Meat masters

Why we love DIY butchery

By
May 16, 2011

If you pay attention to food trends, you can’t have missed the renaissance, in the past few years, of artisanal and do-it-yourself butchery.

Meat-themed parties and butchery contests combined education and spectacle, thrilling audiences by making intimately familiar a foodstuff that, for decades, Americans had simply assumed came shrink-wrapped in plastic. Soon, chefs and artisanal butchers began inviting curious amateurs into their restaurants and shops for how-to classes, giving ordinary Joes and Janes the chance to hop on the DIY chuckwagon.

Now that the artisanal-butchery trend is no longer novel, it’s clear that DIY meatwork has expanded beyond stereotypically foodie kitchens. Take Cheryl Martin, for example. She’s single, lives alone in the Bay Area, and doesn’t eat very much meat. When she does, however, she prefers to buy it from farms she knows and butchers she trusts for their local and sustainable cuts.

Angela Wilson, Tia Harrison, and Melanie Eismann, the owners of Avedano’s butcher shop in San Francisco.

“I also wanted to make it go further,” says Martin, “so that I could occasionally buy bigger pieces to break down without feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing.”

So when Martin heard about a three-part, hands-on butchery class with the butcher Dave Budworth and Urban Kitchen SF last year, she signed up. The class started with a chicken, moved on to a leg of lamb, and concluded with a whole goat.

Martin had tried breaking down a chicken once before, but having someone guide her through the process, step by step, really transformed the experience. “I have a little perfectionist streak, but this gave me permission to just try some stuff,” she recalls.

Martin comes from a farm family, so the concept of eating the whole animal was already familiar to her. (At the end of the third butchery class, she took home the goat tongue, because no one else wanted it.) She’s used her newly acquired butchery skills to break down a few larger pieces of meat, making pasture-raised lamb and goat a little more affordable. And like many DIY kitchen projects, butchering has also given her a surprisingly tangible sense of accomplishment that can’t be rivaled by any shopping experience.

“The biggest take-away for me was freeing me up to ask questions and make requests,” she says. “I had gotten caught in a trap of thinking I could only eat what’s in the case.”

Martin had grown up eating (and loving) an unconventional dish: sandwiches made with cow brains. As an adult, however, she’d never thought to ask her butcher about this hard-to-get part of the animal. Taking butchery classes emboldened her to put the word out to a few butchers, however, and she now has her fingers crossed in hopes that someone will come through with a local, grass-fed version of this delicacy.

Putting together a puzzle in reverse

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Marissa Guggiana, the author of the recent artisanal-butchery book Primal Cuts, prefers not to call butchery a trend, but she has noticed an increase in the number of classes and demos in recent years. She ties this shift in part to the number of meat CSAs (community-supported agriculture) offering larger pieces of meat to their customers.

“Belonging to a CSA often requires some butchery,” Guggiana says. “Or at least the knowledge to tell your butcher how you want it broken down.”

She also points to the fact that very few tools are actually needed to break down a larger piece of meat: “Aside from cutting through the spine on a larger animal, all you really need is a good boning knife.”

Just what do home butchery classes teach? Tia Harrison, the co-owner of Avedano's, an old-fashioned, women-owned butcher shop in San Francisco, offers lots of information and advice in her monthly three-hour introductory class. But, she says, butchery is really pretty straightforward: “The way you become a good butcher is by butchering.”

First, Harrison leads her class through the process of breaking down a 30-pound suckling pig. Then, after the students have gotten a feel for the knives as well as the flesh and bone, the class moves on to a 65-pound lamb.

Harrison helps her students identify the common cuts, so they can begin to understand how the animal is structured and how to separate the muscle groups. “I really see people’s eyes light up when they cut it down and see a lamb chop like one they’re served in restaurants,” she says.

Butchering two animals also reinforces a basic fact: you’re always going to get the same cuts. “They always have arms and legs,” adds Harrison. “The chops are always the same, whether they’re giant chops or teeny little chops.”

Understanding the muscle groups is important, says Harrison, because each cooks a little differently. Muscles that move a lot, such as the legs, are likely to be on the tough end of the tenderness spectrum. “That’s why the ribs [a fairly stationary muscle group] are great grilling meat,” she says.

And classes like Harrison’s aren’t as daunting as they might sound. It’s possible, Harrison says, to cut too far into a single muscle group, or to make unattractive cuts with the wrong kind of sawing motions. But, in general, there’s not much that can go terribly wrong. “It’s all going to taste great no matter what,” she says.

Students are taught not to hold their knives overhand, as they might if they were chopping vegetables; instead, Harrison shows them how to hold the knife in what she calls a “typical stabbing hold, like you’re in the shower scene in ‘Psycho.’” She also focuses on the importance of cutting with the shoulders rather than the much more commonly used wrists.

Harrison has had hunters and food-industry professionals in her classes, but most of the students are just curious home cooks. “The majority of people want to learn [butchery] for its own sake,” she says.

The evolution of a trend

Meanwhile, home butchery is alive in smaller cities as well. Danny Johnson of Taylor’s Market in Sacramento has long stuck to the tradition of butchering animals out in the open; his butchers have always done their work within view of the store’s lunch counter. “For years, people would eat and watch,” says Johnson. Last January, he started offering a regular 2½-hour demonstration class in which he walks his audience through the process of breaking down everything from a fish to a cow, and answers questions from the audience along the way. (San Francisco’s Fatted Calf offers a similar demo during happy hour.)

Johnson says he’s been approached by a number of aspiring butchers interested in reviving the trade. He also says he’s seen an increase in the number of customers who are comfortable buying larger cuts of meat to butcher themselves. “I’ve sold more whole hogs this year than ever before,” he says.

But, Johnson adds, this surge in interest hasn’t yet reached cities smaller than Sacramento. And in some rural areas, where hunting is a common practice, DIY butchery knowledge doesn’t need to make a comeback, because it didn’t disappear quite so completely.

“When I talk to folks further out — say, in Chico — and tell them I’m getting paid to talk about butchery, they all still say things like, ‘Really? Are you serious?’ It’s just not seen as trendy there,” explains Johnson.

In the end, DIY butchery is about demystifying the food chain. By dropping the fourth wall and inviting people to engage directly with their meat, butchers around the country are simultaneously returning this craft to its rightful place in food culture, and building an important appreciation for our most resource-intensive foods.

As Harrison says of her students: “I don’t know that they’re going to go home and start breaking down whole animals, but they do want to identify and feel connected to what they eat.”

Twilight Greenaway writes a weekly newsletter for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which co-hosts butchery classes with Urban Kitchen SF. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Bay Citizen, Civil Eats, and the Bold Italic. Follow her on Twitter: @twyspy.

Related book: Primal Cuts

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