Best Of :: Food & Drink
Driving across his ranch in Greenville,Robert Hutchins watches as a hawk swoops down into one of his chicken hoops (no, not coops). Killing the engine of his flat-bed truck, Hutchins waits for the hawk to come back into sight. "I just saw you," he says under his breath. "Look at that dadgum hawk, bet it just killed a chicken."
But Hutchins isn't upset and gnashing his teeth, because at Rehoboth Ranch losing a few chickens to predators like bobcats and hawks is an unavoidable part of the way they do business.
Bucking the trends of conventional agriculture—instead of using confinement houses, cramped cages or feedlots—all the animals on Hutchins' ranch are "pasture-raised" in their natural environment and fed only a natural diet. And the Hutchins family manages the 300 acres of their ranch organically, never using any chemicals, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. While Hutchins' methods are firmly rooted in the past and may seem counterintuitive in today's work-smarter-not-harder world, farmers and ranchers like him are looking to the past while paving the way for the future of food.
This year the Food and Drug Administration made several controversial rulings, including declaring milk and meat from cloned cattle, goats and swine as safe as conventional meat and issuing new regulations approving the irradiation of fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce. But as more and more genetically modified foods are introduced to the public, and meat and produce recalls continue to be a staple on the evening newscasts, many shoppers alarmed by the practices of modern agriculture are turning to naturally raised, organic products.
So, the future of food is at a crossroads that leads in two utterly different directions. Down one path, our grocery stores' shelves will be filled with genetically modified foods, cloned meats, and irradiated grains and produce. On the other path, wary shoppers will increasingly seek out natural foods produced by farmers and ranchers like Hutchins and his family, who use the traditional methods of the past.
"The only way the consumers can be 100 percent sure what they're eating is to know where it comes from, know the people who raise it and know how they raise it," Hutchins says. "And we don't sell any product where we aren't there handing it over to the customer."
The Hutchins family does all the work on the ranch, from milking the goats and gathering eggs to processing the chickens. Visitors to Rehoboth can purchase the meats, dairy products and eggs in the ranch's store, but the majority of business is done at farmers markets in Dallas, McKinneyand Coppell. The family initially thought that their business could be supported by consumers driving out to their farm, but they soon realized that they needed to get closer to them. And the strategy worked. Hutchins says, "I can plot the weekly sales from all the farmers markets, since the beginning, and the growth is very consistent.
"People are starting to rightfully deduce that there is a definite connection between the foods we eat and our overall health," he says. By eating grass-fed meats, he says, consumers can avoid the antibiotics, growth hormones and other questionable additives found in conventionally raised animals. "Someday I think we'll look back on this period of history and say that we were very ignorant and barbaric about the things we offered to the general public to eat."
Hutchins says whether one believes that animals evolved or were intelligently designed, modern agricultural trends are a problem because either way we're using technology to tamper with the natural order of things.
"We're not opposed to technology," he says. At Rehoboth they use computers extensively, modern electric fencing, and e-mail newsletters to keep in touch with their customers. "We're just for the appropriate application of technology."
One of the biggest problems that farmers like Hutchins faces is that a lot of historical knowledge has been lost over the years. They have to rediscover successful farming methods from the past. "Things that we're trying to do without chemicals people used to know how to do," he says. But over the years agriculture grew dependent on modern innovations. "We have to pick up things along the way. One person told us, 'I remember hearing that you can worm pigs with wood ashes.' And by golly, sure enough you can!"
They use electric fences to enforce rotational grazing. All the grazing area on the 300 acres is divided up into small paddocks. The animals are allowed to graze in one paddock only for a few days before they are moved to the next area, which allows the freshly grazed and recently fertilized grass to rest before it is grazed again.
Hutchins wasn't born into farming. "You'd have to go back to my great-grandfather to find someone in my family who made their living in agriculture," he says. After spending more than 20 years in the defense industry, he decided to leave the corporate world behind. But the first few years on the ranch weren't easy.
"Becoming financially viable was a lot slower process than I would have thought," he says. "And it took a lot more of my savings than I'd imagined. But it is worth it to be working with my family and not have to live the stressful corporate existence."
