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A Virtual Flesh-and-Blood CSA

United States - 27 Jan 09

Tamar Adler is trying to convince all of suburban California to buy animals whole.

Buying an animal “whole” means that you get the total weight of one animal (not the whole hanging carcass and a hacksaw). When you buy all of an animal, you pay one per-pound price for all of it: three dollars a pound, for instance, for the chuck and the brisket and the flank and for the strip steaks and t-bones and filet mignon. And it shows up cut and packaged, just like it does to the grocery store.

My confidence in this project has been hard earned. For over a year and half, Ethicurian blogger Bonnie Powell and I worked to create a whole-animal purchasing model that we used to divide animals we bought directly from farmers into pre-purchased ten- to fifteen-pound shares, distributed through what we called the Bay Area Meat CSA. Over grueling months as a two-lady distribution-company—during which we realized that meat CSAs should really be administered by farms—we seeded ranch-based CSAs and developed a system that kind of, well, worked.

Now that a few fledgling meat CSAs have used the tools we developed, with the help of Slow Food Berkeley, I am trying to put our model online. If it works, the web-based toolbox (meat 2.0?) should relieve some of the trepidation (and drama) associated with the process of buying something nose-to-tail.

Here is how it works: The new site represents an online community, still called the Bay Area Meat CSA ( It is a “Ning,” a free social networking site with easy-to-use message boards and forums. Once people have become members of the site, they can look along the home page’s left margin and find a “group” of concerned meat-eaters in their neighborhood. The rest of the site is dedicated to templates: butchery specifications, cut-descriptions, worksheets on which to divvy up meat, and local meat resources: ranchers, slaughterhouses, recipes, and helpful hints.

When Bonnie and I created our CSA-modeled buying group, the idea was to help people without big freezers get city-apartment-sized quantities of locally-raised meat as inexpensively as possible. People who had invested in their own industrial meat grinders and walk-in coolers, we reasoned, were able manage a quarter cow or half pig, the smallest quantities many ranchers sell. So we geared our model toward people who would only be able to buy direct if they shared with a lot of neighbors.

Our theory was that if we could give butchery instructions to ranchers, emphasizing a need for everything in as small and many cuts as possible, and create broad categories into which we would separate the cuts, we could divide anything up, more or less equitably, among members.

No matter how you butcher a cow, or pig, or lamb, there are always approximately the same percentages of cuts on them: whether a butcher chooses to grind it into hamburger or cube it for stew, about half of any cow is pretty tough stuff trimmed from other, more tender muscles. So every share we made would contain about half of that tough meat. The rest of the cuts we organized according to ease of preparation instead of their perceived values. For cows, all steaks went into one category (for pigs, all chops, shoulder chops, and sirloin), all two-pound roasts for braising into another, and all smaller braising cuts into another. If one share got only flank steak from the first category, we would try to make sure it also got short-ribs, an easily recognizable and recipe-friendly cut.

It worked. Dividing cuts of meat into the categories that we did enabled us to split a 500-pound cow into fifty small shares, instead of requiring Herculean meat-eating of any of our members. When we finally gave up the ad hoc distribution business, I vowed to make our lessons open source, so that people who had gotten accustomed to shares of local meat could repeat the process themselves.

On January 10, at Leo Cotella’s produce stand at the Oakland produce terminal, Slow Food Berkeley launched our new social networking/meat instructional/revolutionary meat-purchasing guide site. Its sixty members are already organizing whole-hog purchases and coordinated chicken pick-ups, and most of them have only met online, even though they live doors down from each other. We are hoping the very commonness of it all—the absence of fireworks or double-dares—gives it enough fuel to take off.

Tamar Adler cooks at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where she arrived two years ago after leaving Farm 255, a fully integrated farm-restaurant in Athens, Georgia (, where she worked as head chef. Before that, she was an editor at Harper's Magazine. Tamar is currently a leader of Slow Food Berkeley and directs the Bay Area Meat CSA, which seeks to create functional direct-sales models for small-scale ranchers.

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