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Posts Tagged ‘meat’

Butchery

There is certainly a difference between sharing a meal with people and sharing the butchering of a meal.  And most people – even doctors – would not want any learning experience to involve physically sawing a corpse in half.  A butchery workshop, therefore, doesn’t sound like a very enjoyable gathering of family and friends, nor like a particularly pleasant educational opportunity.  Yet, somehow, it can be both.

In a break from the usual pattern on this site, pictures will be prominent here.  The subject of this essay inspires a craving for images.  But the point is more in the history, and in the story of a profession of profound importance.  Butchery is a craft, a formerly respectable career of prominence and skill, rendered nearly obsolete by the industrialization of agriculture.  Should strong regional food systems truly begin to emerge across the country, it is a craft we will have to recall.

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Jake Dickson led our butchery workshop last Friday, accompanied by our host, Moe Albanese, of Albanese Meats and Poultry.  We butchered two small pigs, raised by Jenny of The Pig Place in Fort Edward, New York, and processed at Hilltown Pork in Canaan, New York.

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We began by sawing the first pig in half.  While the half-pig remained intact, Jake pointed out the loin, ham, belly, shank, shoulder…as well as the head, feet, tail, and teeth.  We proceeded to butcher each of the two halves of pig, each differently, so as to produce a variety of cuts.  From those first halves, we cut little pork chops and baby back ribs, two hams, and thick bacon.  From the second pig we saved the head to make head cheese, removed the bones from the whole loin for porchetta, left the double ham for good presentation, and cut the picnic shoulder, as well as the boston butt.

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Meanwhile, Jake told us about what breeds are good for this quality or that characteristic; why some farmers feed pigs a vegetarian diet and some don’t; and how pigs hold flavor in their fat (like apples, or acorns), and thus foraging affects the taste of the pork.  As Moe nodded agreement (and instinctively, endearingly, repeatedly reached for the knife to correct our novice butchery), Jake told us about the change in the meat industry over the past fifty years.

 Moe’s father opened Albanese Meats and Poultry in 1945, a few blocks away from it’s current location on Elizabeth Street between Prince and Houston, where it has been open since 1945.  With the help of her son, Moe’s mother ran the butcher shop until she was 90 (1995), and Moe has run the business ever sinceIn 2009, he is nearly alone in his profession on a block where seven butchers once served the local population of European immigrants.  Our two pigs hung on the shop’s old hooks where whole animals used to hang daily, ready to be butchered according to each customer’s requests.  But Moe hasn’t butchered whole animals for his community in over twenty years.  The industrialization of meat raising and processing has dumbed down the butcher’s profession, and  Moe now receives “boxed meat,” just like most grocery stores and super markets.  The meat is shipped into the city, neatly packaged, already prepared in standardized cuts.  The modern “butcher” is in fact a low-skilled worker, trained to slice big cuts into smaller cuts, in large amounts, as quickly as possible.  The high quality product, transparent sourcing, personal interactions, and customized services of a true butcher shop are nearly impossible to provide, and are no longer even expected.   

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The actual process of change in the meat industry over the past fifty years is a story of immense complexity, inhumanity, danger, and waste.  The history of butchering in New York City begins with prominent figures of practiced skill, proceeds through cycles of immigration, threats in sanitation, gangs and wars, surges in population, industrialization, and barely survives to the present day.   I have learned only little of this enormous and intricate story of meat, but one brief workshop brought that little to life.  No textbook or lecture, demonstration or meal, could ever have made me so eager to learn.  It was a gathering of family and friends like no other.

 


Although most animals are skinned when slaughtered, Hilltown can leave the skin on, through a process of dipping the bodies in boiling water and removing the loosened hairs with a machine (much like that used for removing the feathers from chickens).

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This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.

 

As Anita Lee began explaining what it means for Bo Bo to sell “Buddhist Style” chickens, I realized I had asked her to break down the poultry business into more basic terms than she might have imagined.  I didn’t need to ask twice.  Nearly overflowing with youthful cheerfulness, Anita offered to tell the story of Bo Bo Poultry.  She is a woman, who, through self-reflection, has boiled “sustainability” down to her own base definition: Telling the truth.

