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.
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.
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.
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 since. In 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.
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.