Whenever they can tear themselves away from the stove, some of the DC-area’s most notable chefs strap on their helmets, get on their hogs (the motorized kind) and head out to the country, visiting local farms and purveyors to source ingredients for their restaurants.
In the ultimate farm-to-table experience, Jamie hopped on with them as they rode to Chapel Hill Farm, in Berryville Virginia, to visit—and taste—the rare breed of cattle known as the Randall Lineback.
If you like your beef rare, you’ll love the Randall Lineback. With fewer than 400 cows left in the United States (and none anywhere else), the breed—which dates back to Colonial times—produces some of the rarest beef around. You can’t even buy the meat yourself, but you can taste it in a select number of D.C.-area restaurants, whose chefs are lining up to get some from farmer Joe Henderson.
Ten years ago, the former Washington, D.C. consultant moved to Virginia with an idea: the best way to save a breed on the brink of extinction is to raise it to be delicious. Eating an endangered animal might seem counter-productive, but the philosophy is that to save them, you have to eat them. “You have to find jobs for them to make sure the breed will survive,” he says.
Survive they almost didn’t; at their lowest point, there were only 15 Randall Lineback cows left. Like many Americans today, the Linebacks had lost their jobs. The breed was one of a number of “landrace” animals bred specifically in the last 200 years to withstand the specific environmental and work conditions of the New World. It proved to be the ideal all-purpose animal, providing early subsistence farmers with milk, meat, and oxen to plow their fields.
But as farmers became entranced by the specific characteristics of purebred beef and dairy cattle imported from Europe, animals had to be highly specialized to meet the demands of industrialized farming. According to Margie Bender, of the American Livestock Breeder Conservancy,” each animal had to do one job, and one job really well,” but the Lineback was more of a generalist, made redundant by highly skilled workers and competition from abroad.
Joe Henderson has a Vermont family—the Randalls—to thank for making the Lineback one of the few surviving colonial landrace breeds today. During the post-WWII period, as entire breeds of animals were liquidated, the Randalls kept a small herd of Linebacks without cross-breeding them. They liked the way the speckled bovine looked and worked, as is. Eventually they had to sell the breed, and it was Tennessee farmer Cynthia Creech that again saved the Randall from the slaughterhouse, and from extinction. Today Henderson’s 250-plus cows are the direct descendants of the 22-head Randall herd. How’s that for pedigree?
The cows are now fully employed: the girls work to increase the herd, while the surplus bulls provide the delicious meat. And life ain’t so bad for these workers: they hang out all day on a picturesque, nationally-landmarked historic farm, chomping on ancient pastures of prairie grass and clover while sipping water fresh from a limestone spring.
They don’t take growth hormones or antibiotics, and unlike factory-raised veal calves—which are housed in confining pens or crates—Chapel Hill’s cows stay in the fields until market day, grazing across hundreds of acres of farmland. It’s a more leisurely life than they would have had centuries ago: historians say the Linebacks may have pulled the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston that were used to dislodge the British in 1776.
The breed’s current lifestyle and diet results in meat that is lean and bright red (Henderson’s dubbed it “Rose-Veal”), with more texture and flavor than usually associated with veal. Locavore chefs are crazy for the clear, clean, and bright flavors of the veal, and can cook it in good conscience.
But sourcing isn’t so easy: stock is limited, so Henderson can only supply a small number of D.C.-area restaurants and sells whole animals exclusively.