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MasterChef Where Are They Now: Tracy Kontos

For the next installment of my MasterChef: Where Are They Now? series, I’ve chosen one of my personal favorites from Season 2…Tracy Kontos.  Tracy is one of those people that, upon meeting, you instantly feel like you’ve been bosom buddies for decades.  She immediately sweeps you into this comfortable familiarity and makes you feel like the most important person in the world.

Tracy’s MasterChef journey began in southern Florida, where she lived with her then-husband, a private pilot for a mega-celebrity.  Tracy met her husband when she was a private flight attendant for said celebrity, in a time when her life was very spontaneous and free, exploring the world, following her heart and her dreams.  After getting married, she applied her rare people skills to a sales position with a major multi-national company and, in no time, she was a national sales manager, making big bucks, wheeling and dealing with Maserati-driving big-wig executives twice her age.  She and her husband settled down with a white picket fence and contemplated a family.  But something was missing.

The siren song of her beloved kitchen led her to a MasterChef audition, and in no time she was sitting next to me in a grimy warehouse in Compton filming the signature dish challenge.  Smooth sailing right through to the big challenge that would decide the top 18, when her chicken skin cracklins caught fire in the oven and Ramsay really noticed her for the first time.  But certainly not the last.  Tracy is one of those people who is magnetic…when she’s in the room, you can’t help but gravitate toward her.

Tracy did well and went far, but not as far as most of us thought.  (We all considered her a definite candidate for the win, and I think the judges did, too.  Of course…neither the contestants nor the judges have any say over who the winner will be!)  And being on the show affected Tracy more deeply than most of us.

She didn’t return home immediately after the show finished filming.  She went on a tour of the country, interning in some of the best restaurants (including Graham’s and Joe’s), getting to know what being a chef is REALLY like.  Because, on MasterChef, it’s just a bizarre hybrid of celebrity and slavery.

Upon returning to southern Florida to her husband, her dogs, and her white picket fence, Tracy discovered that she had no job.  Because when you leave to be on MasterChef, you have to tell your employer, “I’m going away for an unspecified amount of time…it could be a week, or it could be two months.  I can’t tell you what I’m doing, and I won’t be able to contact you during that time.  So I’ll see you when I get back.”  A major corporation can’t really deal without one of its top national sales executives for 2 months, so Tracy was replaced while she was in LA filming the show.

The loss of a job is no big deal for a woman like Tracy.  She could walk into the corporate headquarters of ANY major company in this country and have a corner office that afternoon.  She’s that kinda person.  But she looked around her home…she looked at her marriage…and she realized that her life had gotten derailed somewhere back along the line.  She had lost her creative spirit…her drive to explore life on her own terms…and she walked away from her husband and her beloved pups, packed up a suitcase, and drove to Los Angeles.  With a stop at my house along the way, of course, to make sure she was doing the right thing.

Understandably, the only person who could answer that question was her, and I told her as much.  But having her in my kitchen, cooking casually without Ramsay’s firey breath on our necks, was a moment I’ll remember all my life.  She was scared.  But she was excited.  Because she had lost track of who she really was during the past few years, and MasterChef had been a brutal wakeup call.

Tracy landed in LA with no job, and she started at the bottom, in the place where most people start: waiting tables.  A scant few months ago she was sitting in her corner office in her suit, commanding a sales force.  And now she was slinging cocktails and burgers at a beach bar.

“What did I do to myself, BenStarr?” she asked me when I was out there visiting shortly after her move.  “What did I give up?  Look at me!  Look at how I’m living!”

I thought for a bit, and I said, “Are you happy?”

“Happier than I’ve been in years.”

“Then you’re doing the right thing.”

Tracy started a catering company with Alejandra Schrader from our season, which began developing her connections in the LA food scene.  Soon after, she was offered a fairly lucrative private cheffing gig with a family who are dear friends of Esther Kang, also from our season.  Friends of that family heard about how fabulous Tracy was, and soon she had top-tier clients all over Los Angeles, including some Hollywood mega-stars.

