Bill McCann wrote to me out of the blue. The very first email he sent ran to two pages and started with the words “Way back in the day (1971), I was working as what was then called a cooks’ runner.”
It went on to tell this story: one night, during the younger Bill’s term rushing ingredients around a hotel kitchen for a battalion of short-tempered French, Swiss, and German cooks, the kitchen ran out of veal scallops. (It’s an outmoded cut, but used be central in Continental cooking.) The whole place went ballistic until a thick, German assistant to the chef grabbed Bill by the elbow and wrangled him down to the basement butchery room. There, the assistant lifted a veal hindquarter from its rail, and “deftly boned, seamed, and sliced it into beautiful thin scallops,” which Bill scrambled to platter as neatly as the man had butchered them.
From that day on, Bill wrote, he’d wanted to be a butcher. Even as the meat business changed at lightning speed, with hotels and restaurants shutting down their in-house butchery programs, then small butcher shops closing, replaced by packing plants in the Midwest, then the variety of cuts home cooks wanted dwindling to just a few (steaks, ground beef, short ribs) of the dozens that Bill had learned to carve, he hung on.
He worked in wholesale plants until they went non-union and wages dropped to below what he could live on. He went to work in retail, but eventually couldn’t handle being the guy whose responsibility it was to supervise workers taking meat out of plastic bags and arranging it on trays for other people to put in more plastic bags and take home for supper.
Finally, thirteen years ago, he opened his own small shop in Le Grand, CA, where he processes mostly beef and lamb for the people who raised them, or people who bought them alive from people who raised them. He doesn’t sell meat from retail counter, and he doesn’t slaughter. He sells the service of butchering meat.
Bill wrote to me that first night to offer his assistance for a meat CSA I’d been directing for a couple of months. He’d heard about it through a local farmer and wanted to get involved. He apologized for the length of the email, admitted that it probably broke some cardinal rule of electronic correspondence, and then signed off.
I live about two and a half hours northwest of Bill’s shop, and most of the meat I bought for my CSA came from counties even further north, so it never made sense for me to send it all the way to him. Eventually, the CSA was able to hand a lot of its business over to local ranchers who used my model to form their own CSAs, and mine went virtual, becoming a social networking platform where people meet each other online and then cooperate in real life to buy and divide whole animals among themselves.
But Bill went on writing me periodically, starting his emails with sentences like, “We are having some glorious wet weather down this way. The foothills outside of town are white almost to their base,” and “Sometimes life is just so damn much fun.” I usually received them late at night. Bill would let me know how his daughter was doing, and whether his spirits had been up or down, and then tell me a little story about what he’d been working on in his shop.
A lot of the emails were mournful, Bill segueing from observations about the weather to lamentations that he’d never get a chance to pass on everything he’d learned. Over the course of our nearly two years of correspondence, I came to see Bill as an exemplary casualty of our isolating food system. He was proud of his work and felt rejected by a world that didn’t need it.
Then, one day last fall, I woke up to an email of a different tone. “I’ve gone and done a hair-brained thing,” this one started (or something like that; I can’t find the original), “I’ve filmed a video of myself butchering a deer.” It went on to explain that after fielding dozens of calls from hunters asking simple questions about how to deal with the venison they took down, Bill had decided to make a recording of the process. He told me a copy of the DVD was in the mail.
Before I received it, Bill’s video was on YouTube, getting twenty views a day. People wrote comments like: “Thank you for taking the time to show us how to do this right,” “I got a deer last week and cut it up today using your video, and everything went well,” and “Willie da man.” His onscreen banter was good and he had a likeable presence. He did kind of seem like da man.
Our correspondence died down, which I attributed to Bill having found a more rewarding place to put his energy. The occasional email would arrive, my favorite of which noted poetically that this spring had been a vintage one for grass, based on the color and quality of the fat he’d been seeing.
A month ago, I got an email that Bill and his cameraman Freddie had made a film of him butchering a whole cow. He’d taken an order from a group of four families who’d decided to buy a locally raised, grass-fattened heifer, and had asked Bill not just to butcher it, but to be responsible for dividing it up into equal shares for them. The video would show how dividing a whole animal up four ways worked, with Bill demonstrating it for the camera.
The same week Bill filmed his video about how to “cowpool,” Time Magazine published an article about the practice, which refers to groups going in on a whole animal purchase, even mentioning the meatshare.org site. A week earlier, I’d taught a butchery class to a group of attentive, bright-eyed city dwellers, eager to learn how to bone out legs of lamb at home. And Bill’s filming coincided with the San Francisco edition of a national food and wine event called Cochon 555 in which five sustainability-minded chefs cooked five whole pigs, with a lot of attention paid to how they were butchered, by whom, and how much of each—all—you can cook and eat.
Last week I finally made the long drive to Le Grand. Bill had said he would put the DVD in the mail—at over an hour, it’s too long for YouTube, though I’m supposed to try to find him an editor to help shorten it—but I figured it was about time we met, since our lives had unexpectedly delivered us onto the cusp of the same wave, in which we find people turning to us for guidance on how to take charge of their food choices.
Over cheese and crackers and beers, Bill and I chatted about how butchery got to where it is, how the invention of boxed beef by IBP had been accompanied by rules making it almost impossible for small retailers to get carcass beef anymore, how the assembly line killed, or nearly, the art of butchery by making everyone good at something, but no one good at the whole animal. Bill covers all this in his video, too: an hour and a half leaves a lot of time for storytelling.
Mostly, though, we talked about how strange it was for a butchery renaissance to be sweeping cities like New York and San Francisco when the rural American landscape, home to the last vestiges of animal agriculture, feels so desolate to people like Bill. I couldn’t quite read the expression on his face when I told him I get paid to teach things he could do with one hand tied behind his back.
I could tell, when I got home and watched his cowpooling video, that Bill is a born performer, and that he is at his most focused when slowly demonstrating how to find the tri-tip or tie a roast. Through YouTube, and whatever distribution he figures out for his next installment, Bill has found his students, and even though he would’ve liked an apprentice, it’s clear from the ease with which he makes jokes on camera, practiced a thousand times if once, that even a faceless audience of rapt thousands will do.