Tuesday, April 5, 2011

That Dog'll Hunt.

Last Sunday, I posted a quick blurb from the Carolina Meat Conference in Concord, North Carolina. I’m back with a little more on our incredible weekend!

Tia and Marissa were waiting by baggage claim when I met up with them after we’d all taken red-eye flights. I had just flown from Seattle, where I had enjoyed a 22-hour visit home from New York for my anniversary before hopping on the plane to North Carolina. As I counted that morning, I had been in 4 airports, 6 times in 3 time zones in less than 48 hours. I didn’t know which way was up, most of the sleep I had gotten in the previous day or two was on airplanes. It was 7 am on a sunny North Carolina morning and we were driving not to crash in our comfy hotel beds, but to the convention center to set up for a weekend of butchery classes-I knew we were in for a hell of a weekend.

We arrived at the Cabarrus Convention Center, met up with Casey McKissick of NC Choices, who, as coordinator of the conference, had put together 3 days of classes, panel discussions, demonstrations, food vendors, accommodations-I’m sure I’m leaving out a dozen other shoes Casey filled in producing this successful conference focused on local, pastured meats in only 3 months! Casey showed us around the space and we immediately got to work putting up tables and deciding on the flow of our classes.

We had 9 hogs, 11 lambs, a side of beef and a few cases of chicken to spread across 3 butchery classes where 25 students would be taking home meat and 2 meals for about 200 people each. I love kitchen math! We stacked and restacked the lambs. We climbed over whole and halved hogs weighing from 40 to 285 pounds, attempting to organize the carcasses in a way that would keep this shuffling to a minimum over the weekend. In order to do all this, there was quite a bit of jenga to be played with the carcasses in the reefer van that was parked right near the entrance to our area.

BBQ master Bill Eason then popped in for a chat about which of the hogs he’d need and how he wanted the beef and pork cut down the next morning. We’d be putting 2 whole Red Wattles and a few extra cuts of pork from our classes, a lamb, the side of beef and a few chickens up for smoking for the two meals. We were all struck with Bill’s demeanor, he was just the kind of meat guy we were hoping to meet on our trip. A portly man with bushy white facial hair, a great sense of humor and a cigar for style points. Bill is a decorated master of the pit. He is a board member of the North Carolina Barbecue Society and has led his Little Red Pig Team to over 100 awards in competitions all over with his self-built trailer that fits several whole animals and cuts at once. After taking a few photos with Bill and hounding him with questions about his badass portable smoker, we went back inside to see what else needed to be done before we went to check-in to our hotels.

Tia Harrison and the great Bill Eason.

Berlin and Marissa and The Little Red Pig

Remember, we’ve all come from an all night flight and are running on fumes. We were fading a bit, but Bill’s gruffly jovial personality perked us up before we went inside and then Tia saved the day by figuring out a place in the cavernous convention center to hang the chains for the sides of beef that would be used in the next day’s processing classes. Riding on waves of sleep-deprived delirium and jetlag, the rush of meeting new people and the anticipation of what the weekend would hold, we went outside to sit in the sun and take it all in. It was about one in the afternoon, were we done for the day? We were at that place where you aren’t sure if you should keep going until you drop or throw in the towel for the day. As we wavered, Casey came out and sat next to us on the bench. “How ya’ll feelin?”, he asked.

We were just starting to manage an enthused rumble, when Casey continued to say he hoped we could last just a bit more, because, he added, “at four o’clock, you’re all going to be going 160 mph around a race track”.

We looked at each other, Tia and I obviously a little more excited than Marissa about this surprise. We got the details for our Nascar experience and went to check in to our hotels, passing the Charlotte Motor Speedway just a mile or so before the hotels. We had exactly one hour to check-in, shower, nap, eat or do anything we’d been dreaming of since arriving that morning. I went with some blogging, a shower and cable TV. I think Marissa managed a disco nap. We met at the rental car at 330pm and the butterflies were aflutter as we drove back toward the track.

I know, I am young. I’ve got the cheeks and dimples of a 12-year-old, but I am fast approaching the very last year of my twenties! So, when the woman at the gate passed the releases to Marissa and Tia and began to give them instruction on how to sign for the minor in the car, it was not unexpected, it was more than hilarious. The gate attendant apologized with Southern charm as we laughed and thanked her. We parked and went in to get suited up and sign our lives away.

L to R: Marissa Guggiana, Tia Harrison and Berlin Reed just before Nascar.

Top: Marissa after Nascar. Bottom: Tia after Nascar.

After Nascar, sleep was as foreign an idea as driving at only 60 mph. We were all grinning ear-to-ear and the warm sun was just the icing on the cake as we drove away from the speedway. Margaritas were now the goal, and they were found at a sort of cheesy Mexican place we spotted out solely because of its outdoor seating. A pitcher of ‘ritas and spread of appetizers later, we were ready for bed. FINALLY.