Founded by Richard Lee in 1985, Bo Bo Poultry now supplies seven out of every ten chickens in Chinatown.  Anita’s father Richard bought his first egg-laying farm near the Catskills in 1978.   In 1985, he opened a live poultry market beneath the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan, and with the help of his brothers, chose to raise particular breeds of poultry popular among Asians for their taste and form.  Rather than the prominent breasts and small limbs of the “efficient” chickens grown by the majority of America’s poultry farmers, the Lees raise Barred Silver Cross (or Black Feather) Chickens.  Whereas the quickened growth speed of industrially raised chickens produces a full-sized bird in four to five weeks, Bo Bo’s breeds grow at their natural, slower pace.  The cost is higher: the chickens require more feed.  But they are physically able and have time to walk around and grow muscle.  “The taste,” Anita said, “is much richer and completely different.  It’s like something we would have eaten 60 years ago.”

Richard Lee’s original live poultry market in Manhattan was regulated by the State, and thus the products of the shop were restricted for sale to in-state HRI (hotels, restaurants, and institutions).  Bo Bo Poultry earned a USDA license for a facility they built from scratch in Williamsburg in 1998, and their business has expanded ever since.  In addition to full-size chickens, the shop sells poussins, fowl, quail, partridges, silky, quail eggs, roosters, and rabbits, based upon season and availability.  While the U.S. poultry industry is primarily based in the Southeast region of America, Bo Bo’s farms are spread throughout New York and Pennsylvania.  A map of Bo Bo’s farm locations reveals they lie a maximum distance of 200 miles from the processing plant in Williamsburg.  According to Anita, it’s currently more sustainable to raise poultry in the areas outside the SE region.  Bo Bo’s farms invites community farmers to pick up the chickens’ manure to be used as fertilizer, for example, whereas many Southern poultry farmers find they need to truck their manure thousands of miles to reach farms who can use the manure from this poultry-rich region.  Otherwise, the waste is often kept in lagoons, which can runoff onto neighboring properties.  The New York Area also happens to be the main Asian distribution capital of the East Coast, a convenient destination for Bo Bo’s wholesale distributors.

As we spoke, the story of Bo Bo Poultry turned into something of a cultural lesson.  “Chinese people will cook a chicken every day!” she said, which makes it possible to guarantee fresh products to Bo Bo’s Asian customer base.  While trying to develop a way to sell chickens in more diverse markets, Anita has noticed that “Americans” tend to only buy a chicken once or twice a week.  Asians are also very frugal, she mentioned.  She questioned me about the “American” tendency to waste so many parts of the animals we eat.  Restaurants in Chinatown, she explained, will order whole pigs, whole chickens, whole duck, and will use the whole animals in their meals. The fact that Bo Bo sells “Buddhist Style” chickens means the birds are processed in accordance with Buddhist religious beliefs, requiring that the head and feet remain on eviscerated poultry.  Not only are the birds thus suitable for prayer, but “we can use everything,” Anita explained.  “We use the neck and the feet for stock.  I’ve seen how “extraneous” parts are wasted, even in cooking schools here!”  Anita she said.  “You have to be able to look at the chickens’ eyes, to see that they are fresh and healthy.  How can you know a bird is fresh, if you are only looking at parts?!”

Anita emphasized that Bo Bo chickens are a very good quality, simple product.  The chickens are free roaming, slow grown, and raised without antibiotics or hormones.  “Pastured raising is difficult,” Anita mentioned, “In order to supply the demands of a city like New York, you would need to dedicate all of New York State as farmland.”  Having just read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, she was keen to consider how Bo Bo might improve their practices.  Pollan spent a chapter of his book highlighting the pasture-perfect system of Polyface farm in Virginia, and Anita mentioned how she’d like to visit their farms one day.  “But if Polyface raises about 12,000 broilers a year,” she said.  “they can’t feed New York City.  You can’t feed our population with 35 chickens a day.”  Anita also mentioned the way Joel Salatin won’t ship chicken via mail order.  “That way he only reaches a small community,” she said.  “Bo Bo aims to be the middle ground, enabling greater access to good, simple, products consistently, at an affordable price.

