Americans celebrate more than their beloved freedom on July 4 – they also pay tribute to their carnivorous appetites through barbecue.
As proudly independent individuals, Californians take pride in their variations of outdoor grilling – Hawaiian, Mongolian, Texan and Korean are just a few of the styles one can smell as smoke wafts over neighbors’ fences.
But with every new summer, especially before the critical Fourth of July party, barbecuers begin the culinary debate they’ve been bringing to butchers for decades: chicken or steak?
Sacramento’s legacy for having a heavily farm-to-fork food industry is the product of customers who desired fewer preservatives, hormones and alterations to their food, and many of these local-minded customers go to chef-turned-butcher Eric V. Miller at V. Miller Meats on Folsom Boulevard.
Miller was chef de cuisine at midtown Sacramento restaurant Mulvaney’s before he decided to open a whole-animal butcher shop, meaning he uses the entire animal after it is processed. He provides grass-fed and finished meats to Sacramento’s locally minded market.
While supermarkets and bulk retailers like Raley’s and Costco offer bargains on their fresh and frozen meat products, Miller’s customers prefer the benefit of a chef’s consultation before they buy an expensive cut.
“From us to Costco, it’s that more personal interaction where we just talk to them and we can walk them through cooking anything,” Miller said. “We can tell you what we’ve got in the case, but also how to cook it, how to prepare it, what’s going to work well, temperatures, times, how to season it, how to slice it.”
Miller offers a number of prepped cuts and specialty items like his lamb kabobs, chile verde sausage and Korean-style short ribs that customers can throw on the grill when they get home.
“It’s one less thing that the customer has to worry about (when) they come home in the evening,” Miller said.
When it comes to the question of chicken vs. steak, Miller said he prefers beef for his own barbecues because it offers versatility in flavor and textures depending on the cut, whereas serving chicken limits a cook to thighs, legs or breasts.
With beef, Miller can teach customers how to cook chops, medallions, roasts, pulled beef, barbecue, brisket, burgers and the classic salted, dry-rubbed or marinated steak.
Beef also allows the customer some flexibility in price for the amount of meat they need to serve. While prime ribs and rib-eyes are expensive per ounce in comparison to a couple of chicken thighs or legs, Miller said a cut of flank or skirt steak holds a good flavor, can cook fast on the grill and pleases a variety of audiences, large or small, without busting one’s bank.
For a large backyard barbecue party, Miller recommends cooking barbecue beef, like a slow-braised beef shank and some neck meat finished with beef stock, and served with a fresh green salad with a light vinaigrette or grilled vegetables like bell peppers, onions, zucchini, asparagus and squash.
For more intimate cookouts, Miller said a mixed grill of some rubbed or marinated chicken parts, a couple of flank steaks and maybe a pork tenderloin, paired with grilled vegetables and corn, stays in the budget and has something for every guest.
Swingle Meat Co. in Jackson is one of the go-to butcher shops to have a prized cow or hog butchered following county fairs, receiving 100 animals from the Sacramento County Fair alone.
Opened in 1945, Swingle Meat Co. is owned and operated by Jay Kellerman, who has worked at the shop for the last 31 years. In that time, the shop’s popularity grew as it adapted its selection to what customers were interested in cooking.
Even though it has no chefs with meal training, Swingle Meat Co. offers 10 different marinated tri-tips that fly off their shelves at 4,000 pounds a week – 6,000 to 8,000 pounds in busy weeks like July 4 or Memorial Day weekend.
Kellerman said that while most people consider chicken an everyday item, his store has a number of different prepped meals and takes on chicken, from butterflied, cubed, breaded and marinated, to prepped chicken meals like chicken cacciatore and chicken parmigiana.
Swingle Meat Co. also offers alternative takes on hamburgers, with bacon beef burgers, bacon blue cheese burgers and Reuben burgers, among others.
Kellerman said that many of his customers come to Swingle Meat Co. for their barbecues because of the variation and ease of its prepped cuts.
“Our stuff is marinated; it’s preseasoned; it’s ready to go,” Kellerman said. “They’re going to get a tri-tip (and without any extra work), throw that on the grill, pop the lid on it and come back in an hour and have a good meal.”
Kellerman recommended one of Swingle Meat Co.’s Kona-marinated tri-tips for a big barbecue, and a prime rib for a smaller cookout with close friends and family, paired with typical comfort sides like potato salad and coleslaw.
For younger and normally pickier audiences, he would recommend some of their specialty hamburgers and links, like the bacon beef burger or the Italian sausage, especially for picnic grilling at a park or beach.
When it comes to the great debate between chicken and beef for one’s patriotic celebration, it all comes down to the audience.
While chicken is cost effective, difficult to mess up and a safe crowd pleaser, faced with the choice, some of Sacramento’s best butchers and barbecuers will spend the extra few dollars for the versatility and higher nutritional value of a nice cut of steak.