Food

Butchery Classes and Parties: How Much Do You Want to Know About How Your Meat Gets to Your Plate?

Watching chefs' glistening blades slash fat, muscle and bone is the grotesque new fad in high cuisine.

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.

In a society that's been numbed and depersonalized by its own technology, hands-on butchery feels -- for some people -- adventurous, pagan, a reclaiming of long-lost rites, at once ancient and futuristic, sacred and secret, as in: This is how we will survive after the apocalypse.

What a far cry from supermarket meat. "Wrapping fresh meat provides the opportunity to encase the meat in an atmosphere composed of a specific combination of gases, which allows retailers to control the timing of meat blooming and prolongs the storage life of the meat," reads the Web site for Promolux, a manurfacturer of lighting fixtures used in stores:

"Modified atmospheres range from Controlled Atmosphere Packaging (CAP), which is 100% carbon dioxide and maintains the initial purple color of freshly slaughtered meat, to high oxygen Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), which contains 70% oxygen and 30% carbon dioxide and is ideal for initiating meat blooming, the change in meat color from purple to bright red. MAP with high oxygen concentrations helps to keep the red pigment stable within the muscle tissue for twice as long as meat exposed to air. In one study, beef in high oxygen (70% oxygen and 30% carbon dioxide) modified atmosphere packaging remained fresh for four weeks at -1.5ー C, and three weeks at 0ー C."

Supermarket meat is also cheaper than butcher-shop meat, "because supermarkets use what we in the industry call 'commodity meat' -- animals that were raised in the most efficient way possible," says Sarah Ryan, co-owner of the Berkeley independent butcher shop Star Meats. "Even if that means raising them in feedlots and putting antibiotics in their water so they won't get sick -- and they need antibiotics to keep from getting sick because by being raised in feedlots they're not eating the grass that would naturally build up their immunity."

Star Meats uses grass-fed, sustainably raised, antibiotic-free animals from small local farms, but it costs.

"I can't buy meat that suits my standards for anywhere near the low prices Safeway pays for its meat," Ryan laments. Avedano's Angela Wilson has a motto: "Pay more, eat less." Environmentally and ethically, that's cool.

But unemployed Americans can't pay. Luckily, butchery's new chic is returning to respectability the offal that sustained our ancestors but vanished in a haze of late-20th-century prosperity. Head cheese: It's depression food for a new depression. "A lot of people want the heads and the feet to boil up. The economy isn't great, so more people are staying home and cooking. If you have the time to stew them, the cheaper cuts are tasty. I like lamb necks," says Wilson, a longtime restaurant cook who offers her customers tips on preparing offbeat parts. Gizzards, she says, are high in calcium.

"I think if you choose to eat animals, you have an obligation to honor the animal's sacrifice by eating the whole animal," says Deborah Krasner, whose new book, Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, 2010), includes many offal recipes, including one for pig-ear lardons. "Pigs' ears are like bacon to the nth power. You braise them, then deep-fry them, then they're the most wonderful fatty garnish for anything from oatmeal to salad," says Krasner, who raises, slaughters and butchers her own livestock in Vermont.

"Many people find it hard to conceive of another relationship with a living animal that's not a pet. When you know you'll eat that animal someday, you take care of it. You look after it. You give it the best life possible. You give it companionship and interesting things to look at and eat. My sheep are beautiful and fluffy and they have faces that look at me. They run to the fence when they see me. But they're not pets. When I put a chicken upside-down in the killing cone, put its head through the bottom and wield the knife, getting ready to cut its throat, I'm not thinking, 'This is Maggie.' I'm thinking, 'This is just one of the chickens.'

"It's hard, because you're seeing death. You're the agent of death. The blood comes gushing out, you funnel it into a bucket of leaves to collect it for compost, but it makes you hyper-aware of the concept of lifeblood. It's very profound."

Along with olive-pressing, beekeeping, and cheesemaking, Krasner calls butchery one of the "heirloom skills" whose revival she welcomes as part of yet another quiet revolution.

"My hope is that people will simply stop going to supermarkets. I want them to buy all their food directly from whoever produced it. We shouldn't need labels. Labels are a substitute for trust. If you buy something from the person who produced the product or butchered the meat, you shouldn't need a label. You just need to look that person in the eye and say, 'Where did this animal come from? How was it raised?'"

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at scavenging.wordpress.com.
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