But not only is she resourceful and savvy…she is conscientious and generous.  So it was time to give back.  And in October of last year, Tracy formed WILFS:  Women In LA Food Scene.  (And that acronym is no accident, boys!)  It began with 15 members…women Tracy had met in her exploration of the Los Angeles food world.  They dedicated themselves to mentoring other women wanting to break into that world, to sharing resources and contacts with each other, to support the local farming and food artisan communities, and to educate others on the importance of where their food comes from.  Nine months later, they have almost 80 active members.  They meet monthly to break bread, network, share new food discoveries, and discuss and explore a different food-related subject each time.  The guest speaker may be a local coffee roaster, a farmer, a chef, a vintner, or a brewmistress.  Their last meeting was at the home of a woman who owns an urban farming consultation company, and they planted veggies and learned how to care for backyard chickens.  (I’d have LOVED to have been at that meeting!)  Tracy beams when she reports that at least 10 new jobs have been created for extraordinary women because of connections from within WILFS.

Tracy has also carved out time to join me in my support of YO! House, an outreach program for homeless youth in Hawaii.  Many of the nation’s homeless kids (and there are many…it’s an epidemic) prostitute or drug-sell their way to a one-way ticket to Hawaii, because it’s the one place in the country where it’s always warm, and they hear tales of picking fresh fruit from trees on the beach and living the good life.  Unfortunately, they land in Honolulu and discover horrible gang violence, the nation’s worst crystal meth problem, and just about the only comforting thing for them is that they don’t shiver at night when they sleep in the park.  (At least not from the cold.)  YO! House is an extraordinary place where these homeless kids can come and get a medical exam, birth control/STD prevention, take vocational classes or get their GED, have a hot meal, and keep a locker in which to store their few valuables…making them a less likely target for assault and theft by older homeless and gangs.  And you’d be deeply troubled to learn about many of these kids.  At one event, an 11-year-old limped up to YO! House with blood running down his leg from a “fall” (ie assault).  His parents had left him there on a recent vacation.  Intentionally.  Tracy has joined one of several trips down there, coordinated solely by MasterChef contestants and our amazing friends Dr. Cristy Kessler and Rev. Liz Zivanov, and her amazing flock: the Parish of St. Clement in Honolulu.  We’ve been honored to visit with these kids, hear their stories, help inspire them, and most importantly…to cook for them.  When I see people who are extraordinarily gifted at making money and being successful, I am impressed.  When I see people who are like that, but who spend just as much time and money giving back to others, I am in awe.  And Tracy is one of those people.

As always, I ask MC survivors what advice they would give to a passionate home cook who wants to be on MasterChef.  Tracy says, “So you wanna be on MasterChef?  My first question is: why?  What is it that you’re looking to achieve?  Having the MasterChef name behind me has definitely helped me quickly achieve a certain level of credibility.  So if you’re looking to be somewhat recognizable quickly, go for it.  But if you’re trying to find out if this is your life’s passion and if it’s the direction you should be going in, MasterChef (or reality TV in general) probably isn’t the best testing ground for that.  Especially if you’re sensitive, because the judges make lots of unfounded criticism that could easily crush the dreams of someone without a thick skin.  You can learn so much on your own in a safer environment than the reality TV route.  I mean look at what happened to me!  I lost my job.  I lost my marriage.  My life was a whirlwind of change.  Of course, it was all for the better in the end.  But it wasn’t an easy road to walk.”

I also normally ask people if they had it to do all over again…knowing exactly how everything turned out…would they do it all again given the opportunity.  I think Tracy is probably the single most interesting MC survivor to ask this question to, because I believe her life was changed more than any other contestant from any season.  And here’s her answer:

“Absolutely.  Yes.  I would sign on again in a heartbeat.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been through a WORLD OF HURT.  I’ve broken hearts and I’ve broken promises, and I’m not the kind of person who does either of those things.  But at the end of the day, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my entire life.  And that would never have been possible without MasterChef.  It catapulted me out of an existence I had allowed myself to get into, and it wasn’t an authentic existence for me.  This is where I was supposed to be all along.  I had gotten off track.  And it wasn’t easy getting back on.  And I hurt a lot of people in that process.  And I hurt a lot myself.  But without MasterChef as the catalyst, I might still be stuck in my old life, pretending I was fulfilled and happy with myself.”

