The American Butcher, Part 2

Butcher Display, Licensed through istockphoto

This is part two of a two-part series on butchering in America. Click here for part one.

Why do most people currently go to supermarkets for meat when they have the opportunity to go to a butcher?

If you’re lucky enough to have a butcher close to you, congratulations. You’re incredibly fortunate. Yet many who have this incredible resource in their communities still go to the supermarkets for lower quality meats and poor selection. Why?

The vast majority of people living in this country have grown up on industrial supermarket meat, and don’t know that it can taste better without the filler, water, additives, sodium and nitrate solutions, and chlorine treatments meant to kill diseases in the meats that only exist because the animals are treated poorly. Of course the meat is going to taste bad, to say nothing of what it’s doing to your health.

Butcher shops are also seen as more expensive, and that’s often true. Because of this, those who have access to butchers might only go there on special occasions (anniversary steaks or Thanksgiving turkeys, for example).  Supermarkets are cheaper because they cut corners and source their meats from packing plants. It costs more to treat animals with the care and attention they deserve. So yes, it might be a bit more expensive, but my opinion has always been that if you’re going to eat meat, than do the responsible thing and pay for the meat that’s produced properly.

Butchers have to carry quality meats, or they will quickly shutter. Supermarkets operate under the assumption they will always have your business because they are more convenient or assume you have no other options.


Why are butchers important?

Beef Map, from a Victorian CookbookThere are so many reasons to reclaim the tradition of butchering in this country. Lets start with the ethics – whole animal butchering is much more respectful to an animal than what currently happens at industrial meat processing facilities. Butchers committed to local sourcing also break the chain of industrial meats, meaning the animals coming to your table lived a happier life. It’ll taste better too.

Butchering whole animals also means you have more options. There really is more to a cow than steaks and hamburgers, but it’d be hard to tell from most grocery stores.

By offering more options, you actually can save money in the long run by being more economical with your meat purchasing decisions. Butchers, for example, who maybe aren’t selling much tongue or ham hocks will likely mark them down so that all parts of the animal are being
bought. And believe me, this is very good news for you and I – there’s some delicious recipes out there for these less expensive cuts.

Being a historian and a lover of food, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that butchers are helping keep valuable traditions alive. Anyone who has ever had to break down an animal carcass will quickly appreciate the true skill and artistry involved. We came very close to losing this.


How can we support and encourage butchers in this country?

Sausage Making, Licensed by istockphotoFirst and foremost, seek out your local butcher if you have one and give them your patronage. This is an industry where putting your dollar in the right hands really makes a big difference. Realize that you’re not just supporting local business and skilled craftspeople, you’re supporting an entire system dedicated to sustainable food production.

Educating yourself is equally important – knowing where your meat comes from, the different parts of an animal, what you can do with the parts you might be less familiar with, etc. There’s some great resources out there. Many local butchers actually offer classes in butchering – ask
them, and if they don’t offer them, let them know you’re interested. These classes usually will teach you the basics of knife-work, how to break down larger carcasses, how to make sausages, how to properly tie roasts, etc.

There are also several good books on the market that are truly inspirational. One of my favorites is Marissa Guggiana’s Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers. She not only offers the basics, it’s chock fill of recipes, anecdotes, manifestos, and profiles of fascinating folks. Ryan Farr’s Whole Beast Butchery is wonderfully illustrated, which is essential for those learning at home. I would also recommend Jennifer McLagan’s Odd Bits as a guide for what to do with those bits of the animal you might not be used to cooking, second perhaps only to the contemporary classic The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, written by the legendary ofal chef behind the restaurant St. John in London.

Finally, for the most ardent supporters of butchering, consider becoming a supporter of The Butcher’s Guild, a relatively new federation of butchers, chefs, restaurateurs and admirers. I can’t tell you how excited this organization makes me – just even knowing it’s around. Offering education and a support network to the nation’s butchers, the guild provides supporters with a pretty sweet benefits list in addition to the knowledge you’re doing something good. They just held their first ‘meat retreat’ last month in Oakland, CA.
Some not-likely-so-final thoughts…

As worried as I can be about the current state of American foodways, and in particular American meat production, I’m heartened and actually surprised by a few things.

First, we’re actually eating less meat in this country. Ever since 2007, meat consumption has been on a steady decline, dropping more than 12%. Some attribute this to changing attitudes that see meat as part of an unhealthy lifestyle – which, of course, is only true if you’re eating industrial meats. I actually would bet this has more to do with the economic recession and a greater concern about where our foods come from.

I think this helps explain why even though we’re eating less meat, there is greater demand for quality cuts. Renewed interest in the craft of butchering is gaining momentum in our culture that is valuing our food traditions more and more. Articles such as these and the founding of the Butcher’s Guild are evidence of this.