Eating Seasonal Meat: A History Of Homestead Meats

Though modern conveniences allow year-round storage, meat was once a seasonal concern, reflected in many of our dining traditions of today.

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by Lisa MunniksmaMarch 7, 2022
PHOTO: Nancy Gill/Shutterstock

Turkey at Thanksgiving, corned beef at Passover, ham and lamb at Easter…. Our traditions surrounding meat eating at holidays didn’t occur by accident. Before we as humans knew industrial farming, grocery stores and commercial refrigeration, we knew meat as seasonal fare. 

“Traditional livestock-rearing was seasonal, with winter the most significant not just because of the expense of keeping animals indoors where instead of grazing they had to be fed, and the necessity of storing food to last over the winter,” says Paul Freedman, Ph.D., author of Why Food Matters and American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way.

Salted, brined and cured meats boasted some shelf life. But fresh meats became available when animals came mature (or in the case of veal, lamb and suckling pig, mature enough) and were slaughtered.

Not all of the U.S. experiences harsh winters, of course. This means seasonality rested less on weather and more on animal physiology in those areas. In Florida, for example, pasture grasses grow strong in the mild weather of January and February. But they go dormant in the heat of July and August.

Still, the length of animal gestation and time it takes for the animal to mature remain the same no matter the climate.

seasonal meat
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Religious Concerns

Centuries-old religious traditions also shaped the seasonal timeline of meat consumption. “In Catholic Europe, because there were a lot of fasting days, and especially over Lent, the whole meat industry shut down during the 40 days of Lent except for Jewish or Islamic butchers,” says Freedman, a professor of history at Yale. “At the same time, you have to have your lamb ready for the day, i.e. Easter, when the fast ends.” This added an urgency to seasonal production of livestock.

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This break in meat consumption meant a boost to the seasonal fishing industry of the day. It resulting in a lot of salted fish that could be sent inland when needed.

On the farm, today’s pasture-based livestock- and poultry-rearing practices reflect those of pre-refrigeration times. This despite our refrigeration capacity all but erasing from our consciousness the concept of eating meat by the season.


Read more: Ducks make great providers of eggs and meat!


Pork

“Historically, the United States has such a large pork-eating heritage because it was really cheap to raise a pig,” says Sarah Wassberg Johnson, a food historian featured in The History Channel miniseries “The Food That Built America.”

“A lot of people, particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, their pigs were just free range.”

(Incidentally, Wassberg Johnson points out, this free-ranging caused problems in some cities. In Philadelphia, pigs ran wild into the 1800s.)

Pigs were fattened in the forests and orchards in the fall. During this time, trees released their fruits and nuts. This made fall the ideal time to harvest pork.

“Fresh pork was not consumed on any large scale except for at harvest time,” Wassberg Johnson says. “You also get the seasonality of things like blood sausage coinciding with harvest time.”

Farmers harvested lard for its value in the kitchen and home, curing, smoking, salting and brining the rest to eat all year.

While initially a homesteading chore, meat production began to industrialize in the 1830s and 1840s. 

Industrialization

“Meat production in the United States is really influenced by two major changes in American life and industry,” she says. “One is railroads, and one is the ice harvesting industry, which seem like very disparate things. But because you have the ice harvesting industry, you can have refrigerated railroad cards and you can have refrigeration and ice boxes in commercial industry and in the home.

“That means that your meat does not necessarily have to be preserved. And you can keep meat relatively fresh for longer than you were able to historically.”

Around this time Cincinnati became known as Porkopolis. The railroad system made it possible for farmers to herd their animals to the trains and transport them to this central processing point. Salt pork, pickled pork and cured meats came out of Cincinnati and were then distributed by ice-cooled railroad cars and boats to other parts of the country.

Today, pasture-raising your pigs may look like a combination of allowing them to forage alongside a grain ration, and you likely still harvest them before the worst of your region’s weather.

Beef 

Raising cattle seasonally is less straightforward than raising pigs this way. Dual-purpose cattle breeds provided meat and milk, making them valuable enough to keep year-round.

seasonal meat
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Pigs can grow to what we now consider market weight — 275 pounds — in six months or less. But cattle take 24 months to reach their full maturity on forage alone; about half that when grain fed. This means cattle matured over the winter unless harvested at veal stage—4 or 5 months of age. 

Consider, too, the slaughtering facilities available traditionally. Cattle are large animals, and it would be easier and less dangerous to harvest and process a 450-pound veal calf than a 1,000-pound mature steer on your homestead.

Then the someone had to decide what to do with all this meat. Without refrigeration, meat had to be cured—corned beef, beef jerky and other charcuteries, the indigenous traditional pemmican, etc.—or eaten. 

Changes Down the Line

Here, too, beef consumption changed alongside the railroads and ice-harvesting industry.

