Drink Your Beef Tea and Pipe Down

The Three Stone Hearth cooperative speaks up for nutrient-dense foods.

Eat food. Not too much. Lots of bone broth and organ meat. With apologies to Michael Pollan’s excellent In Defense of Food, that’s how Jessica Prentice might modify the book’s three opening sentences to reflect the slightly different eating principles of Three Stone Hearth, the “community-supported kitchen” tucked against the highway in West Berkeley. Every week, subscribers to the kitchen place their orders online for foods such as hearty broth-based soups, beef patties enriched with liver and other organ meats, and locally produced cheeses, milk, and eggs. It’s a picnic basket that would terrify a vegan.

The five worker-owners who run the Three Stone Hearth cooperative are squarely in Pollan’s camp on all the big issues, which hardly need to be spelled out for readers who shop at the Berkeley Bowl: avoid processed food-type products, and seek out fruits and vegetables that have been grown nearby, in rich soil, without the use of pound upon pound of chemicals. But while Prentice and her fellow workers don’t exactly disagree with Pollan’s third precept, “mostly plants,” they do hone in on a dietary philosophy given less comprehensive study in Pollan’s book: the doctrine of “nutrient-dense” foods.

A nutrient-dense food, Prentice explains, has a high number of vitamins and minerals in each calorie. A diet of these foods came naturally to indigenous hunters and gatherers, but here in our day it requires great effort to put together such a menu. “One of the reasons we have such high rates of obesity in our society is because of all the negative or empty calories we eat,” says Prentice. “We’re actually malnourished, we’re not getting the nutrients we need, so we keep eating, looking for those nutrients. Indigenous people, every mouthful they put in was packed with nutrients.”

Foods that win marks for nutrient density include rich broths made by simmering bones for hours. Prentice says the enzymes found in the bones’ gelatin makes proteins more digestible and vitamins more absorbable. “This is something that our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers knew,” she says. “They’d say, drink your beef tea — that’s just beef bone broth. When they made chicken soup they put the feet in, because that’s where the gelatin is.” Other winners in Prentice’s eyes: organ meats, spring butter from grass-fed cows, cod liver oil, coconut milk, leafy greens, sourdough bread, and homemade pickled vegetables.

The nutrient-dense creed arose from the research of a dentist named Weston A. Price, born in 1870. Price gave up his dental practice in the early 20th century to travel the globe and rapturously study the excellent teeth and strong physiques of indigenous people, from Alaska to the South Sea Islands, from Switzerland to the Congo. What all these healthy people had in common, Price decided, was a diet rich in the fat-soluble vitamins found in such foods as butter, shellfish, fish eggs, and organ meats.

Since Three Stone Hearth opened in June 2006, Prentice and her four partners have worked to create a menu that uses traditional ingredients while still satisfying a contemporary palate. Last week’s menu had a Caribbean theme, with offerings such as red beans and rice cooked in beef broth and studded with grass-fed beef chunks, a cream of greens soup using coconut milk and homemade chicken broth, beef patties with jerk seasoning, and a creative side dish in which home-pickled carrot and turnips were tossed with ginger and sesame seeds.

Many of the customers who fill their reusable grocery bags with Three Stone Hearth’s bounty could be called ethical omnivores, Prentice says. “Our audience includes a lot of ex-vegetarians. These are people who are passionate about animal husbandry and who don’t want to eat meat or eggs that come from abused animals, but they want to eat animal products,” she says.

Following the principles promoted by the Weston A. Price Foundation, and spelled out in the Nourishing Traditions cookbook by the foundation’s leaders, Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, can lead into controversial areas. Soy, for example, is held up as a danger food for its high level of phytic acid, which some critics say blocks the absorption of minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc.

Americans have been “hoodwinked” by Big Agriculture into thinking of soy as a health food, Prentice believes. She herself only uses soy products such as soy sauce, miso, and tempe, where fermentation has rendered the bean benign; she shudders at the thought of eating “a big slab of tofu” or pouring soymilk in her cereal. Speaking of cereal, Three Stone Hearth also makes its own breakfast flakes through a laborious process of soaking grains and baking them twice, citing several studies that accuse commercial cereals of toxicity.

For Weston Price acolytes who don’t have time to make their own cereal or simmer their own broth, Three Stone Hearth is a godsend. Less die-hard folks, who just want a nutritious dinner that they don’t have to make themselves, are also catching on. Larry Wisch, another of the cooperative’s worker-owners, says the kitchen has been filling about 200 orders each week. A minimum order is $40.

That’s a lot of bones to boil, but the team couldn’t be happier. Like the employees of many start-ups, the partners aren’t yet raking in fat salaries, or even, says Prentice, quite a living wage. “But we have great health benefits,” she says. “And we get to eat this great food.” In Three Stone Hearth’s formulation, those two sentences actually mean the same thing.

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