While I frequent my local Harris Teeter and Kroger, brave the crowds at Trader Joe's and hit the Whole Foods every time we go through Charlottesville, our friend "good David" (see my post about "good" David and his PAM warning) has introduced us to free range and local meats. Because David, for health reasons can only eat very lean (and I mean very lean) meats we were introduced to these new, more exotic meats. As a result of having David as a friend we have learned that buffalo is a very lean subsitute for beef and goat is a sweeter (and leaner) version of lamb, and despite a childhood trauma involving a bunny, I have found that rabbit is excellent, cooked with a little dijon and herbs. I can make a mahogany bison stew that even the most ardent beef-lover will wolf down and my kids love homemade buffalo jerky when we go camping. I have not yet mastered the cooking of venison strap, but our friend "evil David" won me over to "eating Bambi" when he cooked a venison strap with a black cherry sauce that was absolutely incredible!
Venison we get from friends of our son who hunt, and we have visited and bought meats from several local Virginia farms. A list of farms here in Virginia can be found at Eat Wild (www.eatwild.com/products/virginia.html). They grow free range poultry and eggs, pork, bison, goat and turkeys. These meats are grown in humane circumstances, usually without hormones or antibiotics, on diets closely approximating what they would consume in nature. The result: meats that are good and good for you. We have used two farms - Cibola Farms (see the buffalo at left) in Culpeper Virginia and Polyface near Staunton, Virginia. Normally my husband and "good David" take their coolers and drive up to the farms with a list of what we want (usually they have a list online that you can print out, just like a grocery list). They must have a good time, though in my mind I fantasize that they spend the entire 3 hours switching back and forth between Rush Limbaugh and NPR on the radio! While these meats are more expensive than their commercial counterparts, it makes me feel good to support small family farmers who believe in the principles of farming that make good food and good sense.
I know I was surprised (and you might be too) when I found how many of these farms there were within a 2-3 hour drive of our home, and how in demand their products are. Many people with dietary fat restrictions, allergies and sensitivities to the additives that are in commercially raised meats, and just people who care about how their food animals are raised are all looking for alternatives that don't involve tofu or texturized vegetable protein.
This same principle applies to other local food products. It takes some time and energy, but seek out local food providers. We have a man we call "Tractor Joe" who we met when he did some grading of our property. He mentioned that he had a small farm, and since then we are at his farm from May to November to get the best of his vegetables (my daughters love him because he is the sweetest older man!). He knows that we like beets and eggplant, so he holds those for us. And his corn...there is just nothing like it. Now when he has produce, he will load up his old pick-up and come to our driveway and we and our friends and neighbors can clean him out! Another unexpected source for food products for us was our "wood man" who supplies us with firewood. One day he mentioned that he raised hogs and sold pork and sausage and would we like some sausage. His sausage is the leanest we have ever had - you actually have to oil the pan to fry it! I am usually not a fan of bulk sausage becauase of the bits of gristle and other unidentifiable things that are in it, but his is like pure ground pork. "Wood man sausage" is now the standard in our house. When we go camping at Crabtree Falls, it is a highlight to go by Saunders Brothers orchard where they sell the best of seasonal apples, peaches, and one of our favorites, Asian Pears. They also have the best peach slushie that is heaven on a hot summer day after hiking!
So check your local paper, search the web and take a Sunday drive into the country to shop for your food. You will support your local economy and small farmers, get closer to the food you eat and avoid a lot of the vagaries of commercial farming, and you'll have a lot of fun, too. Go to your local farmer's market. We have a great one, the Williamsburg Farmers Market, nearby that is as much a social and cultural experience as it is a food experience (check out the archived recipes of their guest chefs). Frequent small local bakeries, and even breweries that utilize the products of local farmers. Pick your own berries, or apples, go to the local pumpkin patch to get your Halloween jack-o-lantern. And please, share your sources and recommendations with others and of course Play-with-food readers (especially if you know of good local cheese sources in the Virginia area!)