Story by Brenna Houck
Photos by Branden Andersen
Half a hog lies across two stainless steel tables in KitchenCru, a community kitchen space in Portland, Oregon. The viscera were removed at the slaughterhouse, revealing an empty cavity of bone and muscle. The flesh is cold and cherry red, surrounded by white fat and sinew. A robust and curving skeleton snakes through the center of the carcass.
Butcher Camas Davis stands above what remains of the animal, holding a sharp, flexible boning knife in her hand. Her fingers trace a vertebra along the spine. Pressing down, she makes her first incision, carving through the flesh of the pig. Around her, women in aprons peer over each other’s shoulders and take notes.
Davis is the founder of the Portland Meat Collective (PMC), which offers home butchery courses and connects Portland residents with local ranchers and farmers. Today, Davis is leading a Ladies Home Pig Butchery class with co-instructor Tray Satterfield, a butcher and representative for local food distributor Eat Oregon First. For $225, Davis and Satterfield teach students how to break down a side of pork, all in four hours.
Across the country, farmers and butchers are capitalizing on the public’s growing interest in local food by offering classes on do-it-yourself slaughter and butchery. Programs range from informal demonstrations at butcher shops to multi-week internships alongside professionals in the field. When Davis first advertised the PMC at a butchery event in fall 2009, more than 500 people signed up for the group’s newsletter. Promoted mainly by word of mouth, her classes continue to fill up.
Interest in DIY butchery has increased partly due to celebrity support of the movement. Last spring, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he was attempting to only eat meat he processed himself. Julie Powell, the author whose work inspired the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, chronicled her internship at New York City’s Fleischer’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meat in a bestselling book. Depending on the focus, location, and length of the training, a DIY butchery class can now cost anywhere from $100 to $10,000.
Back in Portland, Davis and Satterfield demonstrate how to separate half a pig into its primal cuts. Then the students break into two groups to tackle their huge sides of pork still cold from the freezer. The women eagerly grasp their knives and deliberate on where to make their initial scores. Davis and Satterfield weave between the stainless steel tables, observing their students’s progress and assisting as needed.
Since establishing the PMC almost three years ago, Davis has taught nearly 800 students. A former food writer, she began her butchery career after being laid off from Portland Monthly magazine in January 2009. “It felt like the right thing to do in terms of really wanting to know where my food came from and having a little more power over the system that brings food to my table,” she says.
Davis draws on her overseas experience learning about butchery and charcuterie, a term for preserved meats like bacon. The summer after losing her job Davis headed to southwestern France where she studied with the Chapolards, a third-generation family of butchers and farmers. She was impressed by the amount of control the Chapolards had over their meat production. They owned and oversaw the entire process, from pasture to market. “They made all of those choices on their own without entering into some really complicated distribution chain,” she says.
With her new knowledge, Davis returned to Portland and began brainstorming ideas for the PMC. She focused on reducing the distance between farm and table by connecting PMC members directly with local meat suppliers. Davis hopes to foster a “new economy of meat” that centers on ethically and sustainably raised and slaughtered animals. “It changes your relationship to your food when you get that close to the production system that makes it appear on your table,” she says.
Since Fleischer’s in New York City first popularized the DIY meat movement in 2009 by offering butchery apprenticeships, similar classes have emerged across the US. Lauren Sheard and her husband run the slaughter and butchery business Farmstead Meatsmith out of their home on Vashon Island, Washington.
“Sometimes we don’t know where our meat is coming from until we take control of it and we do it ourselves,” Sheard says. Farmstead Meatsmith classes focus on how to slaughter animals under the custom-exempt rule, a distinction that allows people to process animals at locations not certified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). It’s an important lesson for small farmers who often find it difficult to get their animals processed at larger USDA-certified facilities that don’t see it as profitable to slaughter a farmer’s small number of animals. Only the owners of the custom-exempt meat are legally allowed to consume it so many small farmers will pre-sell their live animals to customers.
The Sheards founded Farmstead Meatsmith in 2010. “It’s really neat because the course pulls in people from all demographics,” Sheard says. Students range from older community members to young professionals interested in getting their hands dirty.
Instead of viewing meat as an abundant selection of vacuum-packed ribs, chops, and roasts, home butchery offers a smorgasbord of new, exciting cuts.
“You’re having to look at the animal and at every part of it as an occasion for a meal,” Sheard says. “When we go to the grocery store, we think pork tenderloin, pork chops, but we never think a pig’s tail, so we have to start thinking about our meat a little bit differently.”
Much of the public’s knowledge of “nose-to-tail” eating was lost with the advent of the supermarket and the consolidation of the meat processing industry, says Tia Harrison, co-founder of San Francisco’s Butcher’s Guild, a collective of butchers, chefs, and consumers. Beginning in the 1950s, many small slaughterhouses were shut down in favor of larger processing facilities that required less labor. Fewer slaughterhouses meant meat was cheaper but also more uniform with “case-ready” meats already packaged into secondary cuts like pork chops as the new standard. Not only did these cheaper cuts damage artisan butcher shops that could not compete with the “case-ready” prices, but they also altered the American perception of what meat looks and tastes like. Consumers could no longer request a special cut from a butcher and so lost interest in off-cuts and organ meats.
“Animals don’t come in cookie-cutter sections,” Harrison says. “You don’t have a thousand tenderloins sitting next to five short loins. It’s not an equation that’s realistic.”
In Harrison’s opinion, part of home butchery’s role is to re-educate consumers about the variety of meat available. “You can really see the information click in people’s minds when they’ve gone through the process and they see a cut that they’re used to purchasing at a supermarket or in a restaurant,” Harrison says. When that happens, she adds, students get a rare glimpse into where their meat comes from both in terms of the physical location and the level of effort that goes into procuring it.
One reason many learn butchery is to come to terms with the ethics of being a carnivore. While meat can be delicious, procuring meat inherently requires ending the life of another living thing. To address this, some DIY butchery programs involve live animal slaughter.
“I just feel a whole lot better about being a meat eater when I feel like I can take responsibility for all of the aspects of being a meat eater,” says Lauren Bilbao, an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm. Bilbao began raising and slaughtering chickens in the early 1990s. She now teaches chicken processing techniques to friends and students at her home in Eugene.
Over the years, Bilbao has refined her model for slaughtering chickens. “If you’re going to kill a creature by chopping its head off, it’s not the moment to be tentative,” she says. “There’s nothing more painful than watching a person with bad aim make the chicken’s beak shorter by an eighth of an inch at a time until they finally actually kill it.” Most students, she says, are glad to have experienced a slaughter firsthand.
Back at the Ladies Home Butchery class, the women sit down to a snack of cured meats, bread, and French wine. Satterfield brings in a plate of sliced pork cooked in olive oil, a product of the afternoon’s labor. One woman asks how best to freeze the meat she is taking home; another requests Satterfield’s home-cured bacon recipe.
Davis believes experiencing the butchery process can change a person. “It makes you value things differently. It makes you think about the world differently. It makes you understand the meaning of sustenance differently,” she says. “I think picking up a knife and putting it to bone can actually be a very transformative experience.” While students might approach butchery with their own preconceived notions about meat and its value, Davis hopes that they leave class with a new understanding of their food and, of course, with armfuls of all the right cuts.