The art of butchery: An ancient craft is reborn in Asheville

MAKING THE CUT: Artisan butchers like Jimmy Lee, pictured here at Foothills Local Meats’ Black Mountain processing facility, have to cultivate in-depth knowledge of animal anatomy as well as a toolkit of skills, including cutting, grinding, boning, tying, weighing and wrapping. Photo by Pat Barcas

Calling butchers rock stars may seem a stretch. The bloody coats, the scimitarlike knives, all that raw meat — well, not necessarily a draw for groupies.

But don’t sell these craftsmen short. They know how to cut prime rib from a steer’s loin and coax pig loin into tasso ham. And they are key players abetting our search for quality meat from animals raised humanely. That alone gives them foodie rock-star status.

Not that the art of butchery is a recent development. Butchers have been honing the craft ever since man began hunting for meat, using sharpened stakes to get at their dinner. Before the 1960s, small butcher shops were everywhere. Ours, within walking distance of my childhood home, featured Earl,  who handed me a slice of cheese at every visit. (Why it wasn’t salami, I don’t know. I loved Earl anyway.) But such shops faded when supermarkets began selling prepackaged meat.

“I don’t think that butchering all of sudden has star power,” says Ashevillean Meredith Leigh, farmer, butcher and author of soon-to-be published guide The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore. “It’s that people are paying attention to where their food comes from and want to get closer to the source. They also want better sustainability. So butchery is coming back as people realize what an incredible amount of talent it takes to process animals respectfully and produce top-quality meat products.”

Casey McKissick, owner of Foothills Deli and Butchery at Ben’s Penny Mart on Hilliard Street in Asheville, puts it more succinctly: “The butcher may be the lead guitarist in the heavy metal rock band of craft food.”

The backstage mechanics

We may want to know that the pig that offered that best-ever breakfast sausage didn’t live in a cage, pumped full of chemicals. But we don’t necessarily want the backstage tour from field to plate. Still, for a butcher, the art starts there. After a butcher kills a pig or cow at a local slaughterhouse, he or she strips it of hair and guts and hangs the carcass in a cooler set below 40 degrees, often cutting it in half to ease handling.

But who’s eager to lift even half of a 240-pound pig or 650-pound steer off slaughterhouse hooks to a delivery truck to another set of hooks in another refrigerator in a market to its final rest on a cutting board.“That’s the most challenging part for me: getting a pig or steer from one place to another,” says Brian Bermingham, market manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm’s new store, likely opening in Fairview in late August.

Before an artisan butcher can get carving, he practices patience. “Within 24 hours, the muscles in a pig relax, and we can begin to cut,” says McKissick. “But we dry-age beef for 14 to 21 days. As moisture in the meat escapes and its enzymes break down, the meat’s flavor becomes more concentrated and the meat more tender.”

Now, the tools come out — the bone saw; the bone knife, long and flexible like a filet blade, only heavier; and the scimitar (think curved pirate sword) for slicing roasts and steaks in one clean cut. And the knives stay sharp, says McKissick, who works from a location in Black Mountain to butcher fresh meat and process ready-to-eat deli meats, bacon, hot dogs and other offerings for retail sale at Ben’s Penny Mart:  “As we work, we may sharpen our bone knives on a honing steel every 15 to 20 minutes.”

Staring at a carcass, most of us would be stumped to find the pork chops or Boston butt. Where to begin? But that’s what makes good butchering, says Leigh: “It’s making the best use of all parts of the animal and doing it artfully. It includes faster [break down] into prized and perishable high-end cuts and into charcuterie, carefully crafted products often made from trim, offal  [intestines and organs] and whole muscle.”

The pride part

Anyone can be a butcher, right? Back that thought up: To be a good butcher, you’ve got to know animal anatomy (Where is that bacon, anyway?), cutting and grinding (but not your own fingers!), boning, tying, weighing and wrapping. You have to have bodybuilder biceps, stand all day,  make nice with health inspectors and, smiling, offer endless (and repeat) advice to customers about how to throw the best prime-rib feast ever.

And you have to speak butcher-ese — from  faggots (pig’s liver, heart and belly, minced and mixed with herbs and breadcrumbs, and shaped into a ball) to osso buco (slices of an upper veal leg complete with the marrow bone).

So, no one just walks into a butcher shop and starts carving. “You have to cut meat for at least two years before you feel like you’re getting somewhere,” says Bermingham, who began honing his skills 10 years ago at a custom meat-processing plant in Florida. “There are butcher classes, but most people learn on the job, often starting out as a meat clerk.”

Novice mistakes are costly: Cut a pork loin in half by mistake, and now you’ll be selling sausage for $6.99 a pound, instead of pork chops at $9.99.
A butcher’s pride comes — as it does for any craftsman — from knowing his skills and practicing them well.

“I get a satisfaction out of taking off all the muscles cleanly, and from steaks that look the best I possibly can make them,” says Matt Helms, butcher at the Chop Shop Butchery on Charlotte Street.  “I enjoy hearing a customer tell me how outstanding the pork chops are. And I love showing the farmers an empty cooler after a good weekend.”

So, you want to be a home butcher

If heaving a side of cow onto your kitchen counter isn’t what you have in mind, but you wouldn’t shun some butchering tips, here are a few from the best butchers in Asheville:

Take a class. “Come out to the farm,” says Bermingham of Hickory Nut Gap Farm. “We’ll be offering butchering classes geared for anyone — from the novice to the professional cook.” In the fall, Foothills Deli and Butchery will also be offering classes in Black Mountain at The Common Housefly kitchen shop, which calls itself a “toy store for foodies.”

Tool up. Get the right butcher tools, either at The Common Housefly or online.

Just do it. “Get outside your comfort zone,” says Bermingham. “Instead of buying a Boston butt, buy the whole front quarter and break it down. Or buy a whole ham, take it apart and make sausage.” YouTube videos and other online resources are a good place to start learning how to do this.

Chicken out. Says Helms:  “Start with chicken.”




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3 thoughts on “The art of butchery: An ancient craft is reborn in Asheville

  1. Dr. Ken Camilli, Pharm.D.

    As one of Asheville’s pharmacists caring for the population and their medical needs, I generally try to get my patients to eat less meat.
    On one hand, I do believe that the private slaughter of animals behind closed doors disconnects our population from the reality of the process required to put “food” on our plates, but on the other hand, these animals do not want to be killed, have a right to life, and are harmful to human health when consumed.
    Please do not glorify the killing of animals by calling butchers artisans. Many men throughout history have done horrible things with knives, and I do not exempt this practice. There will continue to be an unhealthy disconnect as long as it is generally accepted to kill animal A, and love animal B. It is never humane to kill an animal — Whether or not you raised it with care, whether or not you’re going to eat it, whether or not it is a certain qualifying species.

  2. Stewart

    “As long as human beings go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin. There will be no justice as long as a man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is.”

    Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor

  3. Zia Terhune

    Everyone who eats meat should become a butcher. Then at least they are committing murder themselves and not paying someone else to do the dirty work.

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