Story and photos by Gabe Meline
It's another Monday night south of Market in San Francisco. As the jukebox blares Joy Division, the Bloodhound Bar is shoulder to shoulder with thirty-somethings sipping from Mason jars of bacon-infused whiskey cocktails. Beards, tattoos, bandanas and black T-shirts mingle. Suddenly, the back door flies open. Ryan Farr and Taylor Boetticher emerge, carrying giant goat and lamb carcasses high above their heads.
The two butchers throw their skinned animals onto tables. Boetticher makes the first of hundreds of cuts into the lamb, while across the dimly lit watering hole, Farr pulls out a giant hacksaw and swiftly cuts through the goat's neck.
Some faces wince in shock. Most lean closer and click their iPhone cameras.
This is a butcher party, a phenomenon gaining serious steam in New York and the Bay Area, often at bars like this one on Folsom Street. If the fawning atmosphere at the Bloodhound Bar is any indicator, the notion of butchers as stars isn't merely media myth. Once, all a guy had to do was pick up an electric guitar, but now, as evidenced by the front-row gathering of girls at Bloodhound, a meat cleaver's just as likely to do the trick.
Not that these butchers need girls—both Boetticher and Farr are happily married—and not that butchery is anything new. What's new, however, is also what's old: the idea that meat should be locally sourced and prepared instead of shipped from factory-farm centers in the Midwest. Combined with a general back-to-basics movement resurrecting simple daily acts, the arcane idea of the neighborhood butcher who can break down a whole animal, carcass to plate, is a crucial role for the future of food.
Those lucky enough to get to the front row at the Bloodhound Bar ask questions. What's that cut called? How much does a whole lamb cost? Did you learn to butcher by trial and error? "Yeah," Farr replies, "but it's not really too much error, 'cause everything's edible." He slices meat off the ribs with a magician's flair, throws two kidneys into a roll and ties it off, sending it to the wood-fired grill out in the alley next to a creaking rotisserie motor turning a giant pig.
Butcher parties come in all forms. The next week, six butchers appeared at Primal, a food and wine event "celebrating fire cooking, meat and the art of butchering." Though held outside during a balmy fall afternoon at a scenic winery in St. Helena, the atmosphere was far more macho than at the Bloodhound Bar. A tall wooden gallows had been erected, full carcasses swinging from it by chained hooks. Two skinned goats' heads at the edge of the butchers' table greeted visitors, one with its tongue pulled ghoulishly through its teeth.
While the butchers—including a woman surprisingly clad in tight leopard-print pants, pointed shoes and a short top—carved up meat, runners delivered trays of flesh through the crowds to the open wood fire area, itself marked with a grinning pig's head and a spread-eagled, crucified goat corpse. A gruff, commanding man in tattoos, rubber boots, orange camouflage cap and USDA T-shirt tended to the enormous flame.
This was Chris Cosentino, star of Iron Chef America and chef at San Francisco's Incanto, who was recently seen serving cow testicles to Anthony Bourdain on the San Francisco episode of No Reservations. Clustered crowds for the sample tables were six deep and moving like molasses. Cosentino rushed over a plate of meat parts and barked orders to a hapless young female server.
"I'll give you one demo, and then we're gonna go! C'mon, get some forks out here so people can just grab and go!" he shouted, as if the lack of samples was her fault. "They're here to eat, not to stand around!"
As she sliced the chunks, a woman asked just what it was on the tray. "This is beef heart," the server replied. Hungry but aghast, the woman turned away. "Oh, no," she muttered, swimming her way back through the crowd. "No."
If there was any lingering doubt about butchery as voyeurism, Primal erased it completely. This was meat consumption in all its chest-beating glory, relishing the pleasures of the flesh. Most attendees seemed to be from the media, carrying cameras or digital recorders and talking about their wine blogs. Still others, like the two guys who showed up wearing Viking helmets, were harder to pigeonhole. They could have just been on the prowl, like the middle-aged man who suggested to two teenage girls that "there's nothin' better than seein' two beautiful ladies eatin' chicken."
With tickets ranging from $65 to $100 and all of those crucified carcasses warming in the afternoon air like morbid floral displays, Primal was a fairly disheartening spectacle, prompting the question: Are butcher parties just a precious foodie fad, or is there more to the trend?
Meat as Metaphor
Sasha Wizansky started Meatpaper magazine in 2007, not as a political act but as a cultural lens through which meat, a naturally provocative subject, can provide limitless metaphor on how we live. "Meat is the world's best conversation starter," she says. "Everybody has something to say about it. People have passionate reactions, either positive or negative, and everybody has meat stories to tell."
Meatpaper has featured a wearable suit made of steak on its cover and printed stories on everything from visiting a slaughterhouse to marinating and cooking a sweat sock. What it doesn't do is moralize. Instead, it chronicles, in an era-specific fashion, the present consciousness of meat—or, as its first issue famously coined, the "fleischgeist."