Anita thanks Michael Pollan for beginning to bring to light many issues relevant to the poultry business.  “You didn’t used to know, or ask, where your McNugget came from,” she said, “but Pollan has opened the doors – now we can talk about it!  We don’t have to pretend we’re something that we’re not, but we can discuss what we can do better, and move forward honestly.”  While neither organic nor pasture-raised, Bo Bo chickens are affordable.  Bo Bo charges half the price of organic or pasture-raised chickens.  Most people who visit Bo Bo’s retail store, Anita mentioned, buy their chickens with food stamps.  And even Chef Dan Barber buys a significant percentage of Bo Bo poultry for his restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  “Organic usually means substituting inputs that increase the price substantially and don’t guarantee a good product,” Anita said, “What is important is trusting and knowing the people that produce and process your food.  We choose to remain affordable for our customers, while keeping our standards of good quality feed and good farming practices.  If our farms were to start raising chickens organically, their costs would go up, we would have to pay them more, and we would have to raise our retail and wholesale prices.  We don’t want to price people out of good quality poultry.”

As for the New Amsterdam Market, Anita believes it will critically encourage the dialogue Michael Pollan has begun, in addition to serving the neighborhood’s needs.  “I like the idea of having a market at South Street Seaport,” she said, “because a lot of people are moving into the neighborhood, and a lot of people live in the nearby subsidized housing.  These are people who cook at home, and who want fresh, whole foods.”  Anita imagines the market will also serve as a great educational incubator.  While they closed their retail shop in Manhattan this month, Bo Bo would consider reopening their store down at the Seaport, where both wholesale and retail customers could come and speak to Anita about Bo Bo’s chickens.  “The one thing about our store I miss – the reason we had a retail shop – is that I can tell customers about their chickens.  I think that’s the most powerful marketing tool, to tell them everything I can.  The truth is not always beautiful!  But I think we have a sustainable business, because we are open for discussion.”

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This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market.  Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th.  The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.

 

Jake Dickson matched my expectations in appearance and style.  Meat guys don’t have the lanky, longhaired look of gardeners or foragers.  Jake’s short ruddy curls and friendly, freckled stature fit his profession.  His frank, good-natured, manner shifted easily between small talk and sales, of steaks and chops, roasts and ribs, beef and bacon.  Still, I’d underestimated the wealth of knowledge that plays foundation to his recently launched business.  After we spoke for an hour over breakfast, just before the Sunday market in Park Slope, it was obvious to me that Jake could have kept talking all day.  He may have grown up in Princeton, attended Cornell, and worked in marketing for American Express.  But now, the man knows meat.

Dickson’s Farmstand Meats is currently a fixture at two weekly markets, in Morningside on Saturday and in Park Slope on Sunday.  Offering various cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, Jake knows where each piece of meat came from, how the animal was raised, and the slaughterhouse where it was processed.  He buys whole animals from specific farms, and works with two small slaughterhouses.  If you’re interested, he’ll tell you everything there is to know about your protein. 

The baseline requirements of meats sold through Dickson’s Farmstand are the following: between farm, slaughterhouse, and point of sale, there are less than 400 miles; the animals are given neither antibiotics nor animal-based feed; the animals have never spent any time on CAFOs or feedlots.  Traceability is a priority for Jake, and the meat he sells has a lot number which will tell you the exact animal it came from, and how, where, and by whom it was raised.  All of the farms Jake currently works with are in New York State: the cows and pigs are raised at Herondale Farm in Ancramdale, Wrighteous Organics in Schoharie, The Pigs Place in Fort Edward, and Sarmarlynn Farm in Vernon; the sheep, at Woolley Sheep Farm in Rutland. 

Jake set his local radius with the confidence that there’s enough quality meat raised within 400 miles of New York City to feed a healthy business.  In fact, “it’s slaughter houses that are my most important relationship,” he said.  “Fifty to seventy-five percent of slaughterhouses are untrustworthy.”  Jake works with Nichols Meat Processing in Altamont, New York, and Leona Meat Plant in Troy, Pennsylvania.  Both are locations where “a busy day means slaughtering about ten animals,” and where he can trust the butchers to follow his exact specifications.  Jake spent three months working at Nichols last year, respects the skill and experience demonstrated at both locations, and has built up a strong relationship with the individuals who run them.

