau butcher shops that started popping up in Portland and in Williamsburg about ten years ago, with their speakeasy attitudes and back-alley aesthetics. "All first-wave food businesses are such an insiders' club," she says. "The people who have been on the leading edge are so battle-weary that they don't see that the victory is welcoming more people in." Belcampo's stores are spanking clean, with crisp blue-and-white tile, marble countertops, and gold lettering on the windows. The butchers are trained to be friendly---no macho shaming---and the cases, replete with traditional cuts, look familiar, not like a D.I.Y. art project. "I'd go into these hipster butcher shops and they'd have, like, a shank where they'd taken out all the silver skin, deboned it, and tied it off like a steak," she told me. "A shank is very tough, all cartilage, and it's going to taste terrible when someone takes it home." She could learn from their mistakes, but they were not, ultimately, her competitors. "I don't want to be replacing those leading-edge shops," she told me. "I want to be the next Safeway."
In Italy, Fernald had met and married an Italian named Renato Sardo; pregnant with Viola, she lived on tofu skin and could barely look at a picture of meat, much less eat the real thing. Developing the burger for Belcampo's first shop, she forced herself to sit for tastings, eight burgers at a time, sometimes twice a week. She averted her eyes, took small bites, and spat into a napkin. Now she is back on meat, but she and Sardo have separated. He makes artisan pasta.
The Belcampo farm is in a dry patch in a brittle county in a state that got roughly half its normal rainfall in water year 2014. The storms, when they come, present lightning hazards rather than relief: there have been some five thousand wildfires in California this year, about a thousand more than usual. The ski resorts no longer open, and Shasta Lake, the state's largest reservoir, is at one-quarter capacity. Montague, a small community a few miles from the Belcampo slaughterhouse, was forced to cut its water usage by two-thirds. According to the National Climatic Data Center, more than a foot of rain would need to fall to drag California out of drought. Travis Cash, a cowboy who has spent his life managing cattle in the land around Belcampo and now works for the company, told me it's the worst he's ever seen it. "A few more years like this, and this'll be the high desert," he said.
In 2004, when Fernald was still working at Slow Food, she met Allan Savory, a seventy-nine-year-old biologist and former member of parliament from Zimbabwe and a pioneer of a grazing strategy called holistic resource management. She invited him to Terra Madre, an event that she helped organize in Italy. He came with sixty ranchers who practiced his methods. "They were fourth- and fifth-generation family farmers who had been through water issues," Fernald told me.
In the late nineteen-fifties, Savory watched the Luangwa Valley, where he was stationed as a game ranger, turning into desert, with crusted, bare soil and oxidizing plants. Like others, he blamed overgrazing by animals, and he took part in the culling of forty thousand elephants. The land worsened. He reversed himself. In nature, he began to argue, herds of migratory animals cluster in small areas, feeding for a day or two before, driven off by predators, they move to a new spot. During the short grazing period, they till the soil with their hooves, making it receptive to water; deposit fertilizer; and chew just enough of the plant to allow regrowth. He believes that by returning large herds of livestock to the landscape and moving them frequently, ranchers can restore land to productivity. As Savory told me when I went to see him in New Mexico, where he lives half the year, cattle caused the problem and only cattle can solve it.
Cows, which produce eighteen per cent of the methane emitted in the United States, are unaccustomed to being cast as climate-change heroes. Most range scientists consider overgrazing to be the cause of much of the land degradation in the American West, and conservationists advocate "resting" the land---fencing it off from animals entirely---as the only remedy. Savory's contrarian position, and the fact that his results rely mostly on self-reporting and cannot be replicated experimentally (too many factors to account for), has made his claims suspect in the scientific community. Several studies, for instance, have pointedly refuted the notion that hoof action improves water infiltration of the soil. He says that one distinguished wildlife biologist told him, "Allan, either you are wrong and we will not be able to dig a hole deep enough to bury you in or you are right and we will not be able to build a monument high enough."
From the outset, Fernald knew that water might limit her ambitions at Belcampo. Her first summer there, when she had enough forage for just half the animals that she needed to make the business profitable, she heard a rumor about an untapped aquifer and did what ranchers in her area have always done to increase capacity: she dug a well. Sixty thousand dollars later, she had only silt. Desperate, she called a holistic-management firm, which told her that the solution wasn't to find more water but to make better use of the water she had.
Inspired by Savory, Fernald instituted "mob grazing" at Belcampo, shrinking the paddocks and packing them with animals. In the Serengeti migration, numerous species travel together or in waves, eating different parts of different plants. On the farm, the cows, which like to eat greens between a foot and six inches off the ground, are followed by (or sometimes share a pasture with) sheep, which feed from six inches down. The goats are browsers; they get up on their hind legs and eat the leaves off trees. The pigs come in to dig, working the surface level and below.