Wizansky, 36, has both hosted Meatpaper public butchery parties and judged at others, and she's seen both sides of the spectrum, from artful butchery to testosterone-fueled bravado. "Butchery has always been a male profession," she says, "but it's also a movement growing among women." She cites Avedano's Meats in San Francisco, which was opened by three women in 2007, and a recent SFMOMA event with a team of female butchers carving a spit-roasted 800-pound steer in the museum's atrium. "There was something very beautiful," she says, "about the way eight female butchers carved the animal down to its bones."
One thing is constant, Wizansky says. The fleischgeist is causing people to think about where their meat comes from and how it got to the table. "The new fascination with butchers is spreading really quickly," she says. "It's exciting, and I'm really happy about it, and I'm wondering if it's just a flash in the pan or if it really does represent a move away from more industrial and cordoned-off meat production."
Assembly-line factory farming has been consolidated for so long, says Marissa Guggiana, president of local Petaluma meat processing plant Sonoma Direct, that the skill set of the old-fashioned neighborhood butcher is truly a lost art. For the growing farm-to-table movement, that makes the local butcher a key middleman. "It's one thing to buy tomatoes. You just shake the dirt off and—voilà," she says. "But when it comes to meat, there has to be someone else there to get the meat onto the table. So butchers are really important, and there's a new awakening of understanding that."
Guggiana, 31, a third-generation Sonoma County native, started Sonoma Direct four years ago as an alternative to huge factories in the Midwest. Her meat is bought, butchered and sold locally to markets and such restaurants as Scopa and Barndiva in Healdsburg, Tra Vigne in St. Helena, Peter Lowell's in Sebastopol, Chez Panisse in Berkeley and the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, to name a few. Sonoma Direct doesn't slaughter, but they do buy and pack locally grown animals from four different farmers in Petaluma, and they open a room in their plant to butchers and chefs who need a USDA-approved place to work.
Owing to Slow Food activism and eye-opening films like Food, Inc., awareness of factory farming's harmful effects has hit the mainstream hard in the last year. According to Danielle Nierenberg's Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry, industrialized factory farming is responsible for 74 percent of the world's poultry products, 50 percent of all pork and 43 percent of beef. When meat is eaten in the United States, it generally comes from one of nine enormous and chemically robust packing houses, the type that inspired Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and, as Guggiana points out, Henry Ford's assembly line.
Guggiana calls the butchery phenomenon a "perfect storm" of sustainability, food awareness and an increasing DIY aesthetic seen in the rise of sewing, crafting, kinetic art and rudimentary repair. "It's just that none of us do anything, none of us make anything," she explains. "None of us have that sort of integrity in our life. We buy everything, everything appears in our life readymade—even our entertainment. I really believe that's soul-sapping. So when you get turned on to doing something that's that simple, and seeing it from start to finish, it's so satisfying.
"Because of the assembly line," Guggiana adds, "people have lost that knowing-the-whole-animal skill. Guys who work in grocery stores, they might know a little bit; they'll know how to cut steaks and everything, but they're getting in what's called 'primal cuts,' which are the shoulder, the loin, the belly. They might know what to do with it from there. They wouldn't know what to do with a carcass. I mean, you'll find some old guys. Every couple stores, you'll meet some guy who's like, 'I love to break down a carcass!' Because that's what they learned to do when they were starting out. No one does that now."
Killing the Chicken
Gwendolynn Gunheim had been a vegetarian most of her life until last month, when she bought a chicken, turned it upside-down into a pylon cone hanging from her backyard tree, stuck a knife into its neck and watched it spasm into death. Gunheim, 25, and boyfriend Nick Haig-Arack, 28, then dunked, feathered and gutted the bird, engaging in the most basic rituals of meat eating—and, to modern eaters, one of the most taboo.
"I just felt like it was time," Gunheim explains of her apostasy from vegetarianism, "but I only wanted to do it that way." With the maxim that if one eats meat, one should also be able to look the animal in the eye and kill it oneself, Gunheim didn't sign up for any slaughter classes or check any bustling online message boards. She simply opened her copy of The Encyclopedia of Country Living, turned to the chapter on poultry and went for it.
Last week, it was Haig-Arack's turn. The two drove out to Gleason Ranch, a sixth-generation farm outside of Bodega specializing in grass-fed lamb, beef, pork and poultry, and picked up a live chicken. Once home, they strung their pylon cone from the tree and positioned it over a galvanized bucket. Haig-Arack placed the bird on a stump, thanked it, chopped its neck with an axe and drained it in the cone. Three hours and plenty of garlic, lemon and butter later, Gunheim opened their Wedgwood oven and served dinner.
This young couple aren't alone. In the wake of Novella Carpenter's illuminating book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, the idea of raising, slaughtering and eating your own animals has resurfaced with a vengeance. Or maybe it's just something in the air. Gunheim, whose great-grandparents once owned a chicken farm in Santa Rosa, had never heard the term "urban farming."
"I guess I was aware that there was this back-to-the-land revival," she says, "but when it came down to it, I just did it."
Haig-Arack had thought the experience would turn him off from eating meat entirely, but instead, he declared a reverent appreciation for a food he'd taken for granted, despite the tedious post-kill process. Plucking feathers took longer than he'd thought. Harder still was cutting around the anus and removing the innards, especially since the intestines smelled terrible and air displacement caused the dead chicken's larynx to make faint clucking sounds each time he inserted his fist.