The real work started Friday morning, the first day of the conference. The three of us started the day by cutting down all of the cuts coming from Dr. Gregg Rentfrow’s processing class. A professor in University of Kentucky’s Animal & Food Sciences Department, Dr. Rentfrow holds a doctorate in Meat Science and Muscle Biology. He had the three of us hanging on every word we could catch in between cutting and Tia decided right then to make a point of picking his brain for the rest of the weekend. We were swamped in meat and getting nervous about time. Luckily, we had the help of local food folks, Drew Brown of Farmhand Foods and Sarah Blacklin, manager of the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. They were our right hand people all weekend and we couldn’t have done a thing without them. We all cut and cut until just before our first class, which was scheduled to start at 2pm. Tia and I did a quick lamb breakdown for the local TV station and then we got ourselves ready to teach our first class.

Processors, farmers, chefs, consumers, butchers and others in the industry had all registered for the conference. We’d be teaching classes geared toward home butchers the first two days and then Craig Deihl was to lead a chef-specific class the last day of the conference. This group teaching experience was new for all of us, as it was the first Butcher’s Guild class. It went better than any of us could have imagined, and was a reminder of exactly why this guild is going to be so transformative. This was the Hand and Voice tenets of the oath in action.

Through teaching these classes, we are bettering our trade, connecting with the community and improving our own skills as butchers. For 3 days, 4 butchers from 4 very different backgrounds, who work in very different areas of the industry and geographically, were teaching people how to break down whole animals. It was amazingly educational for everyone involved. We all had something to teach and to learn. Craig is a celebrated chef who is known for coming up with all kinds of insanely ingenious ways to use every part of the animal in his restaurants. Marissa is a 4th generation USDA processor and author who has had the pleasure of meeting butchers all over the country, I likewise travel around doing local foods-centric whole animal dinners and other events solo and in collaboration with chefs and farmers. Tia runs a restaurant and co-owns a butcher shop. These are all overlapping but separate experiences from which to give instruction. We all have cutting styles that differ a little because we use our animals differently. It was really quite eye opening to teach in this setting. We sort of circled the groups of students, supporting each other in a very natural and seamless way. I sniff a butchery school forming...

Remembering what it was like watching all of these novices jump into cutting down whole animals for the first time, I think back to cutting my first whole animal a few years ago in the shop in Brooklyn I where I picked up this trade. In this early period of my butchery training, I was only beginning to learn about sourcing and knew only that the pastured goat I named “Billy” had come from a farm in upstate New York. It would take me many more months to gain the knowledge needed to start a business that reflected my personal ethics, but working at this counter with Bryan Mayer (my mentor butcher, now at Fleisher’s) is where I began to form those moral codes. I did not have an opportunity to see Billy’s farm, nor did I meet him while he was alive, both of which are practices central to The Ethical Butcher dinners now. In those early post-vegetarian days, I didn’t even know visiting the farm where my animals came from was an option.

Billy’s rose and ivory marbled carcass lie there in wait. With tingling ears and throbbing heart, I looked into his eyes as if I were waiting for approval or permission, or hesitant about doing this while he watched. Not until I slaughtered my first animal would I feel so personally accountable for the life lost in order to feed us. Roughly the size of my border collie, the naked goat carcass was a humbling and sobering presence. The horns had been sawed off, but there were two little stubs left. I was a medic before entering the food world and can never resist a bit of anatomy and physiology when I break down whole animals. Studying the cilia of the ear canal and comically crooked teeth before severing tendons and ligaments, anatomy becomes gastronomy.

Lower on the body, I held open the cavity created when the entrails are removed. There two kidneys hung by dense, fatty tissue from the spine, and the liver and heart rested inside the ribcage. With two small cuts, the kidneys were free and I placed the offal in a bowl. I began counting vertebrae of the neck, using the side of my thumb to palpate the evenly spaced mounds of bone cushioned by bands of muscle stained deep red from the carcass being bled out.


I picked up my boning knife and began cutting. Making quick passes straight through until I hit the spine, I prepared the path for my bone saw to follow. The rest of the body held firmly to the board with my left hand, I sawed through the spinal column and set the head aside. I positioned it so that it faced away from the rest of the body (it did still have its eyes after all). It felt morbid to have it watching me, tongue hanging to one side as I cut the rest of its body. Reaching inside the body cavity I counted again, making a cut between the last two ribs, up eight more and again just before the pelvis. Sliced from spine to belly in three places, the carcass resembled a bear claw pastry, each primal cut nearing amputation. The bone saw returned to aid in the secession of each primal. With each cut, I felt more accomplished in abolishing the squeamish vegetarian inside. The grace of this craft is addictive as it is centering. There’s a calm focus and relaxed elegance required in butchery that belies the blood and guts that are more obvious. That dance of power and control takes years to master, and I felt the muscle memories taking root that day. With the grunt work behind me, now came the act of turning those rough cuts into gorgeous rib racks, neatly tied leg and a loin roast. A selection of offal, shanks and stew meat rounded out the yield and two very happy New Yorkers took home local goat for the first time.

