The New Wave of Old-School Butchery

7/11/2011 20:06:59 PM

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Butcher shops have truly been swinging in these days on the pendulum of urban U.S. food trends. New York, Chicago, LA, Pittsburgh, New Orleans. It seems we’re all grinding on about whether this is organic or whether that’s local — meat or otherwise. Where’d it come from? What was it fed? Is the farmer kind? And then there’s always the DIY appropriation: can I learn to do it myself?

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It makes a lot of sense, really. Asking these questions shows we care. And the best place to get answers is the closest person to the source, right? Then, if we’re talking meat, it’s probably the butcher we want to talk to.

The problem is, which butcher? Not just any butcher caters to the environmentally conscience or ethical or health concerned. Even the taste is secondary to ensuring speed and profit in most butcher shops. If we ask the generic guys for bacon, it’ll come packaged and pre-sliced. If we ask how many miles their pigs traveled, they’d ask what pigs we’re talking about.

That’s exactly the distancing and processing these revamped old-style butchers are out to change. They’re resurrecting the tradition of local sourcing, of supporting lean, grass-fed raising, of whole-animal butchering, a tradition of total usage from head to tail that’s fallen by the wayside over the last sixty years. There’s a respect they have for the animals, for their community, for the trade in its entirety. And a high level of quality comes from this kind of attitude. They’re going to bat for us, and they’re the butchers we want to talk to, the ones we want to learn from.

The clearest upside of this trend, as with every other, is that the forerunners — like Jessica Applestone of Fleisher’s Meats in Kingston, NY, and Rob Levitt of Chicago’s The Butcher & Larder — don’t get into it to be trendy. They do it because, at heart, they’re born butchers, educators, providers. Because, like us, they, too, care where their food is coming from. They, too, go to the source.

Jessica’s seen the farms. She knows the farmers. “They grow to our specifications: no hormones, [no] antibiotics, on pasture,” she says. “Some supply only us and we take everything they grow.” Fleisher deals strictly with local farmers in a 100 mile radius of the shop, supporting the local agricultural economy. “We made these decisions based on the quality of the animals, the care in which they were raised.” The chickens roam. The cows graze. The lambs look happy.

Fleisher and her husband Joshua are essentially reviving the family vision, bringing back the old-school, the closely personal butcher shop Grandpa Jack Fleisher opened in Brooklyn in 1901. “We consider ourselves the Cheers of butcher shops,” she says. “We see our customers more often then we see our own extended families … We know when our customers are going through a divorce, are pregnant, ill. We get letters of gratitude, we have customers who love to play jokes on us, we watch their kids grow and hire them.”

It’s this kind of testimony that flies in the face of mere trend-hopping. When a store brings people together like Fleisher’s does, it’s more than a store. “We have become what all the old butcher shops were,” Fleisher explains. “A community center.”

But they’re more than that, even. Jessica and Josh run a butchery school and a consultancy program. The couple just wrote a book about their experiences — their 7-year stint running Fleisher’s. Come September, they’re opening a location in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A luncheonette in Kingston soon after.

So, if a hip movement stems from an all-encompassing neighborhood core — from Fleisher’s, or The Butcher & Larder — what can be said of the recent converts and butchers-to-be? Should they be encouraged? Warned? Disenchanted?

As Levitt puts it, “There is nothing glamorous about cutting meat.” It’s a tough job. It’s rough on your back. It’s strenuous work done on your feet, with your shoulders, arms, and hands. “Your mornings are early and your hours long,” he says. “You stink of animal every day.”

Being a butcher is a “no romance” lifestyle, no matter how stylish it may seem to throngs of enamored hopefuls. “A lot of folks think what we are doing is riding the wave of a new trend, but really we just want things to go back to the way they were before industrial farms and supermarkets changed the way the nation ate.”

Butchers like Levitt and Fleisher promote good meat, but they also promote good health. “When the butcher is encouraging you to eat less meat, that should say something,” says Levitt. Small farms and family shops have been pushed out by a “more, more, more” mentality, and the nation’s spanking fascination with locally sourced, organic butchers couldn’t really be all that reproachable, considering.

Levitt agrees. “The trendiness … is kind of silly, but if that is what it takes to get folks buying responsibly, humanely, sustainably raised meat, then so be it.” Fleisher’s and The Butcher & Larder are our middlemen. They’re our go-betweens, our spokespeople. And Fleisher reminds: “Every time people choose to shop with us they are ‘voting’ with their dollars…”

Trend, no trend, trend. Regardless of what’s in vogue and what’s out, the new-wave old-school butchers are stoking the flames of a thoughtful and fiery public, of which we’re an important part. A chain reaction of conscientious buying starts with us and our local businesses, rippling to bigger rings we might’ve thought were incredibly out of reach. Plus, an added bonus of all their devotion and slow, steady, hard work is that when the butcher cares this much, the meat can only taste that much better.

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