Delve into the details of whole animal butchery with chefs learning the craft.
It’s Sunday morning when we gather at Polk’s Folly Farm, but if there’s reverence in the air—and there is—it’s not flowing from a shared religious tradition. Though it’s cool, early November, any dawn frost has melted off, and birds chatter in the juniper as we circle, introducing ourselves and our reasons for coming.
“Mortality is all around us,” says butcher and educator Adam Danforth, but we obscure it—and not just with the animals we eat. Danforth is here to guide us through the first and most elemental cut of Meat Matters, a two-day workshop hosted by Edible New Mexico, Good Meat Project, and Chefs Collaborative, and his observation is made palpable by our surroundings. Some hundred feet away, Big Ben lounges with a dozen other pigs, piled atop one another for warmth, while pigs in neighboring pens root and till, slowly turning wood mulch to fertilizer. Nearer, in the barn, stand the lambs who arrived a couple of weeks earlier. And, of course, we are there, breathing in the crisp mountain air. Many of those present are chefs, come to learn what’s not taught in culinary school and is rarely passed along by mentors. Some are farmers. One neighbor’s interest in butchery is of the most essential kind: he has a family to feed.
This is where meat begins: with life. Regardless of the hard skills we each hope to take away, we are also here to honor the lives of the animals we butcher and eat. As Danforth outlines the slaughter we’re about to witness and participate in, he encourages us to be nervous, to be open, and not to overthink our potential reactions. He’s asking us, above all, to be present.
I have never witnessed the killing of an animal for food, but I feel unexpectedly calm as we stand out of sight, waiting for a lamb to be carried to the large, soft bales of hay where it will be restrained while Danforth stuns it with a captive bolt—a tool he recommends for its precision in rendering an animal insensible to pain before it is bled. Following the bleeding, he holds the lamb for a few minutes, both to control any throes and to take the time to experience, acknowledge, and confirm its transition from life to death. The process is quick and peaceful. Tears spring to the eyes of the woman next to me, and I know that she’s offering a silent prayer.
“That’s the most important thing as a farmer,” I overhear Ethan Withers, of Polk’s Folly Farm, say afterward to one of the chefs. “Actually,” he corrects himself, “the most important thing is the raising, taking care of [the animals]—and then, making sure their passing is as good as their living.” What is well known among farmers, and perhaps less commonly understood by urban consumers, is that animal farmers, especially small-scale farmers like the Withers family, who live close to their animals and work outside the industrial model, care deeply how their animals are treated during slaughter. Most have at one time or another experienced the pain of seeing their animals stressed or mistreated at a slaughter facility. And as Danforth reminds us, just as the life of an animal influences the integrity of its meat, so does the quality of its death.
Skinning the animal is an intimate act, requiring a balance of delicacy and force. The lamb hoisted into the air, its hide cut down the center, I push my fist between the hide and the fell, and feel the animal’s lingering warmth. At every step, from this moment to the removal of organs to trimming connective tissue from the tenderloin on the butcher table, we are educated in the beauty of anatomy—and scarcity. There is enough tongue for just one taco. The single burgundy spleen, the rich brown liver, the antifreeze-green fluid of the gallbladder, which Danforth tells us is used in many Asian cuisines to add bitterness. The caul fat, removed from outside the animal’s intestines, resembles a lacy shawl. Wrapped around a roast, Danforth says, it is delectable.
“So many people revere tenderness,” he tells us that afternoon when we’ve reconvened in the airy classroom at Three Sisters Kitchen in downtown Albuquerque, “but they don’t realize there’s an inverse relationship between flavor and tenderness. . . . ‘Melt in your mouth’ is, to me, an absurdity for something I actually enjoy chewing.” At first, we sit in rows, studying labeled cuts of mutton while Danforth explains the anatomical facts that underpin his approach to butchery: Meat is muscle, and fibers—elongated cells stacked together—are the basis for a muscle. Connective tissue, collagen, which gives structure to muscles, is the most defining factor in tenderness. A fat cell is like a piece of Tupperware filled with oil and is most responsible for the characteristic differences in flavor between different species. The depth and complexity of flavor in a steak or chop, Danforth insists, is the result not of fat, but of work.
Here, as at the farm, Danforth is unafraid of drawing our attention to the life of the animals. Short ribs, he tells us, are delicious because they do work every time the animal breathes. The nearby serratus ventralis, known as the Denver steak and used for Korean kalbi, turns out to be a favorite during the blind tasting that follows his demo. Seared and lightly salted, the sirloin earns fewer votes than the skirt, whose earthiness Danforth attributes to its work as the diaphragm. Compared to the tenderloin, the less familiar flatiron elicits more praise. What stands out most, though, is that every bite of this meat—mutton, from a three-year-old sheep—is savory and satisfying. Danforth’s message is not just that working muscles become more flavorful meat than lesser-used ones, but that fetishizing certain cuts is a disservice to ourselves and to the animals. From a six hundred fifty-pound cow, a butcher might process four hundred fifty pounds of boneless beef—just ten pounds of which will be beef tenderloin. At a single pound, the hangar steak is even scarcer.
