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Roben Mounger has a penchant for finding locally produced ingredients for her family's meals. She has developed relationships with many small farmers and cooks year round with the bounty from CSAs and farmers' markets. Roben writes a weekly column for The Columbia Daily Herald and blogs about eating locally at www.mscookstable.com.

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F eatured Story

Getting to the Meat of the Matter at Local Restaurants

By Roben Mounger

Not so many years ago, having enjoyed the hunt and prep of locally grown produce from farmers' markets and CSAs, I expanded my research into the realm of protein. Little did I know that my quest for a new food system was mirroring the work of many area chefs. I knew that the methodology for distributing homegrown beef, pork, poultry, and eggs was not in place, but I persevered, buying a few pounds of pork chops here, a dozen eggs there, often driving some distance to make contact with the farmer. Ultimately, I would seal the deal for tasty meats, with added bonuses of observing sustainable farming practices and making friends with the farmer.

"Aristotle said, 'Change in all things is sweet,' and so have been the rewards for my family and me in this metamorphosis. We shifted our way of viewing a meal by discussing its origin and value."

Aristotle said, "Change in all things is sweet," and so have been the rewards for my family and me in this metamorphosis. We shifted our way of viewing a meal by discussing its origin and value. We learned that meat grown locally requires time and attention. Intensive methods of tending grasses, changing pastures, and enhancing treatments of the animal add to the health and the quality of our dinner, and the environment. Studies that measure the nutritional qualities of meat from grass-fed, pastured animals against those raised on a corn-based diet in feedlot facilities show that a grass-based diet produces meat with less saturated fat, cholesterol, and overall calories, with the benefits of higher levels of important nutrients such as vitamins E and C, and omega 3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)-the good fats.

Moreover, there are serious concerns over the presence of antibiotics in conventionally produced meats, which are used in the unhealthy feedlot conditions to fight the constant illnesses, along with hormones, and other additives. Confined, stressed animals also undergo a number of physiological changes, including excess lactic acid production. In addition to raising questions about humane treatment of animals, these changes have a negative impact on the quality of the product.

Who knew? So many of us are disconnected from the origins of our food. As my family talked about the farmers' daily tasks and their philosophies of doing business, we began to notice the weather and its connection to the farming process; we discussed what it takes for a farmer to make a living, and the degree to which they care for the soil that ultimately sustains us all. These are valuable conversations for people to have, and eventually we cultivated a desire for a new way of eating out.

During this time, my family and I had the opportunity to visit a restaurant in Philadelphia that I had heard was sourcing some of their ingredients locally. This was my first foray into such a restaurant, and I happily asked, "Would you please tell me the story of any locally produced entrées?" The server was nonplussed. After a lengthy retreat, he returned to say, "Well, the fish came from somewhere in the Northwest and that's about all I have." I relay this vignette from the pioneering days of local food to illustrate where we've been and where we can go, in the name of eating out with awareness.

Now consider a meal recently enjoyed by the same group at Miel Restaurant, in Nashville. Chicken liver pâté, roasted chicken with vegetables, and crème brûlée, all with the local story of ingredients provided via McDonald Farm in Hohenwald. Chef Jimmy Phillips says, "I use the local farm products for their flavor, but also because the approach allows the food to provide more nutrients, being consumed closer to picking time."

Increasingly, the story behind the menu becomes central to the experience. Chef Jeremy Barlow has one. To become almost entirely locally sourced, he likens his journey at Nashville's Tayst Restaurant to standing on one side of a bridge, with the farmer on the other. "I had to cross the middle first, to get the stuff I wanted to serve, often paying more at the outset," he recalls. Over time, he has spanned the bridge by creating solid relationships with producers. "For a few years, Kathy and Josh Gunn at Gourmet Pasture Beef and I discussed a potential arrangement until they could set their production in such a way to meet my customer requests, while developing avenues for the remaining cuts," he says. On his menu, the adaptive chef lists certain entrees with broader titles to allow him the flexibility to utilize the various cuts of meat that the farmers offer. Barlow says, "Many restaurants are starting to make the effort and my advice is, be patient and adapt your menu to the farmers."

While the locally raised option may pique interest for taste and health benefits, knowledge about local meats and their origins is also a story to delight restaurant-goers, enhancing the dining experience. As well as tasting the difference, diners are often willing to welcome a higher-priced item with an understanding of the meticulous and skillful farming methods involved. For example, since 1964, family-owned Triple LLL Ranch in Franklin has located fewer cattle on larger pastures, with enriched results. Says farmer Stephen Lee, "The manure is distributed over larger areas, absorbing into the soil, and fertilizing the grasses. The animal is sustainably nourished." More reason to know the story behind the menu.

A good number of chefs in Nashville are now sourcing their meats locally. They often look for sources at the downtown farmers' market, and forge relationships with the farmers. Chef Jen Franzen of Flyte has been using local meats since the restaurant opened three and a half years ago. Guerry McComas of the Yellow Porch is using local beef and trout, and says, "I'd like to do more, but sometimes the farmer might have difficulty providing the 100 pounds of chicken that I need on a weekly basis."

While this is a current conundrum, General Manager John Stephenson of Fido has worked for the last year with Nashville Farm to Table, a service run by Sean Siple. Sean has provided him with the means to match menu ingredients to local farms. As a result, locally grown products regularly grace Fido's tables. "We are able to defray some of the costs of more expensive meats by returning to an appropriate sized serving," John says.

At The Acorn, managing partner Julie Rahimi says that they developed a special event as a way to introduce the goodness of a local protein. Last October, they held the first annual Freshwater Prawn Boil. "With prawns from Harris Aquafarm, veggies from the Nashville Farmers' Market, beer by Yazoo and bread by Provence, we found a way to satisfy and educate," says Julie. "It was a success."

Kimberlie Cole, of West Wind Farms, well known for their highly humane treatment of their animals, suggests that restaurants that are new to the concept of local begin by serving one cut, one day a week. She observes that more economically priced cuts, including gizzards, hearts, livers, and ham hocks are now being requested. Many chefs in restaurants across the country are expanding their skills to allow them to develop a more comprehensive use of the animal and create more imaginative and rustic dishes.

As diners begin to savor homegrown meats, and restaurants offer them more, customers become part of the community. The story of chefs and farmers showcasing their best in pursuit of a great meal is compelling. It's on the lips of enthusiastic waiters at Margot's and in the list of the farm suppliers at Tayst. It's there when Kathy Gunn of Gourmet Pasture Beef says, "We want to be the primary supplier of grass-fed beef to Nashville area restaurants, and we'll take the time to build the relationships." As Brent Leary, formerly of Vermont Fresh Network, and now with The Wild Iris Café in Brentwood says, "Let's go on a field trip and get to know some farmers."

While the farm to restaurant table network is in process, the customer's role is clear. We like a good story and we can ask for it. The tale begins on a farm with good husbandry and ends where our dollar buys the very best and delivers local dividends. At Fido, John Stephenson got to the meat of the matter as he served Sean Siple a plate of good eats, saying, "Sit down and eat. Respect the food."