Each year Hutchins sees more people who are interested in Rehoboth's products. "I think this trend will continue to grow until it significantly damages the established mainstream food infrastructure," he says. "This year, for the first time, we have competitors at the farmers markets. But the whole market grows like a rising tide. The demand and the supply grow at a reasonably balanced rate."
And when asked about the long-term prospects for his business and those like him, he says, "So long as the mainstream food supply remains corrupt, our outlook looks bright. And the government hasn't disappointed me yet." Daniel Rodrigue
Wikipedia defines the local food movement as a "collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place." Bankruptcy lawyer Dale Wootton probably had no idea that was what he was participating in when he decided to grow his own vegetables in his own garden in the back of his own restaurant. At his Garden Café in East Dallas, you can get okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, black-eyed peas, sprigs of rosemary, oregano, fennel, sage, mint, parsley—or whatever he happens to be growing and adding to the tasty meat and potatoes menu at his restaurant. Some within the local food movement want you to travel no further than 25 miles to satisfy its agricultural tenets. Wootton has got that beat: He only has to truck into his backyard, harvest his veggies and herbs, transport them a few feet to his restaurant, prepare them in the kitchen and serve them to customers, many of whom consume them on the pleasant patio in the same garden where they were grown. The bankruptcy advice he dispenses is local too. His law office is only a few yards from his restaurant.
If you've ever spent time in Austin then you know it as well as we do—Dallas just can't do queso right. Sure, our fair city is full of decent Mexican food joints, maybe even a couple of great ones. But let's face it—even El Ranchito, Mia's and La Calle Doce serve up a substandard bowl of the yellow goodness compared with our Central Texas neighbors. Thank God for Matt's Rancho Martinez then, an East Dallas institution sprung fully formed from the nurturing bosom of an Austin institution some 20 years ago. Their renowned Bob Armstrong dip takes a perfect, cheesy consistency—not too thick, not too watery—and combines it with ground beef, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo to create a dip so kick-ass we've seen fights break out over the last chip.
We must confess: In our childhood, we ate quite a bit of Easy Cheese. And we've been trying to make up for that ever since. We enjoy fresh mozzarella, Tillamook cheddar or creamy chèvre any day. But we have hesitated to enter the realm of real artisanal cheeses. That's why it's kind of intimidating to walk into Molto Formaggio—where do you start? Will our Philistine palate be able to tell the difference between an Idiazabal and a Manchego? Should this cheese be proud that it's "cave-aged," or does that mean bats have been pooping on it? Fortunately, since the Molto Formaggio store policy permits—nay, commands—you to sample their cheeses, you can rest easy that you won't end up with a pound of cheese that, once you get it home, you find tastes like baby vomit. The display case makes it easy to select a cheese by name, origin and maker, and the friendly staff dishes up the samples with a smile. And you can even outfit a whole tasting party: They also stock raw and varietal honeys, crackers (ooh, charcoal crackers?), preserves, bulk olive oil and fondue sets.
This European pub's atmosphere is as cool as its beer selection, which includes a wide range of Belgian ales, rare stouts and ambers, and organic brews. Then there's the food. Here, pedestrian bar fare is nowhere to be found. Instead, there are delicious sandwiches like the grilled cheese; the Cuban, shredded pork with artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, jalapeños and olives; and a wood-grilled flat-iron steak with port wine reduction and shallots. The Hog Wings, with meat falling off the bones and a scrumptious poblano pepper sauce, are not to be missed. You can't really go wrong here. No wonder, since the place was started by the founders of the Meridian Room.
Its pedigree is lengthy. For more than 40 Dallas years this 'cue post was Howard & Peggy's and then Peggy's Beef Bar before it shuttered in the late 1980s, the original menu still adhering to the window glass. The room is well-stocked with cowhand memorabilia (horseshoes, buck heads, boots). It was reanimated a short time later as Peggy Sue BBQ, with all of the smoke and spicy-sweet that slow-cooked meat deserves. Hearty brisket. Moist turkey. Rib racks that shed their bones even as they maintain their sticky sweetness. No paper towel columns rising over the white and red checked table coverings, but the cloth napkins can be replenished along with the icy lemonade.