I also like giving these folks a chance to send out one message to my audience and to the world at large.  And the message that’s on Tracy’s heart right now is this:  “We’re in a time where people really need to start focusing on the source of their food.  Start paying attention.  Asking questions.  Ask your grocer which farm those cucumbers came from.  Ask the guy behind the butcher cabinet what the farm is like where the animal he’s cutting up was raised.  We really need to know WHERE our food is coming from.  Organic food isn’t always available to everyone, due to cost or location, but seeking out responsible food is always a worthwhile endeavor.   I would prefer to have quality food in my body that is truly healthy and was raised responsibly, than to have a new pair of shoes.  (And I love shoes!)  I’ve discovered that I’ve actually cut back on my food intake over the past year, because I’ve become very conscious of what it took to get that food on my plate, whether it’s a veggie or meat.  I don’t waste anything any more.  Pay attention to the food you’re consuming, and have a voice.  And grow your own sh-t, people!  Grow your own sh-t.”

Tracy is an easy person to love.  Her smile is bigger and brighter than anyone I’ve ever met.  It’s so damn big that when I talk to her on the phone, the western horizon brightens about 10 shades.  I haven’t met many people on this earth as extraordinary as Tracy.  In the 2 short years since MasterChef turned her life upside down, she has not only been a voice for change in her Los Angeles food community, she has pulled together like-minded ladies to be an even larger force for good.  And she has touched many, many lives.  Including my own.

When people leave a reality TV show, they always say, “You haven’t seen the last of me!”  Unfortunately…that’s often not the case.  But we most certainly haven’t seen the last of Tracy Kontos.  We haven’t even seen the beginning!

Follow Tracy on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn.  Check out her wonderful website, and if you are a woman in the food industry interested in helping WILFS branch out into other cities, get in touch with them through their website!

Field Trip: The Olive Garden

At "The Garden of the Olives"

My partner is Brazilian, and we have a fairly constant stream of friends and relatives from Brazil through our house year-round.  It’s a delight, and I especially love the gifts of honey, guava jam, cachaca (Brazilian rum), and other treats that keep my pantry fairly well stocked.  My season of MasterChef just finished airing in Brazil, and my “family” down there became rockstars because they could brag that each time they come to the U.S., they get to eat BenStarr food for their entire stay.  So I’ve always been utterly baffled by the fact that each and every one of them is absolutely OBSESSED with the Olive Garden.

Each time they arrive here in Dallas, their first meal MUST be at the Olive Garden…even though they know a fabulous home-cooked meal in my kitchen can await them if they desire.  No…it simply MUST be the Olive Garden.  And they post on Facebook that they’re eating at the Olive Garden and all their Brazilian friends and family go absolutely NUTS with jealousy.

Part of me thinks I understand this obsession.  I grew up in Abilene, Texas, and during my high school years (91-95), the Olive Garden was the fanciest and most expensive restaurant in town.  It’s the place you go for a special anniversary…or if you’re rich, for your birthday.  Coming from a poor family, I could only dream of dining there as a kid.

That chance finally arrived after my high school graduation, when I was treated to dinner at the Olive Garden by a wealthy friend’s parents.  At age 17, that was the first and last time I had eaten at the Olive Garden.  To be honest, I don’t remember the meal at all, though I’m certain I was impressed, considering the narrowness of my West Texas palate at that age.

Through my travels, I developed a strong affinity for small, family-run restaurants, and though I don’t eat out that often, for the past decade I’ve almost universally chosen to eat at small family-run places, rather than chains.  Not because chains have bad food…but simply because I prefer the character you get from smaller restaurants, I find the food to be more exciting and unique, and it makes me feel good that I’m supporting a local family, rather than a corporate conglomerate.  (That, and the food is usually cheaper, and I’m always incredibly poor.)

My next run-in with the Olive Garden happened in 2007 when I appeared on Rachael Ray’s “So You Think You Can Cook” (which they now call “Hey, Can You Cook?” after probably being threatened by “So You Think You Can Dance?”)  It was the first season of that competition, and 5 finalists were flown to NYC, picked up in a limo, and whisked to Times Square to the Marriott Marquis, which was our home for the duration of the show.  (Let me tell you, MasterChef does NOT put its contestants in an equivalent hotel.  Ha ha ha…  Rachael Ray knows how to treat her contestants!!!)

As we entered Times Square (a place I had been to often…my partner’s mother lives in NYC), one of the 3 female contestants spied the Olive Garden and blurted out, “Oooooooo!  The Olive Garden!  We should eat there tonight!”