We had a few students comment the next day about how they had prepared their chops and boneless half chickens with a similar pride as I felt that day. After our class on Saturday, I took some much needed time to collect my thoughts and prepare for the panel discussion I’d been eagerly awaiting. The panel was titled “Facing Ethical Issues in a Growing Market” and I was to address the challenges and opportunities for improving transparency & addressing ethical issues in this industry. The panel ended up shifting focus a bit as it took place in reality, though. The conversation took on a life of its own with audience participation and we quickly found ourselves discussing the role of labeling and regulations in ensuring food quality.

As I travel the country with a bag of knives, a few bucks in my pocket and little else, I have the opportunity to observe, document and collaborate with folks working all over the country. One big problem, as the conversation exposed, is that USDA Organic is effectively the only regulated term that customers have to relate to higher quality foods and products. However, those standards are often questionable in intent and problematic in application. They focus far too much on only a few elements of the question. The trend is that consumers and in fact, many of us in the industry, no longer look to that label as the gold stamp. Many of us have lost confidence in it and the label now risks losing even more relevance as large agribusiness was recently allowed to introduce GMO alfalfa to our food system. When the ethics of the very bodies deciding what is healthy and what is not are in question, the entire system is off balance and consumers are left wondering where to put their faith, where to turn for real answers, seeking transparency. I see butchers as that intermediary between farmer and consumer. Not as a wall between the two, but as a conduit, connecting them. When there is a butcher in every neighborhood, a vibrant farmer’s market, meat CSA’s, and other alternatives to the nameless meat that only gives us labels to rely on, that is when we will see a true change in our meat system. It is these relationships that make transparency the foundation. We have to start seeking the balance between our advances and our undoing.

The room was packed with people who are proud to work hard to bring healthy food to the market, often barely making ends meet because they are unable to recoup the real costs of their products. Those who co-opt this movement and the unregulated language used to describe our practices not only hurt all of us by eroding the terms we’ve been left with, “local” “sustainable” “artisan”, but they add insult by poisoning the well of trust we all have to build with our customers. This lipservice not only harms those putting in the hard work and risk it takes to actually live up to those claims, but creates an elitism that is a disservice to the very movement itself.

The conversation was a great example of the completely disparate voices coming to the table to solve the problems we face. The point wasn’t to come to any sort of conclusion, but rather to open lines of communication. I sincerely hope to engage in more discussions like these. The oath of Butcher’s Guild helps us to form a sort of moral code that can remind us how to conduct ourselves and our businesses with pride. By upholding integrity in relationships with local farmers and consumers, highlighting whole animal butchery, continuing to improve and learn in this industry and in turn passing that experience to the community, we can encourage a healthier food system. Sitting on that panel as a representative of Butcher’s Guild was a humbling honor.

Our second day ended with a mixer we hosted at the Speedway Club, overlooking the rack we had been zooming around the day before. Just before hitting the road for the night, a person we had been chatting with all weekend came up to chat with the us BG folks. The four of us were gathered ‘round as he introduced himself as “ The Best G-D Meatcutter in the WORLD”. With whiskey eyes, he stared dead on for about a minute, waiting for one of us to challenge him. Instead, we invited him to help us cut meat the next day!

Full on exhaustion had definitely set in by Sunday but we continued with the butchery class for chefs, taught by BG charter member Craig Deihl. I took a break from teaching on Sunday to do a little liveblogging from the conference, got a chance to mill around and engage in more personal conversations and checked out a really interesting outdoor demo on stress-free cattle handling. Unfortunately, “The Best G-D Meatcutter in the World” was unable to come help us. I am hoping to run into him on my future travels.

We all gathered for goodbyes and photos after Craig’s class was over and Tia, Marissa and I headed back to our hotel. Our brains and bodies worn out from 3 days of non-stop meat action, we were as celebratory as our collective energy would allow -- 7 hours of Law & Order over local microbrews , just the clink, clink of glasses we needed. I dropped Tia and Marissa off at the airport Monday morning and had until Tuesday night before I caught my flight back. I just got back to Portland after more than 2 months of travel. Wow, is my head spinning!

It was beyond fun and more than an honor to accompany Butcher’s Guild founders on this trip to North Carolina! The Guild is here to stay and this very first public event was only the beginning. The fine folks we met that weekend are like us, interested in working on a new food system. As we form this web of people not with like minds, but similar goals, we creating just such as system.

I’m expecting more photos soon! Thanks to NC Choices for hosting Butcher’s Guild! Everyone involved in this conference worked tirelessly over the last few months, and a beautiful community educational experience was the result. The Butcher’s Guild looks forward not only to attending and sponsoring more events like the Carolina Meat Conference, but we also have schemes to get all you meat heads in one place for unmatched and unabashedly meaty Butcher’s Guild events!

On another exciting note...

The Butcher’s Guild is also proud to announce the GRAND OPENING of Lindy & Grundy in LA. Owned and run by Butcher’s Guild charter members Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura, we wish them all the best as they bring local, pastured meats to the people of Los Angeles!! We hope to get their member intros up, but as you can imagine, they are busy ladies!

If you are in the area, check them out here! http://www.lindyandgrundy.com/

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