The following blog post was written by Cecilie, one of the Co-op’s Customer Service Associates.
A couple of weeks ago the Co-op hosted a Pop-up Abattoir with Butcher Bryan Mayer. The event featured Bryan guiding attendees through the process of butchering a hog as Bryan broke down half of a carcass into the cuts we all know and love. The class offered a glimpse into how the food on our plates gets created, and a truly enlightening experience into the craft of whole animal butchery. Bryan Mayer is best known for being the head butcher at Fleisher’s in NY, king of the local sustainable independent butchers, and has since set his sights on meat opportunities in the Philadelphia area. He is a great teacher of sustainable butchering practices and a huge supporter of local, humanely raised livestock.
Bryan started with an overview of what an ethical butcher is looking for in a meat carcass, and he quickly moved onto the basic myology (muscular structure) of a hog. The amazing thing about breaking down an animal is understanding that it is virtually one long muscle and its the butcher’s job to free these muscles from the various tendons, cartilage, and bone to which its attached. The first task is to cut the carcass into primals, the large sections of meat that will then be divided into individual cuts. The process involves counting 5 ribs down, tracing the space between the 5th and 6th rib, and using his knife and physical force to separate the shoulder from the loin. Two long cuts and a swift thrust at just the right point and it was done. Then the loin was freed from the belly with the help of a bandsaw, and finally the leg was also quickly separated. In the span of a few minutes the entire carcass had been divided and it was time to move on to the tough decisions.
The anatomy of a meat animal does not differ that much from our own and its quite easy to think where each cut of meat comes from and why. Albeit, we do not walk on all fours, the shoulders and legs do the lionshare of the bodies work, these muscle groups feature long tendons, called Tough Cuts, which typically take a long time to cook but are extremely flavorful because of the increased bloodflow to the area. Bryan explained that these are often overlooked by the average meat consumer and its quite a shame because when cooked right they are the tastiest. Lesser used muscles, typically found in the midsection, are tender and don’t need to be cooked long at all.
It’s easy to forget when looking at a meat case that a pig isn’t a Mary Poppins bag of pork chops, bacon, tenderloin, sausage,etc. Each pig has a finite amount of meat and within that amount an even smaller amount that can turn into a pork chop or a slab of bacon. Furthermore, one must be making choices from the moment a pig is broken down into primals: Do you want ribs? What kind? or Pork Chops? How Big? And if I want a large pork chop am I willing to give up some precious belly? Bryan did a great job of explaining the choices that must be made and its quite amazing to see a whole loin in front of you and discuss the possible cut selections. Visualizing a row of neatly sliced chops or a rack of ribs really hits home the idea of eating the whole-hog. There is only one tenderloin on each pig, while there are plenty of options for roast cuts. So often the attention in America is on the midsection but a truly sustainable meat-eater must be comfortable ordering a tough cut. The whole time that Bryan was cutting, two piles were forming besides the typical cuts, one of odd bits of meat and fat, and the other with meaty bones. The first would be used to grind into sausage, perhaps the most sustainable meat product that can be made, and the second could be used to make stop or given to the dog to gnaw. Bryan really stressed that the key was to use the WHOLE animal, and those scraps can be turned into valuable products.
By the end of the night my head was swimming with different knives, how to grip a knife, bones, cuts, dishes that must be prepared, and on and on. The information is endless and yet Bryan did a great job of hitting the high notes, while also giving a glimpse into even more butchering information. I never fully realized how much decision making was involved in the creation of meat, especially ethically sourced and humanely raised meat. I would encourage everyone to take the time to learn more about the meat you are putting on your plate, it has changed the way I think of meat and allowed me to try a lot of exciting new dishes.