L et’s start at the beginning. I am not a vegetarian. To all of my friends who are vegetarians (and you vegans as well,) I will say… this entry is not for you. I absolutely respect your viewpoints, but still… I am not a vegetarian. I am also not an absolute carnivore as well, slavering at the altar of bacon (although I do like bacon.) I try very hard to be a conscious omnivore, trying to be aware of not only where my meat comes from, but also my consumption levels. I do not actually subscribe to the theory that a meal without meat is not a meal. I could keep rolling on in my reasoning about being an omnivore rather than a vegetarian, on the subject of elitism perceived and real in the organic food movement, but that, dear reader, would take a whole other entry. Possibly a book. And I’ve read a lot of books already out there about these very subjects. So today… this is not about me cooking meat. This is a new experiment. Photographing process. Knowing where my food is coming from.
I was raised in Wisconsin, which means I grew up seeing farms where you actually saw cows grazing out in the fields. The smell of manure wafting off the fields was not that bad. This is what I thought was normal. Of course this is where our food comes from! Happy cows were not from California, they were from Wisconsin, dammit! It seemed so natural! In my 20s I started learning more about our industrial food complex, and the specter of the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Again, this could be another long entry, but suffice to say if you have ever driven by one of these, the stench is unbearable, the conditions horrific, and when I drove by several earlier this year on a road trip, I could not help but think of how far away the cows munching on green grass with the faint sweet tang of manure scenting the air were. And if I was going to eat a cow, I wanted the cow of my youth. Fortunately, I am far from the only person who thinks like this. Enter Rob Levitt.
Rob Levitt is co-founder (along with his wife Allie) of the Butcher & Larder, an honest to god butcher shop here in Chicago that focuses on locally sourced, sustainably grown meat (theirs comes from only a few local farms that they have personal relationships with.) The initial slaughter and cleaning are done before the meat arrives at the shop; the final act of butchering is done here. Rob was kind enough to let me come in one day to hang out with my camera to photograph some of their process. If I was a better journalist, I would have pried far more and asked many more questions, but I’m not. I like to observe, just taking it all in. Rob and another new butcher to the shop, Jimmy, were more than happy to explain to me what they were doing and showing me the various cuts, explaining the various reasoning behind why they were cutting up the cow (and pig) just so, and they really do go from nose to tail. They truly value educating their customers beyond “hey, this is a steak.” And they truly respect the meat.
I got there at 11 AM, just as the first delivery of the day was coming in. It was a cow, grass fed and grain finished, that had been dry-aging for 14 days, which apparently mellows the flavor of the meat and makes it more tender. The enormity of the animal, even in cut into sections, is apparent. At one point Rob flipped a part of the rib cage area, and I could not help but think of the ribs that get served to Fred in the opening titles to “The Flintstones”.
Jimmy, who was newer to this, was carefully working on the shoulder area, explaining how there were so many more cuts of meat than people realized, particularly in this tricky area of the cow. He was carefully cutting out the neck area, exposing one a tender cut of beef on par with the more familiar tenderloin. If memory serves, it is the palerol. I bought the very cut I saw him take apart and grilled it hot and fast with a little salt. Not having a grill, I had to beg a friend for the use of theirs (with the promise of sharing the meat, of course,) and so we uncorked a good bottle of red wine, sat out in the glorious summer breeze, and were swiftly reduced to primal grunts of contentment while slowly savoring the tenderness speared on the ends of our forks.
Jimmy pointed out that the cow as it was brought in probably weighed over 700 lbs., but by the time they were done cutting it up, it would yield 350 lbs. of meat. And trust me, these folks do not let a scrap that can be used go to waste. They even sell the coveted marrow. The trimmings that were edible but not salable as larger cuts were carefully stowed away so when someone walked in looking for hamburger, they could take the trimmings and grind them fresh, right there. When Rob was working on a pig, he pointed out the leaf lard, the fatty bits surrounding the kidneys, which they then do render into actual lard for cooking. They attend to every part of the animal, which is something we forgot about a long time ago. The average American’s experience with animals for eating involves layers of plastic wrap and cushy pink Styrofoam trays.
Watching Rob and Jimmy at work was fascinating. They were completely relaxed and focused, combining precise sharp motions of their knives with occasional brute force. This was all while chatting amiably, stopping here and there to tend to customers or take phone calls. Jimmy was apparently still learning the finer points of contending with the shoulder area, and Rob was always there to guide him. Both of them were showing me things like the invisible seams they had to ferret out, where a thin sheath of connective tissue would run through the muscle, never in a straight line. Some of it seemed to be pure instinct, or at least the instinct born of extensive practice.
And then there was the other side of the counter. The customers. This is something wonderful about such a small shop… they know their customers. They have the regulars, joking back and forth with them (if they were of that temperament, there were definitely a few that fall into the elitist snooty foodie category that appeared to have no discernible sense of humor or empathy.) The customers that came in knowing nothing? They were happy to explain things to them. The ones just wanting to buy a Coke? Well that was just annoying. It’s not a convenience store.
It was a lovely time hanging out and photographing these fellows at work, and I was incredibly grateful for the experience. If you have lasted this long, thank you for joining me on my maiden voyage of writing about other people and their joy of food. I fear my writing on this is a bit lacking, but if I let loose full bore this would turn into a novel. Instead, I will let the pictures do the talking (and remember to record notes next time.) Until I can figure out how to do a real gallery on this blog, an external link to my Flickr page will have to suffice.