A Sustaining Light: Campbell Meats' Beef Tallow Candles
We throw around the word “sustainable” these days, but it’s actually a roomy concept that can encompass what’s sustainable for a business, or what’s sustainable for the earth. Campbell Meats in Dobbs Ferry practices the full spectrum of sustainability. This is a craft butcher and charcuterie shop whose business model demands the nose-to-tail use of the animals they buy.
We’re talking in the bright Cedar Street shop where Matt Campbell offers a tidy assortment of fresh meats and sausages; there’s also a case of pâtés, salumi, and cured and dried meats—pancetta, bresaola, lonza, to name a few. Behind that is a glass-fronted curing chamber where sausages are hanging to dry, harden and turn into something delicious. Campbell reaches behind him and hefts a large stainless steel bowl onto a scale. It’s overfilled with cakey white chunks of beef fat.
“We just got a cow in an hour ago,” he says. “And this is how much tallow comes in each cow. I’m paying one price per pound for each animal. I’m paying the same price for this fat that I’m paying for filet mignon.”
Campbell buys whole or half cows from Arcadian Pastures, a family-run farm in Sloanesville, NY, just west of Albany. “They do grass fed, grass finished beef, mostly Belted Galloway—but sometimes they cross in a little bit of Angus,” he says. “It’s an awesome product.” But elite cows are not cheap.
“My whole business model and philosophy is to utilize the whole animal. But, I mean, we don’t really get a choice in that matter because the farms that we use are so small. They’re not gonna sell their animals piecemeal. This is 17 pounds of fat that is essentially waste. From a purely business point of view, this is stuff that I bought that I need to figure out something to do with.”
Campbell has been finding this a challenge. Today’s home cooks grew up when cholesterol and saturated fat were demonized; trends change, and now sugar is the popular bugaboo. Still, there is lingering resistance to cooking at home with animal fats. Which is a pity, according to Campbell. “Tallow is great as a cooking fat. People have heard of cooking with duck fat or lard, but most people don’t think about using cow fat—and, honestly, it’s probably one of the best.” He continues, “It’s got a higher smoke point than the other fats. And Paul here,” Campbell nods over his shoulder to butcher Paul Giangola, “gave me this fun fact: Originally, McDonald’s fried their french fries in beef tallow. It’s delicious. Also, recipes for any of those English-type things like steak and kidney pie usually call for tallow.
“That said, tallow doesn’t make up a huge part of our market, since we’re not in England. I’m getting 15 pounds of this per week, and I might sell only one pound.
“So, not only is beef tallow great for cooking, but it was the original candle.” Beeswax is very expensive, and paraffin is a petroleum product—and neither was available to the average Joe living, say, 500 years ago. “That’s where the candle idea came from. We had some free time and we just played around with it. Basically, I grind the fat and render it with dried lavender that I had from last year’s farmers’ market. And then you let it sit, like you’re infusing an oil. You just let it steep at a warm, but not hot, temperature. And then you just pour it in a jar.”
No one would know by looking that Campbell’s candles are made with the hunks of raw fat piled in the stainless bowl (which today, in point of fact, include part of a kidney). These candles are cute and white and in sweet little Ball jars that would look right at home on the gingham of a Martha Stewart picnic. They’re subtly scented of lavender, too. ”They’re not, like, Yankee Candle strong—they smell, but not, like, from across the room.”
Beyond the business of it, there are the ethics to consider: No animal should die for its meat and then be largely thrown into the trash. “It might be an overused phrase, but it’s really to honor the life of the animal. You know, if you’re gonna be a carnivore in the food chain, I think it’s your responsibility to do as much with that animal as you can. And then there’s the farmer’s hard work to consider. He’s put a year-plus of effort into each animal and that means countless hours. And for me to throw that in the trash can—aside from the business consequences—it’s just painful. Our goal here is that nothing should hit the trash can. I’d like to carry out as few trash bags as I can.”
Lavender Beef Tallow Candle/$14
3 Cedar St., Dobbs Ferry NY 10522