One day in June, Mark Klever, the farm president, drove me around the property. He has a reddish-blond mustache and wore a cowboy hat, pressed Wranglers, and a button-down shirt; his key chain, shaped like a cow, said "Cowifornia." Out the window, I saw a small paddock, delineated by an electric fence tufted with sheep wool. Some two hundred cows, clustered densely as the plush toys in an arcade game, stood shoulder-deep in orchard grass, brome, purple flowering alfalfa, and lupine. The next plot over was yesterday's picnic: green bed head, a mat of manure and leftovers to replenish the soil and to prevent evaporation.
Across the road, there was a huge buzz-cut field, with cows at random intervals. It belonged to a neighbor, who, like many ranchers around Belcampo, sells weaned calves to Harris Ranch, the state's largest feedlot. The neighbors sometimes can't fathom what Belcampo is up to: especially in a drought year, leaving any green on your field seems profligate. "Ours looks like waste---that looks like a good farmer," Klever said. "In actuality, it's the flip-flop of that." In 2010, the area around Belcampo got twenty inches of rain; in 2014 it got eight. In the same period, according to the farm's own measurements, it increased the available forage on some plots about forty per cent.
Klever told me that in the early spring, before farmers started irrigating, Belcampo's fields looked as though they'd been getting water for a couple of weeks. There was gossip that the "freaks of the valley" were stealing water. By midsummer, though, the valley was a patchwork of green-gold and brown, and every ranch, it seemed, including Belcampo, had been forced to let some fields go out of production. Belcampo land that once had enough well water to stay green all summer was now dependent on the heavens. On the fields that were still being irrigated, the pumps were "sucking air": chuck-chuck-chuck.
In a part of Belcampo called the North Annex, which gets its water not from wells but from regulated releases from the Shasta River, the irrigation district had cut the usual eight deliveries to three, to insure that there would be enough flow for the endangered coho salmon to spawn. Fernald made a quick decision to buy a forty-acre farm solely for its well, which would allow her to raise a hundred more cows a year. Meanwhile, Klever shipped more than six hundred cows out of state, where there was grass for them to eat. As it was, Fernald calculated that between the spring of 2014 and the spring of 2015 she'd need to spend $1.3 million---half the farm's budget---on hay.
Changing people's habits is not an easy thing. Fernald can measure her success by her employees' attitudes toward food. Every month, she dispenses "meat pay," ten pounds of sausages or grind or steaks. "There are so many tech companies that have food for everybody, but not many food companies do," she says.
The slaughterhouse---the part of the company with the most failed drug tests and the greatest turnover---represents a particular challenge. The first time she went there for a mission meeting---an upbeat affirmation session where division heads report on progress---one of the floor guys greeted her with "Hey, pretty lady." She said, "Hi, I'm Anya. I'm the C.E.O."
One morning in July, Fernald, dressed in snug jeans, a leather bomber jacket, and ankle boots, drank a cup of "bulletproof coffee"---blended with coconut oil and ghee---and drove under a dark sky from the farm to the slaughterhouse for a tasting of new products. A few drops of rain fell as we entered the building---not enough to get anyone's hopes up.
In the break room, Folgers was brewing. Adam Knapp, the general manager, a big guy wearing a baseball cap stained with bloody fingerprints, came in, along with a few others, in white coats and hard hats. Bronwen Hanna-Korpi, from the retail side, was visiting from Oakland: eyeglasses on, iPhone in hand. After reviewing the mission, Fernald explained that, with five stores, there were more options for pushing through product---the beef tongues and lambs' heads could go to San Francisco and L.A., and the more accessible, grillable cuts to the suburbs. "We're going to try customizing new products, looking at a higher grab-and-go percentage in a lot of the stores, depending on what community it's in and how comfortable they are with cooking."
Seth Crabtree, who runs the commercial kitchen, laid out the new products. "Those look beautiful!" Fernald said, leaning over to smell a brick of headcheese, flecked with rosemary, glossy cubes of fat, and small pink chunks. "Like a terrazzo floor." We tried spare ribs (too dry), pulled pork (perfect), and a sweet franks-and-beans, with bias-cut hot dogs, meant for the under-fives. "We want to hit our customer with something that's really American, over the top, tons of flavor," Fernald said. "Viola would freak out with the hot dogs."
