Let There Be Butchers
I had a great time at the Mother Earth News Fair this weekend in Asheville. I get super charged up at events like this, talking to people, joking, learning what folks are doing and what they’re interested in. Certain people hit me harder than others, and this year I had a surprising inspiration. After the second class, Whole Hog Butchery, a young man came up to the podium, a t-shirt wrapped around his head, and he said he’d been thinking about getting into butchery. Actually, I’m pretty sure what he said is,
I think I need to be a butcher.
The more I think about this, the more I like it. A lot. I asked him how old he was. He replied that he is twelve. He held up his little flip phone, and showed me a picture of our sausage from the Intro to Charcuterie class a full year ago, and said,
Ever since then I’ve just been thinking about it a lot.
Amen. A twelve-year-old thinking about butchery? I didn’t really know what to say at first. I wanted to pull him up on the stage and give him my boning knife and set him to skinning hams, but I figured I might get reprimanded. I figured he’s also too young for any apprenticeships. So I told him to debone some chickens for his mom, and ask for a pig for his birthday. He smiled. I told him I thought it was awesome he wanted to butcher, and he had my best wishes. He seemed at least satisfied, and trotted away.
The next morning, driving in for my next class, I was thinking about that kid, and thinking I should have had some more wisdom, or at least some better advice on what-to-do NOW. TODAY. I imagined that kid burying a ham in salt, or packing pepper around the bone and hanging it in his bedroom closet, possibly in his pillowcase, falling asleep every night watching it hang next to his coats and sweaters, and waiting patiently for his first prosciutto. This thought produced unabashed joy in my core, so just as I prepared to turn left toward the fairground to return to the event, I veered right instead, toward the farm where the half-pig from yesterday waited under refrigeration. I’m gonna give that kid a whole ham, I decided.
I hang out with lots of food people, via the professional food world, but also via the book writing or book schmoozing process. It’s continually inspirational. I have come into contact with a lot of spirit, ingenuity, downright wizardry, generosity, and also just plain ego in the culinary world, and specifically in the meat world. Surprisingly, I have encountered some of the most difficult attitudes among female cutters. I get it. It’s a tough world. It requires strength, there’s a brimming cup of machismo in all things farm and meat-related, and it’s hard work, which metabolizes into pride no matter who you are. I don’t blame anyone for the stigmas, or even the open sexism I have encountered for over a decade. I’ve navigated it with the territory, and have almost welcomed it as another way that food allows me to comment on our culture. Fine. Let’s acknowledge these wrinkles in the industry without pointing knife tips and without growing bitter or mean. But there is one place I’ve had a hard time getting over the ego-justification, and that is when it comes to education in general. I have had the opportunity to talk about education with several folks who inspire me, and have shown me around in the field. I remember one person in particular saying,
“The information has to be guarded. People have to protect their work.”
I never replied, thinking about it throughout the rest of that day, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Today, I am making headcheese, among other things, and remembering back to the first time I ever picked a skull clean. I remember I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated. I remember thinking I wasn’t sure I wanted to reach in for the tongue, or hold the eyeballs in my hand, but then I did it anyway, almost without any more hesitation. To try it out. To see. It turned out fine. I felt good about what I created, I thought about my own skull, and teeth. I thought about the skin on my own tongue. I touched all the parts of the animal, not wasting a scrap. It’s surprising now to remember any glint of hesitation. I’m a pretty tough person. I think if my first headcheese was almost too weird for me, how in the world could I expect other people to approach it as a task, a craft, or an honorable exercise in eating animals?
Part of this is of course cultural. We are in no way accustomed to eating brains and eyeballs in America. And possibly, the thought of a woman, or even a child, working over the skull of a pig seems somewhat wrong. And that is too bad, I say. I pulled five quarts of meat and fat off of a pig’s head today. This, my friends, is how we feed people, from one of the most wasted parts of one of the most prolific livestock animals in our country. Just the head. I say if we want mass animal cruelty to end, if we want small farms caring for happy animals, and small business owners making money, if we want less waste, and if we want healthy meat on our plate, and fewer hungry families, and we want children alive to the world, we need to get over this.
So, after meeting that young man this weekend, I just need to respectfully disagree with a measure of our pride, a gourmet brand that may just be holding us back. I do what I do because I truly believe that if we have more people who know their way around a scapula, we improve the industry as a whole, both the product we’re producing and the people who work to make their living from it. The fact of the matter is that butchery is not a secret club. It is an art, and not everyone will be artists. But everyone can buy watercolors. Even kids. The animal’s exact anatomy is a recorded fact, and the food everyone eats from is not, and should not be a mystery. Those who choose to understand it should be encouraged, nay, lauded for their connection and pursuit.
What has come of my butchery education is not the same that has come from others. Some people will just want to save money. Some people will want to fry ears. Some people will want to make a living, and some people just want to know the difference between chuck and round. Let’s share with them. The fact that we eat is what ties us most closely to our community of living beings. Let’s remember it’s a community. Losing sight of that has caused a host of problems already.
So I say, let information flow. If you are a brilliant cutter now, you probably always will be. If you are a brilliant chef now, you will have more, new ideas tomorrow. If people don’t have time to all be farmers or all be butchers today, they will still depend on you tomorrow for a good corned beef or a well-cut tri-tip, provided they know how good and right those things are in their omnivery. So I say, let there be butchers. Let there be a boning knife in more households. Let there be competent home cooks. Let there be children, curing pancetta in their closets. Let even the most disenfranchised among us pull five family meals from a forgotten bone. Give people back to the earth, back to their food, and give their food back to them. We’ll all be better for it.
Hoisting that ham into the car on Sunday, wrapped and labeled, I sent a silent wish into the spring air that the kid would be in the chicken butchery class. I wanted to hand him that joint, which probably weighed a third of what he did, and endure the sighs of his mother. I never saw him, though. I even asked the crowd if anyone remembered him, or knew who he was. Nothing. Oh well. It was a worthy thought. Kid, if you’re out there, holler. I have a ham for you.