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Amuse Bouche: A peek behind the curtain

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By Scott Mechura EBS COLUMNIST

Cooks and chefs love food.

It seems like an obvious statement. Of course we love food; the sourcing of that fresh Pacific blue marlin, or the first beautifully red heirloom tomatoes of the summer. And we love to prepare a dish from start to finish; that perfect knife cut, or whipping that sabayon to silky perfection. 

But there is also a much less glamorous part of the dishes and menus we prepare.

In late April, a group of us from Lone Mountain Ranch took a field trip to Butte to tour Ranchland Packing Co.

Ranchland is one of the few federally labeled meat processors in Montana and the source of virtually all of the beef on our menus. 

Plucking a beet from the ground is one thing. But it’s a whole other experience entirely to watch an animal from the point of death to a hanging carcass in a chilling room before it’s dry-aged for further butchering. This is a very intense process, but everyone on our team was anxious to see firsthand just what this process looked like.

And it got very real very quickly.

As we watched, some of us wide eyed, a cow was led around a series of curves into the stall to be put down in front of us and then hung and drained of its nearly-3 gallons of blood—all in the span of less than a minute.

Along many stages of a cow’s life, we see more and more that they physically move along from location to location in curved areas rather than spaces with corners. This is almost solely due to the work of a woman by the name of Temple Grandin. More on her in the near future.

Next, the head is removed and the carcass is moved along its track where a worker makes a small slit in the back of the Achilles to begin skinning the hide. The hide, weighing in excess of 100 pounds, is now removed with meticulous precision. Justin, the plant owner, explained how every last part of the animal is used in some way—except the hide. 

It is sad irony that the only part of the animal that goes to waste is the part that animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals pressure processors like Ranchland on the most. Viewed as a sign of arrogant human materialism, hides have gone from having value in furniture, clothes, tools and art to mere waste. PETA has unwittingly turned a once-useful part of an animal into trash. But perhaps this is for another article.

For the eight workers on the kill floor, there are no less than three federal inspectors on the floor at all times. There isn’t a cut, movement or action that isn’t watched and documented by them. That’s how closely our beef in monitored and inspected in the United States.

Roughly 30 minutes passes from the moment of kill to two half-carcasses hanging in a sanitized, refrigerated room.

Our group came away with a much clearer and respectful view of how a steak makes it from the yard to their kitchen—and ultimately to your table. Our fieldtrip also put into perspective the intensity and reality of what goes on in a facility like this in order for us to reap the pleasures of these animals.

There are two things I always joke about: If you can’t lift your suitcase into the overhead bin, you should be checking it. And if you can’t park your vehicle, then the vehicle you’re driving is too large. But on a more serious note, my third adage is that you should be able to see how your food is produced, or in this case, processed. 

This process is incredibly graphic, far more so than I put into words here. It is raw, and it is real. But I believe it is important to know how that wonderful piece of meat we all enjoy arrives to us; what it takes to get it there and the physically demanding and dangerous work it takes to accomplish this.

In other words, if you don’t have the stomach for the process, you should think twice about putting the final product in said stomach.

As our team agreed, if you can’t watch it, you shouldn’t eat it. 

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is an executive chef, former certified beer judge and is currently the executive chef for Horn & Cantle at Lone Mountain Ranch. 

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