Shellshocked, in my head I retorted, “Are you INSANE?  We’re smack dab in the middle of the best city for Italian food outside of Italy!  And you want us to go to the OLIVE GARDEN?!?  You obviously have no concept of good food if you want to eat at the Olive Garden in New York City.”

It turns out that in the mishmash of my mind, I associated that comment with someone who did not actually say it.  Later that night, we were being grilled in interviews by the producers and they asked me who I thought would go home first.  At that point I had never watched reality TV, so I didn’t know how ruthless it can be, and I had also not yet seen my fellow competitors cook, so I responded that I couldn’t give them an answer, because I hadn’t seen anyone cook yet.  After many minutes of me avoiding the question, they basically told me I’d have to sit in front of the camera until I gave them a name.  So I said, “It’s going to be [Gina] (name changed for discretion), because as we pulled into Times Square she said she wanted us to all eat at the Olive Garden, and anyone who’d eat at the Olive Garden rather than a classic New York Italian restaurant knows nothing about food.”

In my tiny little brain, I didn’t realize that was being recorded.  On MasterChef, which isn’t filmed before a live studio audience, you never see what your fellow contestants say about you in their interviews until the show airs months later.  However, after our first challenge, we were seated in front of Rachael’s live studio audience, and they aired my comments in front of everyone.

“Ben, who do you think is going to be the first to go home?”

“It’s going to be [Gina], because…she…knows nothing about food.”

That was my first bitter lesson about talking freely in reality TV interviews, and how your words can be creatively twisted in the editing room.  [Gina] was sitting right next to me, and we had actually become fast friends since the first day, and I had totally forgotten about that interview.  The audience gasped at my cold remark.  And, moments later, after our challenge footage was aired before the live studio audience, Rachael announced that the first person to be eliminated was, in fact [Gina].

Back in the green room, I was on the floor, clutching my head, bawling my eyes out at how cold and coarse I had been, and how betrayed [Gina] must have felt.  (I later learned that it wasn’t even her who said that…it was the person who went on to win the competition.)

So, in a sense, the Olive Garden taught me to be extremely careful about what I say in front of the camera.  One of my life’s greatest regrets is saying what I said that night, and seeing the repercussions in the tender and very sweet soul of [Gina].  (We have since made up and she is a very, very special person to me.)

So I’ve always been extra-appalled when my Brazilian friends get so worked up about the Olive Garden.  I always politely but firmly refuse to join them, and in my own sort of protest, I usually go down the street to my local Italian family eatery, Parma, and have truly stellar Italian food for several dollars less, and I can bring my own wine.

But tonight, my partner’s cousin Floh absolutely insisted that I join her at the “Garden of the Olives” because she wanted to treat me to dinner for once.  So I reluctantly agreed.  And I promptly posted on Facebook that I was about to eat at the Olive Garden for the first time in 17 years, and was wondering what to expect.

What I DIDN’T expect was the flood of responses…more than 100 in less than 30 minutes.  And it ranged from “Gag me with a spoon” to “I used to work at the Olive Garden, DON’T EAT THERE, the food is just microwaved” to “I can’t believe all these food snobs who say that eating at Oliver Garden is akin to treason” to “God, I love their breadsticks and salad.”

So, bear with me as I give you my own humble opinions of my meal at the Olive Garden.

First, the service.  Incredibly attentive and professional.  Apparently we were lucky, because many, many comments on Facebook talked about the horrible service there.  Our waiter was exceedingly accommodating, let us taste several wines before we chose one we liked, and was prompt and incredibly courteous.

Second, the wine.  Straight from the Walmart mega line, of course.  I knew every wine on their menu.  And our $24 bottle costs $7 at Walmart.  But that’s to be expected…the wine markup at most restaurants ranges between 200% and 300%.  It just hurts extra bad when you already KNOW you’re buying a cheap mega-brand and paying 3 times the amount for it.  (Their wine buyer should find some small vineyard somewhere and buy up their entire line so that they’re serving a more obscure label…though I’m not sure any vintner wants to be known as the exclusive supplier for the Olive Garden.)

