Good Butcher, Good Cook: The Ethics Of Craft Butchery
This all started a few months ago, when I first saw the sign for the Red Hog Butcher Shop on Frankfort Avenue. On a slick, black background was a white silhouette of a pig -- drawn in such a way that it looked like he too was worn out from the unseasonable heat.
The store wasn’t set to open for a few more weeks, but a quick Google search revealed that Red Hog wasn’t just any butcher shop -- it was a “craft butcher shop.” Their email? email@example.com.
To be honest, I was a little skeptical. When it comes to the food landscape, words like “artisan” and “craft” have been so overused that they seem more well-placed in a "Portlandia" skit than on a serious menu.
But it turns out, when used appropriately -- especially when it comes to meat -- these terms can have big consequences.
“I do not want to use the word ‘artisan’ as a way to impart that it’s gourmet in any way, shape or form,” says Meredith Leigh, the author of “The Ethical Meat Handbook.”
A former retail butcher, Leigh says she uses the word artisan simply as a way to point out to others the artistry involved in the trade. "This is highly skilled work, you know," she says.
Leigh is a Louisville native who now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She used to own a retail butcher shop and now teaches courses about ethical butchering across the country.
“When I talk about ethical meat, I talk about meat from an animal that had a good life, a good death, a good butcher and a good cook,” she says. “So that’s the succinct full system definition of ‘honest meat on your plate.’”
According to Leigh, when we talk about ethics in meat, we typically place a lot of responsibility on the farmer and the processor -- the folks behind the good life and respectable death -- but a good butcher and cook are equally as important to ensure the entire animal is used well.
Leigh says she would estimate that current American consumers are uneducated when it comes to using about 75 percent of the animal. We are more focused on what butchers call “middle meats.”
“Which is, you know, the loin area -- everything from the fifth rib down to the top of the hip,” Leigh says. “That’s your ribeyes, your New York strips, your tenderloins.”
The Meaty History
So, how did we get to the point where our concept of meat looks like mounds of cheap, shrink-wrapped cuts stacked in a supermarket freezer? Maureen Ogle -- a historian who wrote the book “In Meat We Trust” -- says it’s a reality that has been in the making since the 1600s.
Ogle spent seven years researching and writing the book, which examines Americans’ relationship with the meat industry. It opens in the Colonial period where she explains that immigrants quickly discovered they could pretty much eat as much meat as they wanted to in America -- which was totally different than 17th century Europe.
“If you were a king, you could eat as much meat as you want, but nobody else could,” Ogle says. “But it turned out that in North America -- jeez, it was incredibly easy to own livestock and to actually supply yourself with meat year round.”
Fast-forward through the American Revolution, and Ogle argues an entitlement to cheap, abundant meat was bred into the American DNA, which was complicated by urbanization.
“Americans have consistently, overwhelmingly voted for living not on the farm, but for living in town,” Ogle says. “So by definition, we are not people who make our own food -- and yet, we expect gobs and gobs of it at a very low cost.”
Ogle says to be truly connected to our meat, we’d have to pack up and start tending to and processing our own livestock. For some, that may sound appealing; for the rest of us, that’s where the artisan butcher becomes indispensable.
The Good Butcher and Good Cook
A few days later -- armed with new perspective on the term “artisan” -- I walk into Red Hog. It’s a bright, open space with thick, cured hams hung in front of a tiled backsplash. Cookbooks and pig-themed knickknacks line the bookshelves situated above the countertop.
Duncan Paynter, one of the butchers, offers his perspective on what sets Red Hog apart as an artisan shop.
“A lot of it, for me, is taking time to do it the right way -- as opposed to how a lot of people butcher beef, let’s say,” Paynter says. “They do everything on a bandsaw. We take the time to isolate muscles and offer cuts that are a little harder to get to but are still delicious and people can appreciate.”
Fellow butcher Jay Denham adds, “We do all whole animal; we know where the animals come from, the conditions they’ve been raised in.”
Owner Bob Hancock says Red Hog isn’t about reinventing the wheel when it comes to meat production -- it’s simply getting back to basics. The butchers there either raise the animals they use themselves or know the farmers who do.
He says he always had an interest in whole animal butchery -- something that wasn’t really being done in Louisville. And he says it looks like the community has an interest in it, too.
“I mean, early on, when we first opened the doors, some of the first sales were for the odd bits and pieces that most people would just probably put in the trash,” Hancock says. “We had a guy come in and buy four lambs' heads; we had a guy come in and buy about $300 worth of organs.”
It’s at this point that Hancock stresses he’s not doing anything new. Most of Kentucky’s immigrant and rural communities use the entire animal in their everyday cooking – and can purchase it at non-“artisan” cost.
This is also where Ogle says the term "artisan" can get tricky, because for many the word and the corresponding products are a practice in "sheer affluence."
Hancock does say the craft butcher (or the “good butcher,” as Meredith Leigh would say) can help source and present the entire animal for consumers who may not be used to cooking anything but the basics. Let’s say you’re not skilled or adventurous enough to tackle four lambs heads in your own kitchen. That’s where the good cook comes in, effectively completing the system of ethical meat consumption.
Several days later, I slide into a booth at Proof on Main and wait for head chef Mike Wajda to join me. He’s in the midst of prepping for “The Hog and The Barrel” dinner, an annual event in which he and a visiting chef (this year it's James Beard award-winner Ashley Christensen) do a whole hog preparation -- even the “odd bits,” as Wajda says.
On the menu are things like pork belly and oyster stew, head cheese terrine and blood sausage cannelloni. But Wajda says using the whole animal in their kitchen isn’t just a one-time thing; it’s part of the Proof kitchen philosophy.
“A farmer takes all this time to raise these animals and puts the time, you know and the pig -- or whatever the animal -- pays the ultimate sacrifice,” Wajda says. “We have to respect that.”
Wajda says that’s why it’s important to work with reputable farmers and butchers. It’s a practice in meat ethics.
“It’s up to us to make it delicious and put it on a plate and make it attractive,” Wajda says. “You may not want to bring these pieces into your home, but that doesn’t mean we can’t consume them. And that’s where we come in.”