At eleven-thirty, a rush of plant workers came in holding Playmate coolers and packs of Marlboro Reds, wearing "Sons of Anarchy" and Budweiser gear. As they lined up in front of the microwave, Hanna-Korpi tried to explain headcheese to them. "It sounds disgusting, but it's delicious," she said. A man in a tank top looked at her skeptically and squirted some ketchup on his spaghetti. Hanna-Korpi appealed to Glenn Gonzales, a manager in charge of packing operations, who had been in the morning's meeting. "Eat some headcheese, Glenn," she said.
"Nope," he said, smiling and shaking his head, as he filled a white hot-dog roll with yellow mustard and layered on some Oscar Mayer bologna.
"That headcheese will sit here," a receptionist said. "It's funky-looking."
"I can't be a non-tryer," a new cutter with a shaved head said gamely, and for a minute it seemed as if he might go for it. One of his colleagues mentioned that the texture came from pigs' feet. "The pigs' feet?" the cutter repeated, turning away, as the others laughed. Putting a pinch of chaw in his mouth, one of the guys addressed Gonzales, who was still carefully assembling his sandwich. "Put some of that headcheese on," he said. "Make it taste real good."
"Not going to happen," Gonzales said.
The crisis of confidence regarding meat has created a demand for alternatives---Chipotle is up, McDonald's is down---but how big can the market for an artisanal product really get? The country's food system is based on efficiency and volume. The American Meat Institute boasts on its Web site that, in spite of our copious consumption, "Americans spend less than any other developed nation in the world on food broadly and on meat and poultry specifically." Not long ago, using U.S.D.A. data on consumer habits, Fernald concluded that the average American would have to spend sixteen hundred dollars a year on meat---almost three times as much as she currently spends---if Belcampo was her only source. Fernald is working to bring that number down---trim shop!---but in order to go mainstream she will have to undermine deep assumptions in the American psyche about what food is worth, and what food is worth eating.
One fall weekend, I went to Oakland for the Eat Real Festival, an event that Fernald started in 2009. It took place along the waterfront outside Belcampo's office, across the railroad tracks from the headquarters of Blue Bottle Coffee and around the corner from a soul-food restaurant and a barbecue joint. All the venders at the festival were required to use antibiotic-and-hormone-free meat and no G.M.O.'s, and nothing could cost more than eight dollars. A guy with springy dreadlocks under a foam baseball cap handed out samples of local kombucha, and there was a mass kimchi-a-thon, conducted by a fellow in a sequinned pickle suit and a South Korean woman wearing traditional dress. "I strongly suggest you buy my kimchi," she said, in a heavy accent. "But if you really want to make it I can teach you."
A hundred thousand people turned out for the festival. Looking at the crowd, Fernald said, "This is the front lines of meat education. This is how we build the pipelines of Belcampo customers."
Fernald headed to the back parking lot, where she was going to m.c. a demonstration by five master butchers. In the parking lot, the beer lines were fifty deep. There was a stage set up, with hay-bale seating, all claimed. A fork-lift pulled up behind the stage. Half a Belcampo cow---four hundred and fifty pounds of beef, sheathed in yellow fat---swung from its hook. "I'm psyched," Fernald said to a butcher in a wool cap and a goatee. "Fuck, yeah---me, too," he said.
The forklift made a pass through the spectators, who by now numbered about two hundred and fifty. When it stopped, the butchers set upon it, first cutting off the forequarter, then teasing apart the hindquarter with hooks and boning knives. They worked as furiously as battlefield medics, and sweated in the late-afternoon heat. Neat packages of meat stacked up in front of them, like presents in a department store's holiday display. Oscar Yedra, a fourth-generation butcher from Mexico City and formerly the head cutter for Niman Ranch, held up a piece of meat, thin and drapey as a woman's shawl. The butcher with the goatee threw a chunk to the audience and ate another piece raw. Fernald winced. It was a little hipster for her taste.
The industrial system, Fernald told the crowd, had oversimplified beef and made consumers forget about many amazing cuts and bits, relegating them to grind or dog food. "A lot of people are understanding now that some of the stuff we gravitated away from culturally is actually really good for us," she said. "It's got micronutrients in it. It has gelatine. It has collagen. These are all things that people are buying now in expensive pill form."
After the demonstration, Ryan and Lisa Pintado-Vertner and their two children, eleven and nine, approached Fernald. They described themselves as thoughtful consumers. "We're big fans of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma,' the idea of being aware of the complete supply chain," Ryan said.
"We do our best to find out what's free-range, organic, no hormones," Lisa said. "We go to Whole Paycheck."
The family had been limiting themselves to eating meat once or twice a week, owing to health concerns; they wanted to know if, given all that Fernald had said about the benefits of grass-fed meat, it would be O.K. to eat it more often.
"If feedlot meat is your only choice, avoid it," Fernald said. Ryan said he wouldn't even know how to do that.
