I’m not really sure where the idea came from, but I’ve always had a tiny dream of becoming a butcher. “I’d be the butcher babe,” I would joke with my friends. After all, being labeled a female butcher in a male-dominated field would certainly make me memorable! But I wasn’t just interested in standing out, I wanted to become well-versed in an art. Really, that’s what it is – you become the agent of transformation, turning a whole carcass into perfectly trimmed, beautiful cuts. The art of butchery would connect me to something bigger than myself, providing a deeper level of respect for the animal from field to fork. No more fooling myself that steaks are grown in hermetically sealed Styrofoam packages at the meat counter.
When I enrolled in culinary school, all of these thoughts were at the forefront. I dutifully attended my classes, took notes on sauces, and geeked out about kitchen science. But I waited. Butchery was the real reason I enrolled in school and I couldn’t wait for those courses to begin. To my great disappointment, it wasn’t what I expected. Sure, we practiced everything a fledgling chef should know how to do – break down an 8-piece chicken, fillet a whole fish, and cut ribeye roasts and tenderloins into steaks. But, it wasn’t enough. I wanted more: Which parts of an elk hindquarter are jerky meat and which can be cut into roasts? What’s the difference between Italian- and American-style whole hog butchery. And how do you make charcuterie from every piece and part?
I needed more, but it wasn’t going to happen in school, so I went about my life all but forgetting the dream. It wasn’t totally lost – I mean, I jumped at any opportunity to work with whole animals and even enrolled in a two-day charcuterie class with Brian Polcyn, the guy who literally wrote the book on charcuterie. But, like anything else, practice makes perfect, and I just needed more hands-on opportunities.
It was a chance encounter last summer that I found myself talking with Jim Schank, owner of the General Store in Vallecito. Somehow the conversation wound its way to the impending hunting season. “Do you ever need any help with that?” I asked, admitting that I didn’t really know what I was doing but I’d like to learn. “Sure, sometimes we do,” he replied, so I told him to call me if anything came up.
This was it! My chance to learn from Jim and his son Zach, two truly talented butchers who were so good they could probably do it in their sleep. After one day of hands-on experience, I had learned more than my entire culinary school tenure. I was pretty slow; my ignorance and indecision often left me carefully weighing my options before deciding where to cut. I didn’t want to sacrifice any usable meat and I was plagued with fear that I would cut somewhere I shouldn’t, effectively ruining the steaks.
I was determined to get better, faster, and more productive. With each hindquarter, my cuts grew more confident and my precision improved. I knew where to slice, how deep to press, and where the meat connected to the bone. I could finally tell the difference between the rounds, top sirloins, and the burger meat. Before long, I became an expert at trimming silverskin and slicing perfect 1-inch steaks.
In my time at the meat room, I learned more than just how to cut meat. I came to understand that this isn’t the type of job you want to have if your head is pounding and you’re feeling a little queasy, so don’t show up hung over. And, no matter how many times I washed my hands, giving up my nail-biting habit was just a good idea (yeah, totally gross). Finally, if the odors ever got to me, somehow a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup made everything better (I can’t really explain that one, except to say it works).
When the season ended, I was looking forward to sleeping in again, but I would miss my days at the lake. I didn’t just pick up the skills to become a great butcher one day, but I confirmed that I really loved the art of butchery. I can’t wait until I find myself with another opportunity to improve. But until then, I’ll just have to eat down my freezer enough to make room for a half-pig or a quarter of beef. Anyone interested in going halfsies?
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].