Jake’s three months at Nichols Meat Processing rounded out eight months he dedicated to research before opening Dickson’s Farmstand.  Last spring, having previously worked in marketing for several years, Jake knew he wanted to start his own business, was interested in meat, and recognized the need to really understand the industry before attempting a business plan.  He worked for three months at Cornell University, literally living with about 700 cows, before moving on to work at a butcher shop for about a month.  He left the butcher shop to work part-time at Nichols and part-time at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.   He learned what he could, and then set about creating his business.

Unique in the meat industry, Jake ensures that each of the products he sells is labeled with the name of the farm it came from.  “We take traceability to the extreme.  If you have all these great farms, why not highlight them?” he reasoned.  “If I put everything under my name, I’d be cheapening the product, removing the local flair.  Why not highlight the inconsistency – of what cuts are available, from what farms – as a differentiating factor, instead of a liability?”  Of course, the business is still young, and Jake can only predict his reasoning will turn the requisite profit.  “It all sounds good,” he said, “but it’s still an experiment.  Ninety percent of our customers don’t care about the details of their meat source at all.  Eight percent are interested, but really just want to know the name of the farm.  It’s only about two percent that actually look into the details that I provide.”

The farms Jake works with all meet his baseline criteria, but vary otherwise.  Some of the meat is organic, some isn’t, and most of his beef comes from Wrighteous Organics, where the cows are fed on grain (not grass).  “Most people aren’t interested in grass-fed,” Jake said.  “Grass-fed beef isn’t nearly as fatty, or marbled.  It doesn’t look as good in the package.  I buy less of it because it sells less.”  For the moment, Jake also sells only frozen meats, although he hopes to be selling fresh in the fall.

Neither nostalgic nor necessarily innovative, Jake referred several times to the mix of old school and new school practices in his work.  “It’s most important to be authentic,” he said, “to preserve the local flair.”  Sometimes that means recognizing the history of our regional meat industry, the old-fashioned butcher shops and neighborhood relationships, and sometimes it means encouraging the local and creative, the entrepreneurial.  One might call his small-scale slaughterhouses old-fashioned, Jake mentioned, but then “rotational grazing is great, and that’s more of a new thing.”

Jake’s prices are surprisingly affordable, an advantage he attributes to the structure of his supply chain: farmers — slaughterhouses – Farmstand — consumer.  Acting as middleman between producer and consumer, Jake runs his business such that prices stay reasonable, and yet maintains a personal relationship with his sources that he can convey to his customers.  Jake explained that his farmers don’t necessarily have the time to spend a day in the city, but that their relationship with Dickson’s enables them to reach urban consumers.

While he can sell high-end cuts at the markets in the city, Jake mentioned the importance of being able to sell every part of each animal.  Working out of a butcher shop would enable him to produce more added value products, like sausage made with fresh ingredients, so he might achieve true nose to tail sales (and eating).

Of course, Jake hopes his business will take off, and scale up.  He rattled of the system he has ready to make this growth possible.  “We have a custom-built database prepared,” he said.  “Eventually, if we grow enough, the meat will be scanned in at the slaughterhouse [to maintain traceability], and then sold online through direct marketing and direct delivery.  We’ll sell steer-by-steer.  Customers will be able to see which parts of an animal are available, and will be able to buy only those parts left, until the whole animal has been sold.”

Jake is currently working on the renovation and revitalization of a small butcher shop in Nolita in Manhattan.  “The owner is the great uncle of a girl I knew in high school,” he explained.  “His mom ran the shop till she passed away ten years ago, when she was ninety years old.”  There’s a lot of work to be done on the shop, Jake said, but “the hooks are still hanging from the ceiling, from when animals were slaughtered just outside in the alley, and then butchered in the shop.  You can’t recreate that.”  Of course, there’s also a lot he’ll have to change.  Instead of following the butcher shop family’s tradition of buying from a West side meatpacker, Jake hopes to recreate the shop as a destination for local, sustainable meats.  “It really will be a case of old school meets new school.”

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