a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The "greener" burger

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Sonoma Grille dishes up a beautiful burger on a shiny bun next to a pile of seasoned French fries, three thick plum tomato slices and a nice dill pickle.

Looks aside, this sandwich is far from ordinary at the West Coast-style wine bar in Pittsburgh's Penn Avenue Cultural District.

The plump burger comes from a grass-fed cow supplied to a restaurant that is buying into the fast-growing "buy local" trend followed by people who want to know where their food comes from and how far it has traveled from farm to the plate. It also serves a local braised short rib, and a mache salad with local spring radish. Fear not, though, the menu does not suggest the main ingredient in the duck dishes was shot down over in the nearby Allegheny River.

The beef in my burger, according to the menu, once had a life at the Ron Gargasz organic farm in Volant, a Pennsylvania town that really isn't local to Pittsburgh, either. The beautiful village of Volant is an hour's drive from the city, but it's close enough at time when the average cow has been traveling 1,200 miles from the farm to a feed lot before its meat is sold in supermarkets.

Consumers have been considering alternatives to feeding on products sold from corporate farms because of all of the food scares, the most famous of which put Chi Chi's out of business after three people died of liver failure in 2003 after they ate tainted green onions at one of its chains north of Pittsburgh.

Then Time magazine featured a cover story last summer, "From Farm to Fork," exposing crowded livestock practices at farms owned by megacorporations. The article concluded that America's addiction to meat has contributed to an epidemic of obesity. At the same time, these giant farms consume more fossil fuels than any other source, and seep fertilizers that are damaging the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, the magazine reported. The investigative piece came out shortly after a documentary, Food Inc., tackled similar concerns.

The Sonoma burger was the first organic one of its kind that I have ever ordered from a menu, and I admit that it wasn't as flavorful as those from cows, which had been fed corn, antibiotics and hormones. It was a bit dry, almost like chewing on meat mixed with whole grains. And the fact it was paired with processed potatoes was odd, considering that people who have been turning away from non-local products also don't want to eat processed foods. I'm thinking deep-fried green beans or freshly-made potato chips would have been a better marriage on that plate for those wanting to feed on supposedly healthier red meat.

Regardless, I've been digging this buy local concept. And that sandwich didn't sit in my belly like a lead balloon, as have most of its competition in the burger wars.

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