Second, the appetizers.  A very pedestrian and somewhat bland soup (and it was their special…chicken and potato in a creamy tomato broth, but I ate it all…it wasn’t bad), iceberg lettuce salad with Italian dressing and big fat black olives and tangy pepperoncini peppers (as one Facebook fan mentioned…a guilty pleasure, cheap, but yummy), and their legendary breadstix.  I’m honestly not sure why their breadsticks get worshipped as they do.  They are so undercooked they have absolutely no crust, and they are brushed with melted margarine and sprinkled with garlic salt.  People…THAT’S NOT BREAD.  Bread is crispy when you bite into it.  ESPECIALLY Italian bread.  Crispy-crunchy crust, chewy interior.  Olive Garden’s breadsticks are more like a long narrow muffin.  There’s nothing bread-like about them.

Third, the main course.  I ordered the shrimp mezzaluna…large half-moon raviolis stuffed with 3 cheeses, topped with a generous portion of sauteed shrimp, in a cream sauce.  The pasta was very overcooked, but the flavors were there.  The sauce was delicious.  And…shockingly…the shrimp were PERFECTLY done.  This surprised me.  Most restaurants overcook their shrimp and turn them into Super Balls, bouncy and tough.  Not at the Olive Garden.  So whoever was back there in the kitchen microwaving my plate of shrimp, you microwaved it PERFECTLY!  Kudos to you.

For those of you who aren’t aware, mega chain restaurants look very little like traditional restaurants back in the kitchen.  Because they have to maintain consistency and uniformity across their locations, the majority of their food is produced in a factory and shipped frozen to all their restaurants.  At the location is it microwaved, plated, and finished before being delivered to the table.  This is why you get the exact same Buffalo Chicken Sandwich at every Chili’s in the world.  So there’s very little actual cooking going on back there.

Not only does this ensure uniformity from location to location, it dramatically reduces the cost of the food.  So my $13.75 plate of Shrimp Mezzaluna at Olive Garden probably cost them $3 by the time it was produced and shipped to the restaurant where I ate it.  I do admit, I was a bit offended by their prices, considering the fact that they unabashedly service glorified fast food.

It’s not my intention to bash the Olive Garden.  I ate everything on my plate, it was an acceptable meal, and nothing grossed me out.  I am the farthest thing from a food snob…I eat at food trucks and stalls and stands far more often than I eat at restaurants.  I’d prefer a $1 gas station taco to a meal at the finest restaurant in Dallas ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.

But there is something about chain restaurants that just rubs me the wrong way.  I passed Parma on my way to the Olive Garden, and there were maybe 10 cars in the parking lot.  I got to the Olive Garden and there was a 20 minute wait for a table.  Does no one dining there realize that less than a mile down the road is a small, intimate, family-run place where the food is light-years better…CHEAPER…and YOU CAN BRING YOUR OWN WINE?!?

My instinct tells me…they just don’t know.  That’s the reason.  Because no human being would willingly wait 20 minutes to pay more for obviously worse food and have to pay a 3x markup for wine that they could have brought themselves.

So if my evening at Olive Garden has taught me anything, it’s to be INSISTENT upon taking friends and family to local restaurants rather than chains.  It’s not that chain restaurants serve BAD food.  They wouldn’t be in business if they served bad food.  But they don’t serve PROPER food.  Food that was raised within a few hundred miles of the kitchen it’s prepared in.  Food that saw heat for the first time when the chef took it out of the fridge or freezer.  Food that went from whole food to finished product in that very kitchen.  And profit that goes to support a family that has devoted its life to producing quality food for their neighbors.

So get your friends together this weekend, get on Yelp and find a local restaurant with great reviews, and go out to support it.  You’ll be very glad you did!

NEWS FLASH: Once upon a time…meat was ALIVE!!!

As you all know, I run an underground restaurant here in Dallas with the stunning Jennie Kelley.  We met on the set of MasterChef and have become incredibly close friends.  FRANK is a celebration of fresh, local, sustainable food.  And for our upcoming French-themed Bastille day dinners, our main course is coq au vin, a classic French dish which traditionally consists of an older rooster (which tends to be tough and stringy but BURSTING with old-fashioned chicken flavor that you never get these days), stewed long and slow in red wine, which makes the meat tender and juicy.

