"You are what what you eat eats too."
When the food writer Michael Pollan wrote those words in his book In Defense of Food, he inspired a huge wave of people—including those with no connection to the food industry—to think critically about the nature of food and how it is consumed. People like Misha Volf.
Volf—an audio engineer, furniture designer, and Parsons School of Design graduate student—had a radical idea several years ago. Despite having no background in food, he decided to explore "meat and our relationship to meat as consumers and eaters." The result of this exploration was a pop-up dinner called Fodder, held in Brooklyn last month.
There, I ate meat from a cow named Yahoo, a.k.a. "Beef Steer #022B," an Angus raised by Wrighteous Organics in Schoharie, New York. (Oh, and just in case you were wondering, yes, Yahoo was indeed named, by the farmer's daughter, after the cash-strapped tech multinational.) The point of the dinner was to understand what Yahoo ate during his short (but happy, I hope) life, and to absorb this simple fact: When we eat, we are really eating the food that our food eats.
That's how I ended up at a dinner where I ate a salt lick, hay, and a bunch of grass.
Neither a chef nor a restaurateur, Volf says he became interested in thinking about the ethical issues around food. He says, "Food is obviously essential to our existence, but it has also become a really interesting and rich topic for conversation—a political issue and a place to start any number of conversations from, whether it's about ethics or environmental issues."
He asks, "Can we see the animals in our meat products and can we sense the history of meat as a product that includes the actual animal behind the product?"
Volf wrestled with the idea for several years and knew it would take the shape of a dinner, but he wanted to find a chef who would be a true collaborator. "I'd been thinking about the project for a long time, and for a lot of that time it didn't make sense to most everyone, myself included. I pitched it to a few different chefs and showed them a very basic menu that had three different animal diets on it."
Aimee Hunter, who now works as a personal chef and on pop-up projects in the Bay Area, turned out to be that person. "The first document I sent Aimee after she agreed to do the meal was something in which I split the cow's life apart into different life stages, which ended up turning into courses," Volf says. "That timeline began to filter into the dishes, and on top of that I overlaid a mood journey."
Hunter initially thought the idea to create a menu around what cows eat was slightly ridiculous. "It is and it was. That's the charm of it," she says. Eventually, though, she came to see that "creating and being a part of something so unique was a privilege, no doubt."
By the time several diners and I sat down to eat at Fodder, Volf had been gestating the idea for several years, and he and Hunter had spent dozens and dozens of hours in preparation and testing.
The meal began with an amuse bouche simply entitled "Salt Lick." Hunter told me that "we wanted something very much like a little cube of salt and minerals that would bring nutritional value to cows. Misha pushed for it to have more of an earth and mineral flavor, so we added mushroom powder and a few different kinds of seaweed to a basic seed mixture. And more salt." The result was about as unpleasant as one would expect for something largely comprised of salt. I could only stomach one of the two cubes offered, and spent several minutes thumbing the uneaten cube before tucking it away in my pocket.
After reluctantly dealing with the amuse, my fellow diners and I were led to a nine-foot-long trough, which Volf had meticulously designed for the night. That set piece would serve as the focal point for the rest of the meal and was an integral part in making us feel like livestock. Did I mention we would be eating from the trough with our hands?
The first course, entitled "Calf," was meant to represent the beginning of eating in the life cycle of a cow, and consisted of ricotta made from raw colostrum, the milk made by mammals during late pregnancy. "It's weirdly easier to buy colostrum than you would think," Volf tells me. "In New York, it's probably as easy as it is to buy weed. You have to be a bit discreet and know a guy, and once you know a guy, you just text and make an order."
To really give diners that bovine feeling, the ricotta was nestled in a bed of edible grass resting atop the trough. I was a little put off by the idea of the dish, but it tasted like a pure encapsulation of springtime. Many cheeses have floral or vegetal notes, but this ricotta was no joke—it was a pastoral landscape blanketed in virginal sunshine.
The second course, the creators explain, was not an easy one to prepare. Entitled "Weaner/Feeder," Volf and Hunter decided that a course of hay was clearly called for, but how to make it palatable? Hunter found out that hay can be "tougher than badly braised cartilage, nearly inedible." But then Volf suggested tempura and Hunter added wheatgrass, sprouts. The course was supposed to depict the move from summer into fall and was served on "dirt" inspired by Massimo Bottura's famous camouflage desert. Given that what we were eating was really a ball of fried grass, it tasted pretty good. Although it feld odd eating hay, it was a perfect seasonal transition and a great reminder that we were indeed eating the human analog of livestock feed.
Course three was called "Finisher" and consisted of a barley stew. Of all the courses served, this was far and away the most familiar to human eaters. We may have been eating savory porridge out of our hands, but it was easy to forget that the stew was meant to stand in for a period in a cow's life when they are fattened up for their eventual slaughter.
And then came the pièce de résistance: the cow itself. The fourth course consisted of a "body tasting" of Yahoo. Each of the diners was handed a plate consisting of oxtail, bone marrow, tenderloin tartare, and pickled tongue, to accompany another massive chunk of meat set before us on a wood board above the trough. As I was tearing into the juicy, perfectly cooked flesh of Yahoo, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of regret. I'll gladly eat a double-bacon cheeseburger, but this exercise in eating what Yahoo eats had left me with some serious qualms about being a carnivore for the first time in years. The meat was delicious, but my enjoyment was tainted.
Another thing I realized? Whatever Yahoo ate was part of him and is now part of me. Cows that nosh on industrial-grade corn mush and antibiotics are composed of just that. Luckily, Yahoo was most certainly not an industrially raised cow.
The meal ended with a desert of "Cloudy Whipped Cream," a lovely bowl of whipped cream and sorghum syrup. Despite not directly fitting into the concept of eating what livestock eat, the dessert kept up the seasonal narrative and was a welcome moment of respite in what had otherwise been a difficult meal.
In the end, the meal was what you might call an intellectual or ethical success, not because it tasted great (although some of it did), but because it forced me as a diner to be aware of what I was eating (and what it ate) in a truly visceral way. As Hunter puts it, Fodder takes us one step closer into "the realm of respect for the animal's consciousness. The concept of Fodder helped to reinforce the pause before purchase, the question of need and quality."
Eating, as this dinner illustrated, is all part of the cycle of life.