In the restaurant industry, the kitchen has always been a boys club. The stereotype is that of foul-mouthed, fiery men with sleeve tattoos and the kind of attitudes that prevent them from tending bar, waiting tables or any other job that requires general interaction with paying customers. That image is often even more amplified for butchers, arguably the grittiest profession in the industry.
It takes a special kind of person to hack and saw their way through a whole cow to painstakingly portion it into perfect servings. But beyond guys who just watched too much Gangs of New York and developed a penchant for playing with meat cleavers, a new breed of butcher has been slowly inundating the Asheville restaurant scene: women.
Actually, two of Asheville’s small local butcheries were co-founded by women. Karen Fowler helped open The Chop Shop, and author Meredith Leigh was the brains and brawn behind the butcher program at Foothills Meats.
“I really got into it as a business opportunity,” says Leigh, who has since gone on to publish The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore, which can only be described as the definitive guide to home butchery. It covers everything from whole-hog butchery to processing a snake. “We were just looking to diversify and develop Foothills,” she says.
Leigh recalls that when, after 12 years of farming vegetables, she decided to pick up a cleaver, finding teachers proved difficult. And a lot of men tried to give her reasons why she couldn’t do the job. “It’s pretty hard to learn, there’s not a lot of formal learning opportunities,” she says. “I consider myself largely self-taught, but I owe a lot of credit to chefs I’ve trained under.”
For the most part, Leigh says, she just “got a lot of dead animals and some beer, sucked it up and figured it out.”
These days, having left Foothills, her career revolves around teaching and demonstrating craft butchery all over the country. And even as an educator, she still finds herself in something of a boys club, as she is often the only woman presenting butchering techniques at conferences and classes.
“Sometimes I wonder, for real, if men only come to my classes because they are intrigued that a 5-foot-5 woman is going to cut a whole animal,” she says. “It was intimidating at first, but what I found eventually was that it is really easy to do what I do because it’s really personal. I develop personal connections with people, so the ones that are seemingly less open to it are sometimes the ones I get through to the most.”
Now, enough women have entered the butcher trade in Asheville that they appear to make up a fairly significant portion of the workforce. When we asked around, we found that nearly every restaurant, deli and grocery store in Asheville with a butcher on staff has employed a woman in the position at some point.
But the trend is definitely not limited to Asheville, and it’s quickly gaining traction, says Sarah Blacklin. As director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ NC Choices program, Blacklin has spent more than 12 years working with hundreds of businesses along North Carolina’s local and niche meat supply chain.
“We have certainly seen a rise in women meat processors, and, in fact, we’ve conducted focused programming to help support that growth starting in 2013,” she says, referring to the annual NC Choices Women Working in the Meat Business conference. She adds that since the coed annual Carolina Meat Conference began in 2011, it has seen a 20 percent increase in female participants — at the 2017 conference, women accounted for just over 50 percent of the attendees.
“Women are also avid entrepreneurs in this sector, starting new businesses, writing books, solving supply chain issues,” Blacklin continues. She points to Leigh as an example, along with Tootie Jones, chair of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition and owner of Swift Level Fine Meats in Lewisburg, W.Va., and Samantha Gasson, co-owner and educator at Bull City Farm in Roughmount, N.C.
Part of the cycle
“I’ve always been really into puzzles, and it’s like doing a big puzzle,” says Bessie Smith, a butcher at The Chop Shop. “A lot of people think meat comes from a Saran-wrapped Styrofoam tray,” she says, noting the frustration of having a customer walk into the shop and look through the butchery window in horror at a hog being broken down. “They say, like, ‘You should warn people that they’re going to see that.’ You’re in a butcher shop! What do you expect? It’s where your meat comes from.”
“Yeah, it’s about knowing where your food comes from,” says Kelly Koon, who has worked at The Chop Shop, Foothills and Hickory Nut Gap Farm. She sees participation in a closed-loop system as her motivating force in learning the trade. “It’s the whole idea of seeing an animal grow and then it is killed, and as a butcher, you are responsible to take that whole animal and break it down into something to be bought and cooked and put on the table. It’s really a redemptive, life-to-death process.”
Being involved as a crucial part of the circle of life, ensuring that an animal’s life is not taken in vain but nourishes another being, seems to be a vital component of the job for many butchers. “It’s really frustrating because sometimes you sell a piece of meat, and you want [the customer] to know where it came from and how important it is, but a lot of times, they just don’t care about that,” says Koon.
One of the reasons Koon says she joined the staff at Foothills to begin with was owner Casey McKissick’s understanding of the ways women can excel in the industry. She notes that he openly expresses appreciation for the tendency of some women butchers to be more detail-oriented and laments the boys club mentality that can emphasize efficiency over quality. “It’s so hard when you are working with that dynamic because you feel pushed to go faster, and then the quality of your work goes down,” she says.
Smith agrees. “Yeah, these guys can break down steers or make sausage faster than me, but at the same time, mine look prettier, and I get as much meat off of that bone as I can, which is the point of craft butchery. You want to put out something that you’re actually proud of instead of just getting it done.”
Above and beyond
And for many women in the industry, that pursuit of excellence may be key: They’re not just in a constant battle to be as good as their peers, but to go above and beyond. “If you are a woman that wants to work in a kitchen being a chef or a butcher, you are seeking out that job, and you are working uphill in the mud and the rain to get there,” says Foothills retail manager Megan Montgomery.
“Everyone is going to tell you that you can’t do it; everyone is going to look at you funny, and no matter how high you rise, there will be a pay inequity,” she continues. “But women who are in this industry are fighting to be here, and honestly, for a lot of men who are in this industry, it was a last-resort job.”
These women have been given dozens of reasons why they shouldn’t be able to do what they do for a living. They’ve been told they aren’t strong enough, that they’ll hurt themselves or even that a woman’s place isn’t around such gore and grit.
To lift a half hog, a butcher must pull the carcass from where it hangs in the cooler, catching a dead weight that can reach more than 100 pounds with a hook through the shoulder of the animal while bracing it against your own. In August, a photo of Koon demonstrating this lift was posted to Foothill’s Instagram account, but comments had to be deleted after a slew of sexist and suggestive slurs ensued.
“It’s like they think we’re going to break our little fragile, glass lady-bones,” says Montgomery, hardly veiling her disdain. She worked in farming in Massachusetts and Maine before winding up working at Foothills. “I could back-squat your bodyweight. I used to tell guys when they’d start at the butchery that I used to castrate animals for a living, so you’d better leave me alone,” she says with a laugh.