Rather than tromp to the grocery store and purchase a hermetically sealed styrofoam package with mass-produced chicken, we located a farm in nearby McKinney, Texas, where Farmer William had an overabundance of organic, free range roosters.  (Roosters don’t lay eggs, and basically just fight with each other and terrorize the hens, so roosters are often used for meat on the farm.  Most of the chicken breast you get at the grocery store is actually from a castrated rooster called a capon…more on grocery store chicken in a moment.)  So this morning I got up and drove out to McKinney to hand-pick a dozen roosters for our table at FRANK this weekend.  Shortly after arriving on the farm, I posted this on Facebook:

Immediately I was accosted by furious posts.  (I knew I would be, but not to this extent.)  Here are some examples of what was written:

Not all the comments were so hasty.  I appreciated this one from my fan Nicole:

I am, however, supremely confused as to how this photo conveys “Ha ha guess who’s dinner tonight?”  As you all well know, I’m a very verbose person, and if I typed in my Facebook post what you’re about to read in this blog, no one would even start to read it because it would be 4 pages long.  However, I thought it quite obvious that I’m showing supreme respect for the ingredients I cook with by traveling an hour to an organic chicken farm to select happy, healthy chickens, give them an honorable and quick death, and serve them to people I care about.

Before I wax poetic on my philosophy about eating meat, I’ll let some of my fans do the work for me:

A bit abrupt, and not too philosophic, but most definitely true.  Chickens aren’t very self-aware creatures, as any farmer knows.  But the chicken wouldn’t even exist today outside the forests of Asia had humans not domesticated them and selectively bred them over centuries.   These types of chickens only exist because humans eat them.

This is my fan Tim Brooks who is a talented chef in Chicago.  He, too, has an interesting perspective on meat, as he works in a meat store.  On his blog, Mulligan Soup, he describes a visit to a lamb slaughterhouse, which you may find insightful.  I love that line “Showing a completed dish is never the whole story.”  This could be a bulletin board.  And I’ll get on that subject in a moment.

Carefully saving all parts of the chicken so they can be put to good use

Of course I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to the animal in any way.  Yes, there’s a great big smile on my face.  Do you honestly think it’s because I’m DELIGHTED that I’m about to take a life?  If you do, you don’t know me at all.  It’s not fun slaughtering any animal.  It’s tough.  I take a moment of silence to thank the animal for sacrificing its life so that we can have sustenance and live.  It gives its life to further life.  That smile on my face is because I am thrilled to be participating OUTSIDE the mass-meat-production chain.  Mass produced chickens live horrible, miserable lives of torture and are electrocuted to death and butchered by machines before you buy them without thinking twice for $1.99 a pound on sale.  I am supporting the livelihood of a local farmer who is raising his chickens with care and respect, giving them an honorable and respectful death YEARS after they would die in a meat factory, and recycling EVERY bit of that chicken.  (The heads and feet are simmering to make stock on my stove right now, and the feathers are in my compost pile to nourish my garden next year.)

You all know Tony Scruggs from MasterChef season 2.  He was one of my favorite people on the show.  I’ve been to his farm in Illinois where he raises turkeys and chickens for meat and has an incredible garden.  In fact, while I was there I demonstrated my method for hynpotizing poultry, which relaxes them.  I usually do this before slaughter so that they are calm and peaceful.

And, like Tony said, I’m not sure you nay-sayers understand exactly HOW MUCH I LOVE CHICKENS.  I adore them.  I kiss them on the mouth, for Heaven’s sake.  I would never glorify in their death for the purpose of making people laugh.  But I WILL REVEL in sharing with you all photos of what a happy, healthy, free range chicken looks like, so that you understand exactly how important it is for chickens to live that kind of life, rather than a factory life of terror and misery.

My girl, Crystal.  I’m willing to bet my house that most of the nay-sayer posts were from meat eaters.  Because virtually all of the vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians I know are very tolerant, educated people.  Here we’ve got someone who DOESN’T eat chicken, but who really gets everything that was meant behind my post.  I adore you, Crystal.

Ever seen fat this yellow on a storebought chicken? Of course not. That's because this free range farm chicken eats grass and bugs and seeds, which is what a chicken is SUPPOSED to eat.

