Dirt is good. From dirt all things came, to dirt they shall return.
I was born and raised on a ranch and early on learned the circle of life. Not the Disney version with the evil hyenas, the omnipotent lions, and that delightful baboon. But the hard, harsh one; where you learn early that no matter how good you are bad things can happen. And no matter how bad, good things can happen. The balance of life is precious and precarious. And I’ve seen that no matter what, the cycle always continues.
I also learned that you must never forget where you came from, for that is what made you who you are. And if you should try to hide your roots, you will stunt your growth.
I was philosophical here for a reason. Roots are where everything starts. They are the beginning of all. And I bring this up because while dining at a friend’s establishment a few months ago I heard a neighboring table complaining that they found a speck of dirt on their carrot. They were appalled that the vegetable had not been scrubbed and bleached, gone into a boiling bath, been scrubbed again, and then sprayed with some unnatural preservative to make it look the orange glow reminiscent of the setting sun. My response to this was, “Are you kidding me?” I like knowing that my vegetables came from the earth. I like knowing that when you taste dirt you know that there was a great life behind this vegetable. It was not machine whittled to a fine point, it was not soaked in a carotene bath to form color, it was not gassed with Ethylene to ripen it before it’s time. It saw life! It saw sun and rain, it saw cold and hot, it saw the sun rise and the sun set. It was allowed to have its roots.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “but Travis, all of this can be achieved and it can still be rinsed free of dirt, that’s just laziness on the part of the kitchen.” This is true in part. A vegetable can live its life and still come to the table clean. And it’s not laziness on the part of a kitchen because in a good kitchen there is no such thing as laziness. But the fact that one carrot had a small spot of dirt on it, now why not allow for the fact that that’s a good thing, as opposed to a sin. You know your roots when you know what your dirt was.
At my restaurant I leave the skins on the potatoes when I boil them for mashing. I do this for two reasons; the first being flavor. The rich earthy notes added to potatoes by leaving the skin on is truly delicious. It’s delicious because you can taste the dirt. Not gritty sand or anything like that, but its origins, its roots. And yes, a potato is a tuber, not a root; but the story still applies. The second reason I leave the skin on is because of all the rich vitamins and nutrients that it holds. Why does it hold all that? Because it pulled it in from the soil in which it grew!
Knowing that your vegetables were lovingly tended in a natural environment is important to me. The same is true of the animals we consume. Raised on a ranch you see the life cycle of the animal that grants you sustenance.
Note: This section may make vegetarians/vegans queasy.
My sister and I saw the birth of every animal on the ranch. Whatever we were raising, it’s life unfolded before our eyes. And ultimately, we knew each animal’s fate. We raised food. We raised what America eats. The calves we petted and named, the pigs we nurtured and fed, the rabbits, the chickens, the geese and turkeys, our brief foray into sheep, each animal would meet the same end. And this is why we revered them. When your dinner was your friend the day before, you remain humble to your roots. And you respect the process.
My sister and I, each, have killed what would be our dinner. This was to teach us that life is great, not small. When you know the life your food lived you have a better understanding of why and how we eat. When you are connected to that which will become dinner, you know a reverence that the average consumer may not. I respect each ingredient that comes into my restaurant because I know, generally, the type of life it lived. Each cut of meat, each breast or bone or scale, is studied by me. When we break down fish it’s not tossed around on the table or heaped into a pile. It’s skinned and sliced and separated individually to be ready for service.
The beef in our restaurant comes from the family farm. Our ground beef isn’t fatty like store bought beef because no fat was added as filler. It has fat in it, yes, because that adds flavor. But the fat is the natural existing fat that gets ground up when all the meat is ground as well. The ribeye, the tenderloin, the strip loin, these all come into the restaurant in what we call their primal form. They are whole muscle and we break them down according to the size and weight we desire. We can see the musculature, we can see the marbling, we can see the life history of our beef on the table before us. And, using our own beef, I know how it was raised. I know it spent part of its summer in the 40 acres and another part on the Horn Piece (names given to pieces of ground identifiable only to our family and neighbors). I know that it wintered about a thousand yards away from the house and ate only alfalfa from the first and second cutting of June and August fields. I know that it drank from the creek. I know that it ran through the grain. I know whether it was a fence jumper or a head-butter. I know the color markings on its face and the day that it died to serve its greater purpose. I know its roots.
So what I’m getting at, is that knowing where you came from is important. Knowing how things grow, how things live, how things die; all of this is what grounds you. When you know the dirt your roots are stronger. And you’ll have a better understanding of what you eat and why.