Look, I already know I belong in a Portlandia sketch. I accept it. I’m a caricature of myself. I’m a preposterous human.
Still, I’d like you to meet my hamburger. His name is Ivan.
As a longtime enthusiastic eater of food, and especially local Catskills food, I’ve eaten my fair share of locally-farmed meat, bought from farmers’ markets and front porch freezers and out of the back of farmers’ trucks. On the whole, it’s good stuff, flavorful and fresh and full of delicious food-snob bragging rights.
There was one notorious exception some years ago, when we were relatively new at the whole local-food-buying thing. We optimistically bought an entire quarter of a stringy, gamey old Highland, and then spent the better part of a year trying to figure out how to stew 150 pounds of him into edibility. My friends got tired of listening to me complain about “the stick cow,” but we got through him eventually. Since then, I tend to try before committing.
Ivan is on another level. My wife recently got a pound of him from Roxbury farmer Madalyn Warren, who grows the vegetables in our weekly CSA box, and we made hamburgers.
“Oh my God,” I said, around a mouthful of rare burger and Madalyn’s homemade kimchi. It probably came out more like “Auummaggghhhhhmmmm,” because I was in no way going to stop eating to talk until there was no more hamburger to be had. It was incredible. It was revelatory.
Julia informed me that he had a name, which of course was Ivan, and that according to Madalyn, he was especially delicious because he’d been allowed to stay out in the pasture with his mother and drink milk right up to the end of his roughly 15-month life, a luxury not often afforded to cows. We promptly went and got a few dozen more pounds of him. Having so much Ivan stockpiled in the freezer feels like money in the bank. Bring it on, winter, I am ready.
I’ve discovered since then that Ivan is something of a Rorschach test for people. Sometimes they think it’s cute that he had a name. Sometimes they’re delighted that he had a nice life on a farm down the road, where he had friends both bovine and human, and pretty much did whatever he felt like, and sometimes got into the Napa cabbages. But mainly, it seems, a lot of people are horrified. They’re disturbed by the mental image of him having a mother — and maybe, by extension, the reminder that most cows get forcibly separated from theirs.
Madalyn says she often gets an earful from the latter sort. “I definitely have gotten into it with people who are like, ‘You’re gonna eat him? You named him!’” she tells me. “Some people come here and they won’t eat it. They’re meat-eaters, but they just refuse to eat the cow that they knew. I say, what’s the alternative? You want to go eat some meat you bought at Freshtown?”
Madalyn’s a working farmer — one who cares a lot about the ecosystem she’s part of, and the living things under her watch. But the farm isn’t an animal shelter. It’s for feeding people. She chuckles, and her voice takes on a philosophical tone. “I feel like it’s an opportunity to express they’re a good person. It’s kind of lame. It’s an easy way to say they care about something.”
I have no moral ground to stand on here. I’m not the world’s most conscientious eater, not by a long shot. I support farms like Madalyn’s, I stock my fridge with local chops and greens, but I will absolutely eat that diner burger. I’d love to be able to clean up my act a little more, but the fact is, short of hiring a personal nutritionist to follow me around and make all my food decisions for me, I just do not have what it takes to make sure that every one of the dozens of little food choices I make in a day can trace back to a small local farm with a nice socio-environmentally responsible story to tell.
I don’t think I could hack it as a vegetarian anymore either, despite having stuck to tofu burgers on moral grounds ‘til I was in my mid-twenties. I spent 13 years hovering longingly over forbidden pans of sizzling bacon before I fell off the wagon, and the thought of going back is just too depressing to contemplate. For one thing, smug meat-eaters are even more obnoxious than smug vegetarians. Having spent a lot of time as a teenage vegetarian hanging out with goths, I can personally attest that there are few things in the world more aggravating than getting lectured by a really self-important dude in black eyeliner and a trenchcoat about how “all life feeds on death.”
My vegan friend has a deal worked out with a local pizza place — an oldschool, rednecky, Genny Cream Ale kind of joint — in which she keeps them stocked with her favorite cheese-adjacent emulsified soy concoction, and they’ll make her a special off-menu pizza anytime. I have all the respect for people who are willing to put in daily effort to live their lives this way. It’s just not for me.
Food choices are undoubtedly moral choices, just like all the other tiny little decisions we make a hundred times a day, voting with our feet and our thermostats and our wallets for the future we’re going to inhabit. But there’s a fine line between trying to eat and shop and consume well for ourselves and the world, and letting consumer guilt drag us down into a hole of obsession and orthorexia. A person can only make so many decisions in a day, and none of us is free from sin.
I will say this, though: Nothing in the exasperating world of food politics bothers me more than meat-eaters who are so deep in denial about the origins of their own dinner that they can’t stand to hear about Ivan’s mom. I’m glad he had a mom who loved him. If that makes me a monster, so be it.
Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at email@example.com.