Butchery Classes and Parties: How Much Do You Want to Know About How Your Meat Gets to Your Plate?
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As big as a sofa, the beast lay slit up the front, haunches jerking, ribs gleaming, as quick knives sheared away its meat. As part of a program on futurism last fall at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, seven female butchers were invited to carve a 600-pound steer. Watching their glistening blades slash fat, muscle and bone, the audience began to scream.
"It was a frenzy," says Angela Wilson, who was one of the butchers. With her partners Tia Harrison and Dave Budworth -- better known in foodie circles as "Dave the Butcher" -- Wilson opened Avedano's, a traditional butcher shop, three years ago in San Francisco. Every week, the trio cuts up a grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free lamb, pig and side of beef -- all locally and responsibly raised on small farms. They do this the old-fashioned way, with a handsaw, boning knife and scimitar. It's part of a new revival signaled by the whoosh and crunch of flesh departing bone.
Over the last 20 years, American butcher shops have nearly vanished, vanquished by cheap, neat, bandsaw-cut, prepackaged supermarket meat. The butchering of animals by hand became a dying art. But now it's back. "These days, people want to know again where their meat is coming from, just like they want to know where the rest of their food is coming from," says Wilson, who finds the three-hour experience of butchering a lamb "meditative and relaxing. It's one of my favorite times."
As a crashed economy coalesces with the food revolution and the DIY revolution, a new generation of conscientious consumers "don't want anything to go to waste, so they're starting to care again about what happens to the whole animal -- even the cheaper, less-desired cuts."
Does this mean Americans are eating boiled tongue, braised brains and oxtail soup again?
"They sure are," Wilson says with a laugh. Avedano's offers monthly butchering classes: Students pay $300 each to tackle whole lambs and pigs. "Butcher parties," where guests throng excitedly around animals being dismembered, are like latter-day raves. Butchery is the new cool.
One night in May, in what was billed as "an evening of educational fine dining," Avedano's Dave Budworth teamed up with private chef Stephanie Hibbert (who prefers to be known as "Chef Stephanie, Culinary Mistress") to stage "The Butcher, the Chef, and the Goat." In a San Francisco photo studio, Budworth dismantled a goat carcass as Hibbert prepared a goat-based meal for 50 guests who had paid $100 each. The courses included liver-and-kidney paté, chili, seared shanks, and braised shoulder. "It was held in a beautiful industrial urban space with elegant details and a fine-dining feel," Hibbert remembers. This ambience provided "a great contrast to the grittiness of Dave's demonstration. Butchery can look and feel a bit messy, so it's important to balance that out with a clean feeling through the rest of the event."
The goat hung, bloodless, from a hook. As the guests sipped wine over linen-draped tables, a white-aproned, knife-wielding Budworth identified the goat's parts -- shanks, ribs, porterhouse -- and severed its head, explaining how he would marinate the head in lemonade or orange juice for three hours before cooking it. Later, he switched to a handsaw.
This event and a repeat performance the next night "allowed us to honor all the links in the food chain. Many of the ingredients were grown locally and harvested for our event. The goats were raised not far from San Francisco. ... The focus was to educate our guests about the local food system that they were a part of simply by coming to our event. It was very meaningful to be a food educator on that level," Hibbert says.