Indeed.  The chicken you buy in the grocery store is mass produced.  Roosters are castrated (caponized) which causes their breasts to grow abnormally large.  Then they are force-fed antibiotics which causes dramatic meat production.  They live their entire life in small cages, crammed in with 3 other roosters.  (Do you know what roosters do when caged with each other?  They fight.)  So they spent their entire lives cramped, panicked, fighting for their lives.  Often they are fed antidepressants to calm them down and reduce fighting.  They are slaughtered for meat anywhere from 1 month to 6 months of age.  Have you seen the size of boneless skinless breasts in the grocery store?  A normal free range farm chicken can live 5 years and never have breasts HALF the size of what you see in the store.  Storebought chicken meat is abnormal and comes from tortured animals.  Free range, small farm chickens are allowed to live their lives naturally.  You are exercising SUPREME respect for meat when you get your chickens from a small producer right on the farm.

Thanks, Jamie.  And that is exactly what I’m trying to do with my posts about meat animals.  To show you that your steak or chicken breast or pork chop once had a head…probably a fairly cute one.  So don’t treat meat with callous disrespect by buying it just anywhere, or by throwing away leftovers that you didn’t eat.  A living, breathing, probably-adorable animal GAVE ITS LIFE for you to eat that fried chicken finger.  So let’s understand that, because it makes us think twice about where it comes from and what kind of life it led.

Susan knows!  It’s not pleasant being exposed to revolting information about something as common as the meat you eat every day of your life, but it’s the truth, and it’s time for our country to realize that our industrial meat production system, which we’ve had since World War II, is making us unhealthy, and is colossally cruel to animals.  Most other first-world countries (and virtually ALL developing countries) still raise animals on a small scale with diets that emulate their diets in nature.

That’s Kris, and if you can’t tell, he’s a character.  He was almost cast on MasterChef this season, and you’ll be seeing him on TV some day soon.  He’s a great chef with a big personality, and he speaks the truth…in his own special, sarcastic way.

Folks…I understand that this is an uncomfortable situation.  The fact is, MOST people who live in urban surroundings are honestly not comfortable with the fact that they eat meat.  Which is sad to me, for starters, but downright dangerous.  Deliberately not wanting to face the fact that animals die for you to eat meat leads to a complete ignorance of the industry that produces meat.  So they can just go on without criticism, because people don’t REALLY want to know what goes on behind those factory doors.

The food chain exists in nature.  Whether you subscribe to a religion that defines your food chain for you, or whether you subscribe to no religion and simply choose to observe the life on this amazing planet…the food chain exists.  Humans are, by nature, omnivores, and have been since the dawn of our race.  Meat is part of our life.  Our ancestors hunted.  Then they learned that some animals could be domesticated and actually improved, and that’s where we get chickens, sheep, cows, goats, and pigs.  These animals would have been long extinct had we not taken them into our farms and given them a purpose in life.

I do not believe it is a crime to eat meat.  (Some will argue with me, and I completely respect their decision to not eat meat.)  But I grew up on a farm where we ate the animals we raise…and no, it was not easy for a 6 year old to lose his favorite pet lamb, and later be told that the lamb chops he was eating came from his pet.  But I learned from an early age that THIS IS THE WAY IT IS.  So it’s our responsibility as humans to give these animals the best life they can live, slaughter them respectfully and quickly, and use every bit of their body possible to help sustain and improve life for ourselves and our families.

Please think before you make a rash comment about meat.  If you’re uncomfortable seeing a living animal that you know is going to later be eaten, you need to take a close look at what you really believe, and if it’s even appropriate for you to be eating meat in the first place.

For me, I will NOT STOP spreading the message that meat comes from living, breathing creatures who must die for us to eat.  And I will continue to make my choices in such a way that local farmers can make a living raising meat animals with respect and care, and so that industrial meat producers realize that there IS an alternate option for virtually everyone in this country.

If you’d like to find a local source for meat, you can often find it at your Farmer’s Market.  Also, surf over to http://craigslist.org and type in “chicken” or “beef.”  I guarantee, in the farm section, you’ll find a local farmer that’s selling meat from his farm.  It may not be legal (which is a TRUE crime), but it will taste better, and probably be CHEAPER than the regular industrial meat you buy on sale at the grocery store.  These farmers often have weekend sales where you can buy a dozen cleaned and packaged chickens, bring them home and toss them in your freezer, and you’ve got incredible chicken for a month.  Yes, it’s out of your way.  But I can’t tell you how much you’ll be glad you did it.  And your food will taste infinitely better, too.  All that…and you can go to bed with a conscience that knows you made the RIGHT CHOICE for yourself, your family, your farmer, and his animals.

(If you would like to delver further into this matter, I highly recommend the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.  It is incredible.)