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Expert Guide

The Elite Meats of America: A Short List

Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch © Courtesy of Frank Reese

There are no doubt dozens of incredible meat producers in America -- small farms, independent collectives, high-end branded puryeyors. I haven't eaten all of their meat, much as I would like to. But I've eaten a lot, and thought about it long and hard, and I am ready to give my short list of what I consider to be the country's greatest small-scale independent meat people. If you have a chance to get meat from any of the follwing producers, whether in a retail store or in a restaurant, don't hesitate. I should also say here that I know most of these guys, and have even had a few involved in Meatopia at one time or another.

Lamb
Border Spring Farms, Patrick Springs, Virginia
A small farm of just a few acres, tucked away in the southwestern corner of Virginia, Border Springs Farms is a kind of secret weapon of southern chefs, many of whom descend on the place in summer for an annual outdoor bacchanal called Lambstock. The farm's lamb is raised on an all-grass diet, like every other lamb, but the grass is itself carefully planted and farmed. The meat is rich and well-marbled and has a lovely, piquant flavor that doesn't really taste like anything else. I really like it.

Pork
Eco-Friendly Foods, Moneta, Virginia
Winner of the "lamest name" award, Eco-Friendly Foods is a collective of small farms represented to the world by Bev Eggleston, an eccentric but charismatic former farmer known for his eccentric behavior and eloquent advocacy about food policy. I say "eccentric." Really, Eggleston is a stone weirdo, although loveable. Eco-Friendly's best and rarest product is 100% ossabaw pork, the same rare breed used in Spain for the legendary jamon iberico. Typically, much of Eco-Friendly's pork is from various hybrid animals, but all of it is incredible. I've had tough pork blade steaks from the place that were better than any berkshire pork under the sun.

Veal
Strauss Veal, Franklin, WI
It's one thing to eat a baby; infanticide is practically a pasttime for most carnivores, who dote on treats like spring lamb, game hens, kid goat, and so on. But the stories we've all heard about veal in their pens are troubling, to say the least. In fact, veal calves are treated even worse than people think. Their pale color comes from the deliberate starvation of the animals, who are so weak they can barely walk. Enter Randy Struass, a Wisconsin farmer whose calves walk free with their mothers, eat well, and are slaughtered humanely. Strauss veal isn't white, but it tastes wondeful, and absolves its consumer of the worst guilt.

Beef
Flannery Beef, San Rafael, CA
Flannery, an independent purveyor in California, sells some of the best steak in the country; some people have said THE best steak, but that seems like a lot to claim. (Snake River Farms, Creekstone, Slagel Farms, and a bunch of other producers sell some pretty great steak.) That said, Flannery is something of a hero of mine, a guy who works with a handful of small farms, each producing a relative handful of animals, of which the very best are selected by Bryan. I have worked with him -- he was one of the meat sponsors at Meatopia Texas -- but his boutique meat operation speaks for itself.

Chicken and Turkey
Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, Lindsborg, KS
Here's a funny thing you don't know about chicken. Nearly all the chicken in this country, whether it comes from small farms or giant factories, is basically the same overbred bird, a freakish concotction of genes so specialized that the birds are often incapable of reproduction. They are missing half of the natural genome and that's why they are vulnerable to so many diseases, among other things. A man named Frank Reese has what is, to my knowledge, the only completely dedicated heritage chicken program in the country. Not that there aren't some producers of great birds -- Violet Hill Farm in West Winfield, NY sells some amazing Belle Rouge chickens -- but Good Shepherd is waging a lonely and, I suspect, futile fight against a suffocating genetic tide. Just read his manifesto.

More Lamb
Tamarack Tunis Farm, Corinth, Vermont
I met Ben Machin, the proprietor (with his wife Beth) of Tamarack Tunis farm, through his boyhood friend, chef Seamus Mullen, his boyhood friend. Mullen is probably the chef in America whom I most trust when it comes to lamb, but given how well he knew the guy, it was hard for me to credit the over-the-top praise. Then I ate the lamb, which was sweet and light and gamey all at the same time. A story comes with it, too: the Tunis breed is an old one, dating back to the eighteenth century (Jefferson was a fan.) It's not a popular lamb for commercial production, because the animals on the small side and take a long time to grow up. The whole farm is forty acres on the top of a steep hill and basically represents the ideal of small-scale heritage production. I cooked an eighty pound ewe at a barbecue last year and the aroma still lingers on my clothes.

Related: 26 Delicious Lamb Recipes
33 Incredible Roast Chicken Dishes
16 Best Recipes for Pork Chops

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