On the cusp of 2011, the food world — or the world of people who care about food — is hands-on, up-close-and-personal, increasingly maker-y and curious and — let’s face it — a bit of a boy’s club.
And all of that goes double for butchers.
Butchers are hot right now. The twin arts of butchering and charcuterie are hot. There are big knives involved, and wild bacteria, and animal parts never seen in a SuperTarget. It’s like red meat (yeah, I meant that) for foodies who need a new challenge.
Capturing the big, bad world of butchery is no job for a slim, dainty paperback. Marissa Guggiana’s Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers (foreword by Dario Cecchini, introduction by Andrew Zimmern, $37.50, 288 pages, published by Welcome Books, 2010) is a big, meaty (I’ll stop now) book, printed on large-format, heavy paper, with a showy, die-cut cover over a glossy photo of marbled flesh. It’s really beautiful. And a good read, too.
Guggiana, who is the president of the butcher shop and wholesaler Sonoma Direct, interviewed 50 chefs around the country, including locals Scott Buer of Bolzano Artisan Meats in Madison, WI; Mike Lorentz of Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls; Scott Pampuch of Corner Table; and Mike Phillips, formerly of The Craftsman, now cofounder of Green Ox. Local bizarre-eater Andrew Zimmern wrote the introduction and national stars Dan Barber and Joel Salatin make an appearance alongside the lesser names.
Each butcher gets about a page and a half of text, told in the first person and clearly condensed from interviews. So readers get a nice taste of the subject’s own personality, but almost no background, none of the ritualistic who-what-where-when-why-and-how, even from Guggiana’s own introductions. While that often leaves some unexplained details just hanging there in the text and unanswered questions, it works, because it’s easy enough to find answers online. What the Internet can’t give you is a snapshot of who these folks are, those in the present and future of the ancient and newly reborn art of butchery.
And who are those folks? Well, I’ve called them butchers, but they are also farmers, restaurateurs, and owners of meat-processing plants. By the looks of the profiles here, they are overwhelmingly charming, fresh-faced punks. There are a lot of tattoos, a lot of crossed arms, a lot of faux-menacing looks. A lot of chalkboard menus in the background and a couple of “customer is never right” signs. And a lot of blood. That goes with the territory.
Judging solely by the excellent (and uncredited, unless I am losing my mind) photos, there aren’t a lot of faces over 40 here, and just one story from an old-school meat counter guy who learned butchering as a trade back when it “paid on a scale like electricians and plumbers.” I enjoyed his perspective and would have liked to see a little more of it. It’s not like these young punks invented butcher’s knives.
Six of the 50 butchers are women, which I suspect might even be an over-representation. Guggiana is careful not to present them as circus freaks (“Step right up! See the little lady with the giant cleaver!”) or tokens. But their gender is inescapably part of the story.
Tia Harrison, who runs Avedano’s in San Francisco with two other women, says, “I thought the fact that we were women would be a novelty, something that people would find amusing. But we [sic; “they”?] were more excited about the fact that we were cooks than that we were women. It used to be that butchers were able to give cooking suggestions and be educated about what they were selling.”
All of the butchers’ stories are stories of passion, of course, but there are also plenty of stories of innovation in this millennia-old art. Scott Buer (below), who started Bolzano Artisan Meats in Milwaukee about a year and a half ago, dry-cures whole muscles. And, because he buys only whole animals that means he has some truly unique products including, yes, a dry-cured tenderloin: “It really doesn’t make business sense to do it, but I can’t ethically throw it out,” he told me over the phone. “So no one can really count on that [being available].” As the first and only dry-curing facility in Wisconsin, Buer says he’s keeping his inspector on her toes. “Supposedly the other inspectors are jealous of my inspector because she gets like a notch on her belt,” he says.
Mike Lorentz, the second generation behind Lorentz Meats, tells of his work to help his customers (the farmers) connect better with their customers (carnivores). And he puts out there a pretty iconoclastic belief: “I’m anti-farmers market. It gets farmers trapped in this idea that they’re selling meat. And they have all these inventory issues. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that they make any more money, they just work harder.”
Mike Phillips (below) was interviewed pre-Green Ox, but back when Craftsman already had a reputation for excellent charcuterie. At the time he was dicing the fat for his sausage in the walk-in cooler and running back and forth between that and his meat workshop downstairs from the kitchen. He did that for about 10 years while running the restaurant.
In the book, Scott Pampuch doesn’t get much attention for his whole-hog butchering classes, but he does get to wave the flag for his “farm-driven restaurant,” Corner Table, and talk about his “late start” in cooking, at the age of 27. He also talks a little bit about his Tour de Farm dinners, but this is one of the places where the editing doesn’t leave the reader with quite enough background. (Learn more here.)
And, oh yeah, sandwiched in between the great stories, there are diagrams and recipes. One, two, or three from each chef. They range from good ways to make old favorites (marinate the flank steak for tacos with a ton of canned jalapenos — why didn’t I think of that before?) to concoctions so crazy they just might work (a roulade made with flank steak wrapped around fresh spinach and cheese and — could that be right? — a whole pork tenderloin) to the truly brave (homemade boudin and pig head stew).
The holiday season isn’t a great time to be experimenting with purchasing and stewing a whole pig’s head — unless your schedule looks way different from mine — so I tried Lorentz’s steak tacos with the jalapenos in the marinade. Super simple, of course, and a little taste of summer on a cold winter night. But I’ve got my eye on a bacon recipe and another for salt-and-pepper jerky, when the January and February doldrums leave more time for project cooking.
Very few of us remember the days when the butcher was the guy who told young housewives what they should make for dinner and how to cook it. But there’s a little bit of that guy in a lot of the butchers in Primal Cuts. And he may be harder to find at the grocery store, but thanks to Marissa Guggiana, he can be right on our kitchen bookshelves.
Chefs Mike Phillips and Scott Pampuch will teach a pig butchering and cooking class at Rustica Bakery on Feb. 2, 2011 at 5:30pm. The class includes a dinner and beer pairing, and the cost is $150, all inclusive. For reservations: 612.823.0011. [PDF of press release]