Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

The meat, the butcher, and the strappy blue sandals

The lost art of butchery

By
September 14, 2010

I am meat-obsessed. Not so much in the eating, but in the buying. Not so much in buying retail, but in the purchasing of farm shares. And not any farm share or any animal, but in a very particular farm share and animal raised, as it turns out, in a very, very particular way.

I did not start out this way, but after a couple of years of purchasing farm shares and, well, after writing a book that goes into the nuances of the same, I can honestly say it’s a little hard to pull the wool, errrr, grass, over my eyes. But that was not always the case.

What a food animal eats is important, but even more than the feeding of the animal, there is the land it is raised on, how it is raised on it, when it is slaughtered, who is slaughtering it (sorry), butchering it (sorry again), and, in the case of pig, who will be curing it that matters.

And with any one of those issues, there is a rabbit hole of legalities, personalities, and complications that defy the simplicity of a consumer mind that thinks, easily enough, that buying grass-fed beef or well-raised pig for your freezer is, in and of itself, a good thing.

It is a good thing, but only if you are supporting the right food chain. Doing so is complicated at the very least and frustrating in the way you will have to pry open Pandora’s box from those within the system who would rather you did not.

But once again, I have already written my peace on the matter, and in November, when the book is published, you can read what I have to say if you’re so inclined.

Harriet’s beef will be raised on the Carman Ranch.

Which is not to say I can stop the investigation. Nope. With meat purchasing, like most things, the more you research it the more there is to know, and in October, I will be heading out to Wallowa, Oregon, to watch and, if I am lucky, assist with the butchering of the farm-share steer I’ve purchased from Cory Carman at Carman Ranch.

I will be trying, ever so tenderly, to convince Kevin, my butcher at Valley Meats in Wallowa, to cut my animal according to a list of cutting instructions that are, according to another butcher I once worked with, a “little old-fashioned.”

“Housewives don’t want those cuts anymore,” is how he said it, and then, in general, he refused to give them to me. There you have it. I’m a relic or, as I suggest in the book, the new hybrid housewife that is, in spirit and fashion, a cross between Julia Child, Courtney Love, and Coco Channel — a nice life if you can survive it.

So as I drive out to the Wallowas in October in my boiled-wool suit and pillbox hat, I will be taking the lessons I have learned from all the books I have read, the charts I have pored over, and the classes I have taken from the fashion-forward gals at the Portland Meat Collective. Oh man, you gotta love those gals.

If you are someone who likes playing with your food, whether you’re in Portland or not, I highly suggest you take one of their classes (a list can be found on the website). These classes will give you a very good introduction into the muscle and bone structure of an animal, which is something you really ought to understand before ordering your farm-share animal or, rather, before giving your butcher your cutting instructions.

Knowing what to order will affect what, and how, you will cook at home. I daresay, despite all our fascination with fine cooking at restaurants and all the farm-to-plate affairs we’ve attended, we are still a little shy of being great technicians in our own kitchens. Such knowledge does not come easily, and requires a commitment to learn the basics that have been lost. Which is why I suggest taking a class at the collective. It’s one of the few places you can see what an animal looks like and why it matters how it is butchered.

Of course, one of the motives of the collective is to encourage you to butcher out the animal yourself, but I will not go that far. Even after three classes, I am only just now getting a sense of how I might do that. Frankly, on pig day 2011, when the folks at Square Peg Farm say my animal will ready for butchering, I will turn it over to someone who knows what he or she is doing. Who that will be I still don’t know, but it will definitely be someone who has the type of artisanal skills I’m hoping to support.

Which is what I meant by supporting the proper food chain. I don’t want any old butchered meat in my freezer. I want really well-butchered meat there, and that will come from the type of artisanal butcher that is nearly extinct in today’s industrialized meat system.

A Square Peg pig.

I should have put that last sentence in all caps for effect, but trust me on this one: Great artisanal butchery is a dying art, and we should not assume every tattooed hipster with a knife belt knows his or her stuff. They are lurching towards the craft, but only that. And as we support the great farmers in this sustainable meat culture, we need also to support the great processors.

With so much care going into raising the animal, I will not disrespect the effort by hacking into it myself. Though I have enough knowledge to know what cuts to ask for, and how to cook or cure the animal when I take it home, I don’t know enough to get all giddy with a cleaver. But that’s just me. Others in the PMC class seemed either more advanced or more willing to let pigs fly, as it were.

But herein lies the mysteries of my life: Who would imagine that a personality given to unrestricted boundaries (a nice life if you can survive it) would, at another moment, turn to moderation and reverence for artisanal skills gone by? What can I say?

I know what I know, and besides, who wants pork parts on their blue suede shoes or, as was the case the other day during a class I took on pork butchery for charcuterie, my lovely strappy, baby-blue sandals?

I mean, they looked sooooo good with my jeans. Lord forgive me, but I hope they have fashion in householding heaven, because if they don’t, I’m going down — way, way, down.

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1. by Charlotte on Sep 14, 2010 at 1:38 PM PDT

Ooh -- I want to see your old-fashioned cut list!

I ran into trouble last year with a local pig I bought. I wanted one belly made into bacon, and one left uncured. Unfortunately, I forgot to specify that the uncured belly should also be uncut. I got six or eight packages of sliced side pork, which were of course, impossible to turn into pancetta. Sigh.

We’re lucky out here in Montana -- the big game industry left us with any number of small processors and butchers. So it’s not too hard to get an animal share, and to get it cut the way you want. Most of the time.

2. by anonymous on Sep 14, 2010 at 2:23 PM PDT

I live in a rural area and we raise our own beef. There used to be a lot of good butchers in the area (including my grandpa) but when the large grocery stores moved in thirty years ago or so people stopped going to the local butcher. Now most of the old butchers are passed and you wouldn’t believe the terrible cuts we’ve gotten when we get our cows butchered. Mystery meat!

3. by Fasenfest on Sep 14, 2010 at 9:46 PM PDT

Hey Charlotte,

I can’t imagine what sort of butcher would imagine a person would want packs of uncured pork sliced. So sorry. I can only imagine how annoying that was. Was that in Montana? I find the same issue of good butchering and processing is just about the same everywhere though. Like anonymous writes, we are generally left with cutters not butchers and get whatever “mystery” cuts they feel like giving us. But raising our awareness, expectation and, finally, being willing to pay more for the few butchers that will oblige us might change things. As for that old fashioned cut list -- it will be in the book but I’ll let you know when I get back from the Wallowas whether I got what I ordered (I’ll do a follow up post). Even now I feel tentative about how much time my butcher will give to cutting my animal as requested.

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