Bringing up baby
How humane is humane veal?
LouisJohn Slagel and I are standing in a damp barn, eye level with a half-dozen docile calves. One licks my yellow rain-slicker eagerly, then slobbers on my right hand with its sandy tongue.
“A lot of people, when they think of veal, think of a cute baby animal,” says Slagel, who’s 24 and speaks in a quiet, serious voice. “A five-hundred-pound calf is three times my size.”
Later, I will tell Slagel about Chloe, the only pet I ever had, a weeks-old orphaned calf I nursed back to health after a rancher found her abandoned, all her legs broken. But not yet. The Cute Baby Animal Issue will come in time.
By and large I am a goon when it comes to food ethics: I have not seen Food, Inc.; I have not read Eating Animals. As a critic, I plead a sort of justified indifference: It’s an incredible luxury, affixing the words unctuous and ethereal and, more commonly, uninspired, to an array of dishes I don’t so much crave as judiciously select, and it’s one that allows me to write off any serious environmentally conscious dietary restrictions as incompatible with my livelihood. But veal? Confined in crates, unable even to so much as turn around, deprived of sunlight and exercise such that they’re iron-deficient and therefore anemic, just to attain an unnatural pale color that testifies to its mistreatment? Maybe I sound like a PETA rights-er stuck in the ’80s, but it’s not my thing.
In a line of work that didn’t involve attempting to develop a connoisseurship of restaurant food, this would have been no big. But when a veal dish is highly recommended by the waiter, I feel I’m being petty and navel-gazing not to order it. (Why, again, am I deciding to hold to some sort of standard when it comes to veal, but not foie gras? Or a rapidly disappearing species of tuna?) Which is why what was previously an innocuous distaste for veal became a Veal Issue.
Two weeks ago, on a stormy Saturday morning, I drove in a borrowed Volkswagen Beetle to Fairbury, Illinois, a farming community two hours southwest of the city. The Slagel family has been farming in this region for generations, but they’ve been selling to the Chicago market for only two years. If their name sounds familiar, that’s because their product has quickly become ubiquitous in Chicago restaurants: Nightwood’s cheeseburger, Publican’s pork rinds, Mado’s charcuterie—it’s all Slagel. What makes it so great? Part of it has to do with freshness: The Slagels are some of the few farmers in Illinois who operate their own slaughterhouse, which means that on Mondays, LouisJohn takes orders from Chicago chefs to find out what they need, then processes the animals based on demand, then delivers the product himself two days later in a cooking-oil–powered truck. But it also has to do with his methods, which is why when Jason Vincent, the chef de cuisine at Nightwood, was thinking about adding veal to the menu a couple of months ago, he asked Slagel if he’d be interested in raising it. “It wasn’t something that appealed to us to raise animals in that manner,” Slagel says, referring to the traditional crating method used for veal. “We had several other customers ask about it, too. They said they like veal, and they’d like to serve veal, and they don’t agree with the way it’s raised. So that’s kind of where we came in.” His plan? Raise veal just as he raises all the beef, just process it at a younger age.
Commercial veal farmers might respond: Okay, but that’s not veal. And their bedfellow, the United States Department of Agriculture, agrees. According to the USDA’s fact sheet, veal have a “grayish pink color,” are housed in “individual stalls,” and “receive a milk-replacer diet.” Slagel’s, on the other hand, have a “reddish-pink color” (the natural color of a young calf), are raised in communal indoor-outdoor barns where they can move about freely, and are fed a combination diet of milk, grain, grass and hay.
The difference in color and taste can pose a challenge for restaurants, since many diners are accustomed to the commercial-veal industry’s product. “We served veal [from Swan Creek Farm] a few years back at Lula,” Vincent remembers, “and had several orders sent back by customers complaining that, either it wasn’t veal or that it was not prepared correctly. It was a real bummer to think that people in this day and age don’t know, or care, how those animals are treated in order to get the flesh to become that terrible white color.”
My response went in the opposite direction: Okay, but aren’t we still talking about Chloes? I mean, umm, babies? It was time to explain. The summer after I turned 19, my sister and I lived for a month in a tent in a field of sheep on a cattle ranch in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. We were there to learn about ranching, but I was quickly relegated to mowing a small lawn near the ranchers’ house, planting trees and caring for baby Chloe. My parents were too neurotic to let us have pets, and I was never an animal person. (See goon, above.) But with Chloe, things were different. Within days, she recognized me as I opened the gate, limping over as fast as she could to dive into her breakfast or dinner treat—a bucket of liquid that tasted like a vanilla latte. I have a scrapbook of that summer, and half of it is pictures of me with Chloe. It was some cruel trick that the only animal I ever cared for was one bred for slaughter.
There are no Chloes on LouisJohn Slagel’s farm when I go to visit—the youngest ones are at his parents’ place, a few miles away. Again, the USDA regulations and Slagel’s practice are slightly different: The USDA specifies that veal are processed at “16 to 18 weeks of age” and can weigh “up to 450 pounds”; Slagel’s are processed at seven or eight months and about 500 pounds. But as we stand among those cows, giant creatures so friendly they’re practically canoodling with me, yet intimidating nonetheless, I agree with Slagel’s assessment that “They’re not exactly tiny little newborn babies.”
A few days later, I’m lackadaisically reading the blog of Paul Fehribach, Big Jones’s chef, when a photograph catches my eye. Around the same time I’d gone to Slagel Farm, Fehribach had visited Kilgus Farm, just a few miles away, which also raises humane veal—and other animals—for the Chicago market. He posted a photo of a weeks-old calf that looked about Chloe’s size, living isolated in a “hutch.” “This is the one aspect of the farm that did not leave me ecstatic,” Fehribach wrote on the blog. I e-mailed Slagel. “We do actually use a hutch similar to these at the beginning when the calves are really young,” he replied. “Using these ‘apartments’ for each calf allows them to build their immune system…. Being in these little huts for a while helps them stay healthy and keeps us from having to use antibiotics. Then they are taken out and put together when they get a little older and stronger.”
Like Fehribach, I understood, and also like Fehribach, I wasn’t ecstatic. But the hutches had nothing to do with raising “veal”: This is the practice for all the beef at Slagel, and at Kilgus—two well-respected small, local farms. Was it time for me to start bowing to the cult of Jonathan Safran Foer? To eat mostly plants, not too much? I’m not there—yet. Which is something I think I can live with feeling a little less good about.