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Trilla Pando:

Stirring up memories


Outstanding in their field
October 10, 2007

Drive down the right road over in Early County near Bluffton and you are likely to see a calendar-perfect picture—a field of cattle happily munching away the sun-dappled grass under the oaks.

You've found White Oak Pastures, where the Harris family has run a beef-raising operation for well over a hundred years.

Not long after the close of what current owner Will Harris III deems the "War of Northern Aggression," young James Edward Harris (Will's great-grandfather), once a captain in the Confederate Calvary, found himself penniless and farmless.

The Harris family had lost their Sumter County family farm. With determination and a bit of help from an uncle, young James headed south to Early County where he established a new farm and a new family tradition.

Around the turn of the 20th century, James' son, Will Harris, had taken on the operation.

Family stories recount how every morning a couple of hogs and a cow were slaughtered and loaded on to a mule-drawn wagon and hauled into Bluffton. There they appeared on the dinner table at the boarding house and hotel as well dinner tables all around—the wagon made stops at all four general stores.

Until after World War II, White Oak Pastures raised its livestock the natural way, without supplemental hormones or antibiotics—just good, sweet Early County grass. After the war, things changed. Will Harris Jr. continued the tradition of beef-raising, but he followed the "industrial model," running a feedlot using grain mixed with animal byproducts as feed.

When Will III took over from his father he followed this practice, but "I didn't like it at all."

Soon, he readopted the practices of his grandfather and great-grandfather. Today, beef produced on the 1,000-acre White Oaks Pastures is grass-fed.

"We have now made the conscious decision to return to a production system that is better for the environment, our cattle and the health of the people who eat our beef," said Will. The ranch meets standards of the Humane Farm Animal Care Program. These include not only no antibiotics or hormones, but also humane treatment of the animals—providing shelter, space and "the ability to engage in their natural behavior."

What does it all mean for us?

For meat-eating animal lovers, it means no pangs of conscience when we bite into our burger. But there's more. It tastes better, for starters; plus it is lower, much lower, in fat than commercial grain-fed beef. It's healthier as well, containing higher levels of beta carotene, vitamin E, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and omega 3 fatty acids.

Folks are catching on to all of these good things.

Business is good for Will and his family. They are growing. Will reports that the family has broken ground on an on-site state-of-the-art processing facility. When it is completed in April, they will be able to have the entire operation there on the ranch. It's great news for the consumer, because distribution will increase.

Which leads to the natural question: Where can you get this good stuff?

Many Publix stores in Georgia stock the grassfed ground meat. (Ground is all that is presently distributed). Will happily reports that it has just been added to four Whole Foods Market/Harry's Farmer's Market in Atlanta. As soon as the new plant is operating it will be available in all of their southern division stores.

I first found it at New Leaf Market in Tallahassee.

But what about Bainbridge?

First the bad news. No store regularly stocks it. But now the good news.

Don Whaley at Health Products and Yogurt Too will happily special order it. Get your order in by 11 o'clock Thursday morning and Saturday evening you'll be flipping burgers on the grill. (Maybe if enough of us special order it—who knows?)

A couple of warnings. Expect to pay a premium over supermarket ground beef. This grassfed beef is still a great value, and not only because of the great taste and good nutrition. Because it is lower in fat, you'll be left with burgers almost as big as you put on the grill instead of a little shriveled silver dollar. More for your money, but that leads to the second warning. This beef cooks faster than fattier meat, so you need to watch it and adjust your cooking time according. Both of today's recipes are adapted for this. If you try them with regular ground beef you'll need take that into account.

White Oak Pastures Barbecue Hamburgers
Makes 4 hamburgers
1 pound grassfed ground beef
1½ tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1 small onion, grated
½ small green bell pepper, finely chopped

Preheat an outdoor grill for medium-high heat and lightly oil grate.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well and shape into patties.

Place burgers on grill and cook for 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until done.

Here's a Pando family favorite. I made this by the gallon when I had a house full of hungry kids. It's so good that I don't think that they ever realized it was good for them. This is a basic recipe. You can change out the potatoes and carrots for any good fresh seasonal vegetables. I'm planning to use some of those great sweet potatoes that I dug up at the Long Farm. Turnips, squash, eggplant, rutabaga, parsnip—hit the produce department or frozen food department. Maybe even cabbage or corn. Fresh tomatoes could go in to replace the tomato paste. Sometimes I toss in a couple of handfuls of fresh spinach at the same time I'm adding the meat. Use the rest of the bag in your salad. If you have a fall crop of fresh basil put it in with or instead of the spinach. Can't wait for the first really cold night.

Hungry Family Meat and Vegetable Soup
1 can tomato paste
1 minced garlic clove
1 or 2 chopped onions
2 stalks chopped celery
2 diced carrots
1 diced potato
salt to taste
a couple of pinches of your favorite herb (thyme, basil, marjoram or savory)

Combine all the ingredients in a large pan or Dutch oven, bring to a simmer. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add 2 quarts beef or vegetable stock (I prefer low-fat, low-salt if I don't have homemade.) While the soup is coming back to a simmer, pinch 1 pound of grassfed ground beef into small pieces. Add the meat to the simmering soup. Taste for seasoning, adding freshly ground black pepper if desired. Return to a simmer and serve immediately.

It's great with a green salad and warm fresh bread or cornbread.

If you want to learn more about White Oaks Pastures—its history, the Harris family and the good grassfed beef—visit their web site. It has some great videos. You'll feel like you've been there.

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network