Monday, December 29, 2014

Why I Butcher My Own Meat

My fascination with butchery began decades ago with the humble chicken, though the exact details of the experience are lost to the mists of time. Was it in college in a fit of DIY enthusiasm? Or when I was living on my own? Or perhaps as a young married person, when I realized that buying a whole chicken was a lot cheaper pound-for-pound than its already-segmented version? In any case, somehow, somewhere, from a live person or on TV, I learned how to cut up a whole chicken into its component parts.

Meeting my meat.

It was a satisfying achievement, much like learning how to change a tire or install a rheostat, one of those things adults (and real cooks) do. Learning to feel the joint in the leg between the thigh and drumstick, that little indentation that, when sliced, cleaves with almost no resistance into two perfect parts. A wonderful skill, both mechanical and edible.

I never had a problem with the "yuck" factor, not being the squeamish sort when it came to blood, though that's rarely a problem with properly slaughtered animals. My decision was reinforced when news came out that the best-quality commercial chickens appeared whole in the butcher case, and that the trays of parts often came from carcasses where some portion of the bird might have been damaged from a defect or mishandling.

Who needs roses?

Butchering a larger animal never occured to me. Growing up, my family was inclined to frequent steakhouses more than hunting blinds, my father not being the outdoorsy type and only going hunting when he felt he couldn't refuse a customer's invitation. My mother wasn't interested in dealing with plucking or cooking whatever game he brought home, since the birds were often peppered with buckshot and she had no clue how to cook deer or elk.

It wasn't until I became a food writer that I felt obliged to follow an animal from its pasture to my plate, and to experience what it means to take the life of a living creature. Recounted in a series of posts called Thinking of Eating, I met a young pig named Roger and watched as he grew up, was killed in his pasture at the farm and then taken to the place where I was going to be taught how to butcher him.

Two-rib chops, anyone?

Under the tutelage of master butcher Melinda Casady (top photo), I was initially overwhelmed and then profoundly amazed as she led me through the process of breaking down a nearly one hundred pound carcass into large, manageable chunks called primals using just a bone saw, knives and some muscle. Like the chicken, there were anatomical clues to dividing the large hunks into the roasts, steaks, ribs and other pieces that would end up in the braising pot, smoker or meat grinder.

A better pot of beans.

One of the best things about it was being able to make my own decisions about how large the roasts should be, whether I wanted lots of chops or if I should leave a chunk for a rib roast—boned or bone-in—plus getting to save all the bones for roasting and making into stock. Even the trotters were saved and tied for throwing into a pot of beans. Talk about snout-to-tail and using every part! It made me feel like I was really getting my money's worth, again much like cutting up my own chicken, making stock from the carcass and picking off the cooked meat for salad, tacos or chicken pot pie.

Happy freezer.

In the years since, I've butchered two other half pigs and a couple of lambs and watched a chef break down a goat. I'm convinced that if you care about how your meat is raised, whether from an ethical, environmental or quality standpoint, there's no better way to guarantee you're getting what you want than to buy it intact and butcher it yourself, especially if you buy direct from a farmer. Not many of us can do this 100 percent of the time, of course, but in my experience, it's cheaper pound-for-pound than buying pieces of similar quality meat at the butcher's counter in the store, and you get so much more for your money.

There are many local farmers who sell sustainably raised (as well as pastured) meat directly to consumers, and it's possible to buy chickens, ducks, pigs, cattle and goats in the local area. Most can supply either whole, half or portions of larger animals, and are happy to refer you to a packing plant that will butcher the animal for you. In the last couple of years Portland meat-eaters have seen several butchers start offering classes that can lead neophytes through the process of butchering. Some of those are listed in the calendar in the left-hand column.

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