The Butcher Mystique
Posted on July 23rd, 2012
Butchering a large animal, or even a part of a large animal, is an arduous and intimidating task. That is one reason I never do it. Another is that I don’t know how. A third reason, stronger still than the first two, is that learning to butcher involves hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of meat that will be ripped and ruined while you try to learn. A dedicated meathead with a broad wood table and access to a farm can try to find his way with the aid of a book, or a four-hour lesson from some tattooed he-man nearby; but he’ll never be a real butcher.
This was my takeaway from judging the Central Region semi-final of Whole Foods Market’s Best Butcher contest. As you know, the finals are at Meatopia on September 8, so when Whole Foods meat boss Theo Weening asked me to come out, I jumped. The fact that I had nothing to offer to the judging process didn’t even occur to me. I wanted to see meat cut, big pieces, with the skill that I could only aspire to. “We are going to have them do a whole steamship and a half a pig,” Theo told me when he picked me up at the airport. Weening, an expatriated Dutchman, has shoulder length blonde hair and was playing some of Scandinavian death metal in the SUV. “We are gonna give them nine minutes, about.” Outside the arid vastness of Colorado rolled by. A steamship round, really? That’s a whole leg of a beef animal! It’s the size of a toddler and has dozens of different muscles, to say nothing of the enormous shiny white knee and hip joints. I knew then that I would be out of my depth. But that was OK. I wouldn’t really be judging the butchering, in any technical sense. I was satisfied to be overawed by the skill of the butchers.
You should have seen them. It’s one thing to see a butcher patiently cutting up some steaks, or carving a chicken into its constituent parts. That’s a small matter, neatly done, and at a leisurely pace so his viewers can understand it. We’ve all seen that. But to see these men heavy massive sides of pork, or giant, unwieldy legs of beef onto foldering tables and to saw and cut and pull at them in the heat? That’s something else entirely. The butchers had nine minutes to cut up the steamship round. A hook and a few curved knives, throbbing tendons, bushy eyebrows to keep the sweat out their eyes – and the chance to come cut at Meatopia, at the finals. It wasn’t something you would ordinarily see: butchers are under strict orders to be careful, to make clean and deliberate cuts, and to work only as quickly as a total commitment to methodic work will allow them. Otherwise it would be a bloodbath. The Best Butcher contest changes the culture: there’s a whiff of danger and glory about it. Theo took a picture with the sole protestor at the event, a pretty girl in a PETA shirt; the pure manlitude emanating from him (not to mention his “Butcher” shirt and knife-and-cleaver necklaces) just about sums it up for me.
The crowd felt it too. They moved right up to the tables, close enough to get hit by flying bits of fat and gristle. They didn’t care. And neither did I. I just wanted a part of that butchering magic.