(originally posted July 28, 2010) Squeamish, are we? Then you may want to forgo this week’s journal entry in which we butcher the fine animal to your right. Before you stop reading however, consider this: if you enjoyed perusing the Dish of the Week just seconds ago, what makes you think you won’t also find it interesting to make a real connection between that delectable plate of food and the honest labor it took on the part of a farmer and a chef to get it to table? Dish of the Week was all about this animal’s liver, which came out of its body. In the run up to the Taste of Place Dinner we’re going to cook our way through the animal from nose to tail, a delicious endeavor, but ~ as with most everything we serve at Barndiva ~ it’s germane to remember the delicious part didn’t start at the plate.
Of course I want you to continue reading. For most people knowing where their food comes from blithely stops with an image of an animal grazing in a bucolic pasture. What happens after that is often thought to be unpleasant or disgusting or mysterious, sometimes all three. Yet it’s possible to embrace the icky bits of life when they are integral to the process. I always smile when new parents describe natural childbirth as ‘so incredibly beautiful,’ because it is, icky bits and all. I know, I know, that’s about life, where slaughter and butchery is about death, and yet, unless you forgo eating animals on ethical grounds, isn’t your appreciation of meat a celebration of life? The animals… and yours?
There can be no true locavore economy without making it possible for farmers and ranchers who raise the animals we eat to get those animals processed locally. While clean and humane mobile slaughterhouses have made it possible for a few dogged consumers (with big freezers) to purchase animals that are slaughtered humanely where they lived their lives, it’s going to take more than a few diehard foodies before the word local can be applied to animal proteins as easily as we now apply it to fruits and vegetables. There were understandable reasons over the past thirty years that resulted in America consolidating localized slaughter into larger and less humane facilities farther and farther away from where we live and eat our food, but those reasons are no longer viable. It is an incontestable fact that their size has given rise to unsafe, inhumane feedlots ~ massive holding pens ~ which do not and should not be part of the abattoir. Four large corporations now process 85 percent of the nation's cattle, which they can only control (barely) with dangerous cocktails of antibiotics and chemicals. Make no mistake: it isn’t only the animals who suffer as a result of corporate agriculture’s take over of this essential part of our food chain.
But while I’ve yet to meet a person who disagrees with me when I launch into a rant about the dangers of corporate control of the food chain, or bemoan the energy squandered shipping animals that are raised and will be consumed in one area away to be slaughtered, or even how inhumane it is to make an animal take such an unnecessary journey, something always happens when the conversation drifts toward the slaughterhouse door. A strange NIMBY response occurs when the words local (which we revere) and slaughterhouse (which is frightening) are put together. When a town like Ukiah, whose roots in ranching go all the way back and is now struggling economically, can reject a proposal for a small, progressive slaughterhouse that could serve the entire county of Mendocino, as they did last year, you know something is wrong. Change is possible ~ in two decades New Zealand has gone from American-sized centralized slaughter and meatpacking to smaller locally owned slaughterhouses dispersed across the country ~ but it’s not going to happen until we get over a modern repugnance against all things connected with death and begin to see it again for what it truly is: the final part of the life cycle.
So here’s what I propose. We do it lamb by lamb. All the talk in the world about the bigger issues of sustainability and safety won’t get us to change the way things are now if we aren’t able to bridge the disconnect between the meat on your plate and the whys and wherefores of how it got there. A good place to start is one single step back from the sexy part of cooking and consuming. Butchery is a lost art in American kitchens thanks to the role supermarkets played in making it easy to look away from slaughter. But something is lost every time you break the seal on the plastic and lift an animal part out of its Styrofoam package. Even the way you handle it communicates an “ugh, let’s get this part over with.” The smell, more a result of flesh being trapped beneath plastic, is not appealing, while the touch, instead of firm and resilient, is usually slimy. Dozens of hands, often in different states, handle one mass produced lamb as it makes its way to your table. Compare that to the short journey our animal took. John Fritschen, who raised the animal in his beautiful vineyard overlooking the Russian River Valley, guided it into a cage and took it over the hill on Monday where a USDA agent inspected it for 24 hours before the proprietor of the facility quickly dispatched the animal on Tuesday. John delivered the carcass, its organs in a separate bag, to Barndiva on Wednesday. Ryan was the fourth person to handle the meat before Pancho and Andrew began to see cuts of it coming down the hot line in the restaurant Thursday night.
The 90 lb, eight-month old lamb Ryan butchered had virtually no odor. Watching Chef break it down ~ hack sawing the neck from the body, deftly detaching the shoulders, precisely separating the belly, rack and saddle, breaking the vertebrae to make cutting the legs away from the trunk easier ~ it struck me that the techniques inherent in really great cooking, as well as the vegetables, herbs, spices and condiments, everything we use that constitutes a recipe, don’t start in a cookbook they really start here, ruled by which part of the animal the cut came from. Chef worked swiftly and cleanly ~ there was no hanging about ~ but it was the animal that provided the road map. Every now and then he closed his eyes and felt along a contour of a joint, trusting his fingers more than his eyes to tell him where to direct his knife. It was beautiful to watch ~ and it went a long way in explaining why he always cooks his proteins to perfection. This kind of understanding starts long before the meat hits the pan.
Years ago I knew a great Irish butcher in London, name of Mack, who used to make up stories about the animals as he carved them up. Nice and lean he’d say about a shapely lamb’s leg, this lassie must ‘a been a runner, or, oh look at the beautiful fat on this boy, as he sliced through the perfectly marbled ribeye, he liked the shade by the tree, he did. At the time I assumed he only nattered on to keep himself from being bored or having to talk to the endless stream of Hampstead housewives, but now I’m not so sure. I thought of Mack as Ryan ran his hand down the entire length of our lamb’s body. Beautiful animal Chef said before he made the first cut. Mack used to say the same thing as he wrapped a cut of meat in paper and tied the bundle with string, nodding as he handed it across the counter and I headed out into the night to feed it to my family. For both men, whose livelihoods are intrinsically reliant upon the animals we raise to eat, the words offered a kind of benediction. We often forget that a benediction is both blessing and guidance. We need both now.
Heather Smith wrote a good article in in San Francisco Magazine worth reading.
Michael Pollan's PBS interview Modern Meat.
There are usually no butchery classes offered this time of year, but you can go to an incredible fair this weekend where butchery will be only one of the food related skills you can learn about ~ with lots of opportunity for hands on experience. As Sophia Bates is one the organizers, we highly recommend a drive up to Anderson Valley this weekend. Where Sophia goes great food, music, and life changing good times are not far behind.