“It’s not about speed,” Derek Wagner, co-chair of Chefs Collaborative and chef/owner of Nick’s on Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island, tells us the next day. “It’s about accuracy.” Wagner, who introduces himself as an accidental butcher because his restaurant’s whole animal program grew from his difficulty sourcing local meat any other way, is coaching us on the importance of keeping the muscles in good shape so they’ll last. For Wagner, and any chef who decides to transform their kitchen with whole animal butchery, the practice of using everything is economic as well as ethical. He instructs us to press the knife against the bone to cut away the greatest amount of meat, and to have a mise en place with separate containers for trim and fat.
Observing his customers’ behavior has also changed the way he serves. Why waste nutrient-rich bones simply to present a customer with a Frenched rack of lamb? Yes, it’s pretty, but Wagner has noticed that customers often struggle with bones, and ultimately get less meat when served bone-in cuts. He now serves most cuts boneless, saving bones for stocks, and reserves fat for tallow, which he uses for accents and sauces. Artichoke Café and Oni Noodles chef David Gaspar de Alba, who since the workshop has made tallow a regular component in more of his dishes, points out that Wagner’s advice is contrary to what cooks are usually taught—to save time, not product.
“Stand up straight,” says Camas Davis, executive director of Portland, Oregon’s Good Meat Project. “Butcher’s grip,” she says, reminding me to wrap my fingers and thumb around the handle for stability and leverage. We’ve moved to our own tables, set up where yesterday sat rows of chairs, to put the butcher’s art to practice. She tells me to move around the table, hold the knife’s tip to bone, draw it all the way through in a clean line. Just as yesterday I wondered if I’d be troubled by eating mutton after witnessing an animal’s death, I wondered if today I’d find it disconcerting to break down recognizable parts of an animal with the life of the animal in mind. But as I struggle to cut meat away from the spine—“you’re doing great,” Davis insists—my respect grows, not just for artisanal butchers, but for everyone who works to bring animals to the table, from underpaid meat cutters at industrial slaughterhouses to supermarket butchers and meat counter staff. I find myself becoming more connected, and more comfortable, with the reality of meat, and more open to the different ways a leg of lamb can be cut and prepared.
At the Good Meat Project, Davis brings butchery to home cooks and consumers, and I’m not surprised when she reports that when people “take part in the basic processes of getting meat to the table, they completely reevaluate their relationship to meat.”
“Chefs can enact change simply by featuring ingredients on their menu,” Wagner says. Over lunch, Danforth talks about powerful food memories, explosive flavors tied to place, like “the first olive you ate in Spain.” Sometimes those memories are tied to the experience of a new landscape—the citrus notes of the olive intertwined with the memory of riding through hills woven with olive groves—but we can also experience a place through food.
After the workshop, Jason Greene of The Grove tells me how much easier it’s gotten to source locally than when they opened thirteen years ago. “I love educating consumers on local product,” he says, excitement rising in his voice as he talks about letting Albuquerque diners in on vegetable varietals they may not have known were being grown locally. Still, connecting with local producers can be a challenge for chefs as for consumers, and Greene notes that one perk of attending a workshop like this is learning that, for instance, Victor Perez Cravens Ranch delivers whole, pasture-raised lamb and sheep to the Albuquerque area.
The movement from slaughter to demo to blind tasting to hands-on butchering is a movement toward the pragmatic, what is needed to bring whole animal butchery into a kitchen. But the line moves backward, as well, because without these programs in restaurants, without chefs who connect to the process of bringing meat to their tables, or diners who broaden their palates, there’s less demand for sustainable animal farming. “Just as a chef looks for appreciation from their patrons,” Farina’s Eliza Esparza tells me, “we as chefs need to appreciate the hardworking farmers who raise animals and grow food for our restaurants.”
Gaspar de Alba also expresses a reinforced sense of responsibility—to diners, and to animals—for consciously sourcing ingredients while eliminating waste. For Danforth, instilling pride in the trade is key. As a member of the international Butcher’s Manifesto, he hopes to capture the knowledge of elders before it’s lost. “Just as languages are dying,” he says, “food practices are dying out.”
At a holiday party a few weeks later, the table behind us brimming with pork, someone asks me, “Why do you think so many people are comfortable eating factory-farmed meat?” The short answer is that I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m involved in the life of an animal every time I eat meat, but in some cases, I, like many others, am so detached from the animals and the process that I may as well be eating a byproduct of fossil fuel. I know that when I arrive home with a box of butcher-paper-wrapped fat, trim, bones, belly, chops, rounds, and loins from the mutton Danforth broke down and the lamb we butchered ourselves, I’m conscious that this meat is precious. And in all the preparations through which we will experience these animals—Derek Wagner’s simple, stunning tartare; Jason Greene’s lamb stew; Eliza Esparza’s meatballs tossed with tomato saffron sauce, English peas, and linguine; the shank and shoulder marinating in chile paste in my refrigerator—there’s joy in knowing they were raised by New Mexicans on high plains blue grama grass, and a unique respect derived from our personal connection. At home, too, we can extend our gratitude beyond the family and friends who cook for us, to the farmers and butchers and animals producing our food.
This story was originally published in Edible New Mexico.