“Part of American legacy is the cattle drive—taking cattle to railroad centers to ship to Chicago to process and ship all over the country,” Wassberg Johnson says. “Historically, meat was transported on foot, or the hoof or the claw, I guess, if you’re thinking about poultry. You would have drovers. The production of the meat was more regional and localized because you had to transport it on foot.”

Chicago became the beef-processing center, with manufacturers making beef extract, dried beef and canned corned beef. 

“By the late 19th century, meat is not really seasonal anymore, with the exception of poultry,” Wassberg Johnson says.


Read more: Meat your meat needs with your own herd of cattle! Here’s how to start.


Chickens 

The last of the mainstream meat animals undergo industrialization, chickens didn’t always carry distinction of meat birds and egg layers common in the poultry industry today. When dual-purpose breeds were the norm—before Cornish-Cross and White Leghorns came on scene—chickens on your homestead supplied your family’s eggs year-round. It was unlikely you’d butcher a chicken in the fall, knowing you had a whole winter’s worth of laying to get through.

(Plus, you have all that pork to eat in the fall!)

“Any kind of industry when you’re looking for one gender of an animal, what do you do with the other gender?” Wassberg Johnson says. “In the dairy industry and in the egg industry, you harvest the male animals pretty young as meat animals. You get veal and you also get spring chicken, which are the young roosters, sometimes called pullets.” 

Butchering chickens ahead of winter weather wasn’t as much of an imperative as butchering larger animals at that time. Regional heritage chicken breeds were developed over time for their adaptation to the local climate so they could exist outdoors with minimal infrastructure requirements.

Chickens also have good feed conversion. That means they don’t need a ton of calories to maintain their weight and produce eggs. 

While homesteaders cured mammalian meats, they didn’t really process poultry. Wassberg Johnson points to the exceptions of potted pheasant, pigeon or squab. Fully cooked meat went into a container and covered with melted fat to keep out oxygen and act as preserving agent. Homesteaders covered this container and kept it in cool place.

It sounds like a predecessor to pressure-bath-canned meat.

Seasonal Meat Socio-Economics

This article, of course, takes an American-centric look at the seasonality of meat production and more specifically through a New England lens, a tendency of histories. In less wealthy countries, Freedman points out, adopting refrigeration and moving away from seasonal meat production isn’t assumed.

Many places still rely on fresh meat, rather than frozen, whether that’s by tradition or for a lack of home refrigeration. Livestock keepers still practice seasonal meat production around the world.

Much of seasonal meat production then, and now, connected to socio-economic status. “The wealthy could manage to eat meat out of season, so it gave one prestige to serve veal in February, for example,” Freedman says.

If you had the resources and the labor to feed and house animals year-round, you could also eat them year-round.

“If you have a giant plantation where you are enslaving hundreds of people, you’re going to have a lot more access to fresh meat,” Wassberg Johnson says. “You would be able to afford to keep beef cattle fed over the wintertime so you can slaughter them as needed. The same with pigs.” 

Most reading this article likely possess modern fresh-food and frozen-food storage capacities. But our land-based livestock and poultry rearing remain rooted in a time before we could pull pork chops out of the freezer for a summer cookout. Understanding the natural seasonality of meat can help us understand our animals and small-farm workings. 


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The Seasonal Trend

In the 1850s, no one pointed out to their friends the just-picked apples on the table. Taverns didn’t boast these tomatoes are from the farmers market. Of course produce was just picked from your farm or a neighbor’s.

The global instant-gratification economy hadn’t yet developed.

In fact, serving guests food that had come from afar was the mark of prestige. “It’s no longer a big deal to eat bananas, which are tropical products. It’s been organized in an industrial fashion. They’re cheap, so everyone can afford them. But at one time, a banana was a rarity. So were pineapples, and you would serve them in lieu of seasonal fruit,” says historian Paul Freedman. 

“It’s only now that in New Jersey, for example, asparagus that’s seasonal and from New Jersey is much more expensive than asparagus that’s available all year-round from Peru. It is better. There’s no doubt about that, but the prestige accruing to the local product is historically unprecedented.”

The 1970s ushered in the local and seasonal marketing push. “It’s both the zenith of the industrialization of food, from the supermarket to the canned soup industry,” Freedman says, “but it’s also the beginning of dissent, of organic food, [Alice Waters’ famous restaurant] Chez Panisse, seasonality, and that has grown for the last 50 years.”

Fowl Fact

Historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson says that because of the scarcity of meat chickens outside of springtime, you find traditional cookbook recipes for “mock chicken” or “city chicken,” which actually used veal. 

Look up some of these recipes. You may find these other meats shaped in the form of a chicken drumstick, breaded and fried!

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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