Imagine a colonist adapting to life in the 21st century. Not an easy transition. While there are no 17th-century American colonists wandering the hills of Virginia, you will find rare 17th-century American cattle: the Randall Linebacks. How does this nearly extinct, all-purpose breed for dairy, meat, and oxen find a job in 2013?
Enter Joe Henderson, successful investor turned farmer and, more important, avid conservationist. Believing that America cannot afford to let any more of its heritage breeds go extinct, he has set his goal to find a job for the Randall Linebacks in a world that has taken the flavor and “chew” out of eating meat through the addition of fat, antibiotics, and growth hormones.
Henderson grew up on and around Virginia farms, witnessing what some call “old-fashioned” and others view as “newly discovered” natural farming practices. In 1999, he and his wife purchased Chapel Hill Farm, 600 acres of picture-perfect ancient pastures and limestone springs that allow the animals to live much like they did centuries ago. His convictions are grounded in stewardship, not ownership, of the land: “Living on a farm is one of the greatest pleasures and luxuries in the world. My responsibility is to leave this land in better shape than I found it.” And he sees this as his opportunity to save the Randall Linebacks, which, like Chapel Hill itself, were here centuries ago.
In the 19th century, the all-purpose Randalls lost favor to standardized breeds that were skill specific as dairy or beef providers. In the 20th century, America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses increasingly required cattle breeds to deliver uniform size and growth and efficient corn conversion to fattened beef. A Randall Lineback will not melt in your mouth; you will have to chew it. But as Chef Wiedmaier is quick to point out: “Once you have tasted something like this, it’s hard to go back.” In some sense, you are going back: back to a time when meat
tasted like meat. “You are tasting flavor from centuries ago,” explains Henderson. Due to the breed’s genetics, its meat is lean and best cooked at 220°F or less with an internal temperature of 130°F.
Randall Lineback cows eat well. They enjoy a diet of mother’s milk, pasture grass, and clover with just a little grain added at the very end to provide what Henderson calls “21st-century palatability.” He adds: “Most meat deemed flavorful these days comes from animals fed on grain. Cattle evolved as grazers; it is unnatural for a cow to eat much grain. But we have become predisposed to like salt, fat, sugar, and soft squishy things, which a commercial steak fulfills. Randall Linebacks keep their fat in the right places, which is not in their muscles.”
Today, meat is engineered and each cow is treated as a widget: they are expected to look and weigh the same and yield exactly the same amount of perfectly portioned pieces of meat. A Randall Lineback is not like that. For this reason, Henderson seeks out chefs who know how to use a whole cow and prepare it well. So what it comes right down to is this: the more we eat, the more Randall Lineback cows Henderson can raise.
So you really can eat a cow and save it too. Chef Wiedmaier and his team of executive chefs waste nothing: from the fat they use in pie dough, to the small pieces ground into spicy meatballs, to the bones for stocks and soups. In fact, total animal utilization has afforded Wiedmaier some invaluable educational tools: up to 30 cooking techniques can be used in cooking a whole animal. Breaking down a Randall Lineback teaches his cooks how to become full-circle chefs, honing their craft and find new ways to effectively use the whole animal. “If chefs don’t do this, butchering becomes a lost art,” emphasizes Wiedmaier.