"Butchers are the ambassadors of meat."
Marissa Guggiana traveled across the United States to seek out some of our nation's finest butchers and learn about their favorite dishes, techniques, and stories of their craft. Lucky for Serious Eaters, she has compiled the results in her book, Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers. It includes some of New York City's best meat men: Andrew Dorsey from Marlow & Daughters, Brad Farmerie of Public, Nathan Foot from Northern Spy Food Co., Tom Mylan from The Meat Hook, and Adam Tiberio from Dickson's Farmstand—alongside their fellow craftsmen and women nationwide.
Meat is literally your family business. Would you tell us about how that affected you growing up? My father had a distribution business with 9,000 items, everything from dishwashers to filet mignon. I internalized from a young age that most of the food business had become the infrastructure of moving things and storing things—food came from a few large companies, who make products, not nutrition. That always rankled, especially as our meals at home were about fresh ingredients and simple preparations.
Why do you think that butchers have suddenly been pushed into the spotlight? Meat is in the spotlight, and butchers are the ambassadors of meat. Because our industrial meat system has become immorally overburdened, we are looking for local sources. We need butchers to properly process whole animals and so they have become cool, as we have new appreciation for their skills.
How did you select the butchers to profile for your book, Primal Cuts? There was a different path to every butcher. Some I heard about through friends in the food industry, Edible Communities magazine editors, food bloggers, Slow Food chapter leaders. All of them, though, went through a vetting period of talking on the phone or in person and checking with others in their community to make sure they were as great as they seemed. (Many did not make it through that process.)
It seems that the overwhelming majority of the butchering world is comprised of men. Do you see that changing? Yes and no. There are many women that are great butchers and many women are training at shops around the country. Also, many new butchers are coming from professional kitchens, and there are many women there. But there are more men. While butcher parties and New York Times articles can focus on glam butchery, the truth is that most of the work requires great upper body strength to perform repetitive tasks in a cold room. Many women are drawn to it and love it, but I don't see a gender parity happening any time soon. Especially as, unfortunately, when women get hired in shops they are very often put on the side work, like sausage stuffing or labeling, and they don't get the training to become butchers.
What's it like being a woman in the meat world? It's great! When I first started, I was very often the only woman in the room. It's always nice to stand out from the get-go. I also got a great deal of help and advice because I was younger than everyone, as well. And being new to the whole world of meat processing, I was open to any help I could get, even if it was sometimes of the "Well now, lil' missy" variety. Now that I know what I'm doing, I very rarely feel like my gender has any bearing.
You recently had a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Kitchen for National Butchers Week. How would you describe the butchering scene in New York City?There are a lot more surviving old-school butcher shops in New York City than on the West Coast, so the paradigm for a great shop exists in people's minds. The shops in NYC have a traditionalism that I love. Behind the scenes, the places I profiled (The Meat Hook, Fleisher's, Dickson's Farmstand) are doing things with a revolutionary focus on whole animals sourced from local farms. And I think the competitive spirit of New York keeps them honest and motivated to innovate constantly.
Any tips for Serious Eaters about how to choose and work with a butcher? Ask questions! If they don't know the answers, hopefully they will start looking for them and that will be good for them and for you. Also, know that if a butcher is buying whole animals, they need two things from you: flexibility and consistency. Flexibility because they need to move the whole carcass, so if they are out of tri tips, let them talk you into something else. Consistency because they need you to shop there regularly and not just for special occasions.
Buy better meat, and if you can't afford it—buy less, less often. I know that is a tough pill for some folks, myself included, but the world needs to be raising less cows, plain and simple.
What's the best way to get started with home butchering? Bone out a chicken. Bone out a lamb leg. Once you remove the bone, you can seam out all the muscles and have five lovely little roasts or grillable bits. When you get good at that, you have the basic principles of butchery down.
If your curiosity takes you deeper than that, I suggest taking a class or buying a whole animal and enlisting a local butcher to break it down for you, while you watch. You can then share the meat amongst friends. Start with a lamb, then graduate to a pig. And then it's onto beef.