Summer: the grill, dad with the apron, a pitcher of martinis. The sun sets. Fireflies come out and somebody begins to play an album by Creedence Clearwater Revival. There is a mist on the grass and a burger escapes from somebody's plate and rolls away into the night. Fast-forward several decades and it ends up in a red plastic basket in front of somebody sitting in Northampton where Creedence is playing on an iPod hooked up to the sound system of a grass-fed burger place. Scraaaatch. Yes, that's right. Grass-fed burger place.
In the Pioneer Valley, happy carnivores are graced with no less than four eating establishments where the grass-fed burger can be had. These burgers do not come from heifers fed with antibiotics standing knee deep in mud. These animals munch clover in the spring, summer and fall and winter.
When cattle is "pasture-raised," or "grass-fed," that means no chemicals in the feed, and room to move. When animals are force-fed antibiotics, as they are in large farm settings, the practice renders eaters "everything-intolerant," because as we all know, too many antibiotics are too much of a good thing. This may be the reason so many kids have food allergies, according to the recent "Pathogens in Pork" editorial in the NY Times.
Local restaurants are lucky to have local farms that for years—well, around five years—have been cooking up locally produced, pasture-raised beef. Menus at Blue Heron in Sunderland, Apollo Grill in Easthampton, Hope and Olive in Greenfield and now Local Burger in Northampton offer grass-fed burgers at price points from $5.99 to $15.99 depending on accoutrements, which range from plain old greasy spuds to truffle-oiled, hand-cut fries. Area farms from Franklin and Hampden counties are happy to oblige.
At the new Local Burger in Northampton, which opened its doors a couple of months ago, midnight is when beer-fed crowds meet grass-fed beef. "We're just slamming," says Local Burger owner Chris Igneri, who runs the register and keeps tabs on the hordes who wander in between 11 in the morning and three in the morning. Dude says that the reports of lines of people out the door and around the block are not exaggerated. Even with a lot of competition (a burger, beer and fries on the menu of a place next door for $6.99 and Local Burger charging that much for grass-fed cow meat from a farm in Easthampton), the new place is still running out of food some nights, the business is that good.
The scene is Richie Cunningham meets Pulp Fiction. Waitstaff wanders through the place shouting, "23?" "Hello, 23?" and "26?" "Hello, 26?" At Local Burger, you go to the register, put in your order and take a number. So far there is no dance contest but there is a juke box and a My Space page. "Would you like fries with that? Onion rings? Like your meat pink?"
My dining companion, on a sunny day at lunchtime near the end of the week, chose the old school burger he favors because of the charred taste. It must be acknowledged that because of its lean texture and lack of marbled fat, the grass-fed local burger really should be ordered "pink," as they say at the restaurant.
Fries, onion rings, and the usual suspect burger joint stuff is also on the menu at Local Burger, where not one but two farms provide the grass-fed beef burgers. There is the Easthampton-based Chicoine Farm burger sold during the week and the Brimfield-based River Rock Farm burger available on the weekends. The latter is aged, more flavorful than the Chicoine burger and a dollar more. Perhaps that midnight crowd on the weekends is more discerning.
My dining companion—let's call him the Dude—turned me on to the place touting the fries, the burgers, especially the very blackened ones, and the veggie burgers, made fresh. Dude ordered his usual old-school burger and gave me a bite. It tasted of very charred burnt flesh and perhaps of dad's grill. Dude said his dad enjoyed pitchers of Old Fashioneds and was known to shout, "These things will be cooked within an inch of their lives!" while grilling. But then that was the grill talking.
Attempting to explain the superiority of my politically correct, well-bred, grass-fed burger to the old-school patty, I held my local burger aloft and took a bite. "Hey," said the dude. "You're holding it upside down! That's what is wrong here…." Turning the sesame seed bun right side up, I took a bite. Not bad—actually a pretty sweet burger—but not quite as "pink" as I ordered. But that might have been because the place was slamming.
Burgers made from locally raised, grass-fed beef can be had at Local Burger in Northampton (meat from Chicoine Farm of Easthampton and River Rock of Brimfield), Apollo Grill in Easthampton (River Rock Farm) and Blue Heron of Sunderland (Foxbard Farm of Shelburne).
Local stores selling local beef include River Valley Market Co-op in Hadley, Elmer's Store in Ashfield, Enterprise Farm in Whately, Green Fields Market in Greenfield, Valley Green Feast local food delivery service, and many CSAs (community-supported agriculture farms). Most area beef producers sell product on their farms and online. A comprehensive list of farms that sell meats can be found at the CISA website.