Pounds of Pride
Staring at a giant hanging quarter cow in the cooler at Sonoma Direct, Guggiana tries to describe the feeling. "I wouldn't say it's visceral," she says, inches from thick, red flesh. "It's captivating. It's like when there's a TV on at a bar and you can't look away. It beautiful and scary, in a way. There's a numbing that happens over time."
While her parents, aunt and great-uncle buzz around the office, Guggiana is inside the plant itself, a nondescript white building against a hillside where four butchers prepare sausage. One of them sticks out for his animated face, Dutch accent and age, which he is cagey about revealing. "I been a butcher more than 40 years, but I don't really work," he says. "Never had a day that I didn't feel like cutting meat. It's a great profession!"
His name is Gerritt Van den Noord, and he's worked here since before Sonoma Direct took over the plant. He's a decidedly old-school butcher, one who bellows opera while carving and takes to heart the responsibility in preparing food for other people's dinner. "It's too bad there's not a lot of pride left in butchery," he says, cranking the meat grinder. "A lot of professions, really, but especially butchery."
Backlash in a Good Way
Over in Napa a few days later, Taylor Boetticher pulls a sizzling pork roll from the oven and resumes snapping beans into a bowl, too busy to sit down as he prepares lunch for the employees who are working hard in the cramped back room at his Fatted Calf Charcuterie. He definitely knows Van den Noord. "I love Gerritt, he's great," says the 33-year-old. "When he was learning how to do this, meat cutting was a really respectable, high-paying union job. Then most of the bigger companies wound up outsourcing it with cheap labor and not paying their people very well, and so a lot of people like him either got out or were forced out. The fact that he's still with it? That guy really knows his stuff."
When Van den Noord showed up at one of Boetticher's butchery parties in San Francisco, Boetticher remembers being nervous, despite his 10 years of meat-cutting experience. Raised in Dallas, Texas, Boetticher went to culinary school at 19, where he met his future wife and Fatted Calf co-owner Toponia Miller. Ten years ago, after moving to the Bay Area and working a number of restaurants, he was hired to run the in-house charcuterie at Cafe Rouge in Berkeley, and, "I just fell in love with it," he says. When he and Miller extended their honeymoon in Italy to study in Tuscany with famed butcher Dario Cecchini, later spotlighted in Bill Buford's Heat, their trajectory was set.
The Fatted Calf, which moved from San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood to Napa in 2008, is an old-style charcuterie, with a counter teeming with pork tenderloin, paté, sausage, duck confit, marinated game hen, fresh bacon and crépinette, a rabbit burger wrapped in caul fat from a membrane that surrounds the liver. The small shop primarily serves locals instead of tourists, because most of what it sells is designed to be taken home and cooked, and it's been increasingly successful since it opened.
"A lot of people are looking for more of a connection to what they're eating and where it's coming from," he says. "It's not just for elite Bay Area foodies. It's an important craft to maintain. Whether it's all-grain beer brewing or good coffee, cheese, bread—whatever. It's a backlash, in a good way. It seems like the last 20 years of the 20th century just got so crazed with excess and more-more-more, I feel like people are starting to pay attention to what's important instead of getting ahead."
At the Bloodhound Bar, Boetticher's butcher party with Farr had a decidedly post-moral feel. The question of the animals' deaths was either never raised or, as was the case in St. Helena, was overtly snubbed. (The Bloodhound animals came from local farms—Magruder Ranch, Marin Sun Farms, Robert Sinsky Vineyards—and were slaughtered by Bud's Meats, in Penngrove.) Boetticher has killed animals before, and admits it "absolutely" feels weird. "Something's wrong with you if you don't feel anything," he says, solemnly. "It's a life."
Boetticher takes opinions about public butcher parties seriously, which sometimes allege a lack of respect for the animals when a fired-up audience turns the craft into a spectator sport. "I can see where people might be uncomfortable," he says, "but what are we gonna do? We're gonna have one of these things, and cut and use every single part of the animal—which we do—and tell people not to take pictures? Or tell people to act like they're in church or something? It's a bar. It's a party. And, no, I'm not glorifying anything. I certainly don't think it's crass.
"If it's gonna happen, it should be done as respectfully as possible, as peacefully as possible," he says. "Once its purpose has been carried out—that's what farm animals are for—I think we have a responsibility to use every piece, and make sure that it gets cooked respectfully, and made deliciously."
The celebrity butcher. The fleischgeist. The public dismemberment of animals. It starts small, like the worker at Fatted Calf who left the French Laundry to learn about meat; or the onlookers asking questions at the Bloodhound Bar; the young couples who rethink where their chicken comes from. Slowly, it builds into rampant interest in a lost craft with sold-out butchery classes, raised consciousness and a potential threat to consolidated factory farming.
"I'm sure that there will always be Tysons and IBPs," Boetticher says. "There'll always be a market for the styro-packed, irradiated meat that's on sale cheap at Albertsons. I'm not really trying to change the world. I'm just trying to offer an alternative to somebody looking for something better."
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