"If you want meat every day, think about different cuts from different parts of the animal," she pressed on. "Do offal one day. Liver is amazing! We tend to want a lot of rules. If it still feels good and tastes good, if it feeds you on a lot of levels, if it's good for your family, yes. But stay away from factory chicken." She gave them a recipe for braised top round---$9.99 a pound, four bucks more than a comparable product at Safeway. "It's reasonable for grass-fed organic," she said.
It can be hard to know what to eat. Without the clarity of abstinence, cohesion seems impossible. I wing it: I'm a sometime pescatarian who's always up for high-quality meat and tries to avoid too much sugar, with the exception of chocolate, homemade baked goods, and free samples. My family is confused, too. The other night, when I served Belcampo hot dogs for dinner, my four-year-old said, "But hot dogs are a red-light food!" He'd been looking at a nutrition book for kids. "These are the best hot dogs in America," I considered saying, parroting Fernald. "It's O.K., sweetheart---I've been to the slaughterhouse!" Instead, I asked him if he wanted ketchup, and how about a jam tart---Fernald's recipe---for dessert? Eating like Fernald for a few months, I didn't drop a dress size or notice an improvement in the strength of my fingernails. I had fun, and cooked just for the hell of it more than I have in years.
In September, I had lunch with Fernald at the L.A. shop again. While she set to work on a Superman Salad (greens, medium-rare steak, soft-boiled eggs, avocado, sunflower seeds), she urged me to try something new on the menu. "We're experimenting with a lot of ready-to-go paleo food," she said, passing me a golden-brown lump. I bit through the deep-fried crust into piping-hot gloop. Fernald laughed. "You can solve for two variables, but maybe you're only supposed to solve for one variable at a time. I solved for paleo using entrails and ended up with a yucca pastry full of tendon chunks."
Hopes of an El Niño that would dump rain and replenish reserves had evaporated, Fernald said; meteorologists were predicting another dry winter. Travis Cash, the cowboy who runs Belcampo's North Annex, brought in a witch, in the hope of finding urgently needed stock water. Weed, a town near the farm, was gutted by a wildfire, and two employees lost their homes. Fernald put tip jars on the butcher counters: "Spare Change for Weed."
The beef situation had grown dire, along with the weather report. With the Santa Monica and West Hollywood locations in the works, Fernald was going to need more land to keep her cases full. "Let's just say I'm not fully bullish on beef," she said. "We've joked that if in 2015 things continue this way we'll scrape off the gold lettering from our signs and replace it with 'Nuttin' but Mutton.' "
The exigencies of the drought, if Fernald can navigate them, could provide her with the best opportunity to change the way people eat meat. As in other times of scarcity, necessity might drive consumers to broaden their habits---teach them to cook cheaper cuts and accept alternatives to beef. They will almost certainly be forced to eat less and pay more: the U.S.D.A. recently reported that beef prices had increased fifteen per cent in the past year, and are expected to keep rising.
After lunch, Fernald and I perused the butcher case. In front of us in line, a scruffy fellow in his thirties, carrying a leather satchel and wearing leather sneakers, eyed the meat desirously. The butcher smiled and showed him some lamb shoulder. "Have you ever braised before?" the butcher asked. When the man said no, the butcher suggested he put the lamb in a Dutch oven with red wine, stock, and herbs, and cook it at two-fifty for a long time. Sold!
It was my turn. "Have you braised a rabbit recently?" Fernald asked me. "Your baby will love it!" My baby loves bunnies, all right, but not necessarily in the soup pot. I looked at the flatiron steaks; she steered me to the tongue, a bumpy black extrusion that looked like it was doing something vulgar to the kidneys. "It's the best for hot weather," she said. "Broil it with vinegar and eat it cold." Not going to happen, I thought. But I didn't want to disappoint her too much, so I asked the butcher to cut the rabbit into four parts, and got some Belcampo bacon to cook it with, along with a trio of lamb chops.
I put the rabbit in the freezer when I got home. I wasn't ready yet. That night, I brushed the lamb chops with garlic, oil, and thyme from the garden, and seared them till the outside was tight and brown. I put them in the oven and, after a while, had a peek. I wondered if they were cooked enough to feed to small children. I poked at one with a knife. The fat was thick and yellow: carotenoids from the grass. It smelled like a Greek sacrifice. I tasted it. The still bright-pink meat was so clean that it tasted almost sweet. My family was waiting at a table outside. The sun was low; the iridescent edge of Fernald's bubble hovered. Maybe it was an illusion, but I didn't care. "A few more minutes!" I called through the open window and, standing at the stove, ate the whole dripping, raw, delicious thing in five enormous bites.