An Erstwhile Vegetarian Learns the Art of Butchery


I grew up in Kansas – the land of corn-feed beef, boneless, skinless chicken breast, and pork: the other white meat. I never gave much thought to meat except whether it was low in fat and calories, so when I told my family I was becoming a vegetarian, I was met with blank stares and a heated disagreement surrounding my anemia (with the lack of red meat, the family was concerned about my iron levels). My shift towards vegetarianism began slowly with Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation followed by Peter Singer’s The Ethics of Eating Meat, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and eventually, I found myself reading Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s The Face On Your Plate. For three years, I was vigilant about my food, checking the labels of grocery store purchases and grilling restaurant servers about the ingredients in each dish. It took me nearly 6 months to go completely meatless and only one In-and-Out cheeseburger, three years later, to fall off the proverbial wagon. What happened? How did I devote such a significant amount of my life vegetarianism only to be tempted by a cheeseburger?

To be perfectly honest, part of me just missed eating meat. There were so many items on restaurant menus to taste and I was limited by my choice to abstain from meat. I knew I didn’t want to support Tyson, Smithfield and/or National Cattlemen Beef Association, but I just wanted to eat a cheeseburger again. I started to seek out small ranchers who raised animals with respect of the animal, the land and their customers. My personal food journey lead me to Bay Area ranchers such as Marin Sun Farms, Prather Ranch, Soul Food Farm and eventually, Fatted Calf, an artisanal charcuterie shop in downtown Napa.

Two months ago, I found myself in a similar position as many Americans: my department at work down-sized and I was laid off. It was nearly impossible to find a job during the holidays, so I started to consider other ways to fill my time until the job market picked up.  Since I live in Napa, I decided to ask the owner of Fatted Calf for a kitchen stage (French term for internship used by the food industry). I had always wanted experience in a professional kitchen and I also felt that if I was going to eat meat, I should be able to see the entire process. Fatted Calf’s husband-wife team, Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller, support local farmers, use organic and hormone-free meats and organic produce, so for me, it was a perfect place to learn. I have no real kitchen experience, but I have been a home chef for years and I figured it was impossible that he would let me do any actual work. Maybe just some chopping or slicing: simple kitchen tasks. More than anything, I thought I would be learning from the sidelines. I was wrong.

In less than an hour on my first day, I found myself wrist-deep in a gallon of pig’s blood. We were making boudin noir, blood sausage, and it was my job to mix the spices, meat and blood. I looked down and I saw my forearms splattered with pig’s blood. It was then that I questioned my interest in learning the in’s and out’s of an artisanal charcuterie shop; just 14 months before, I was a strict vegetarian, and now I had my hands in pig’s blood.

In the Fatted Calf kitchen, no piece of the animal goes to waste. Organs are used for pâtés and sausage, chicken fat is turned into schmaltz (used for frying or spread on bread), duck fat is used for confits and rillette; and bones are roasted and later used for stock. Over the last three weeks, I have broken down multiple ducks, several chickens, 4 pork bellies, 20 picnic hams; I’ve chopped duck livers and gizzards, the heads and feet from chickens and trussed so many rib chops my fingers are starting to lose skin. I worked hard in the kitchen as local ranchers dropped off their chickens, pigs and eggs; and a few foragers delivered large, yellow wild chanterelles.

The thing I find the most incredible from my experience is that untrained migrant workers do this every day in factory farms all over the country. They have to move quickly through the animals because quantity trumps quality but butchering an animal is hard work that requires skill. For every duck I broke down into breasts, legs and thighs, the guy next to me was onto his third duck. Over time, I know I would be at the same speed as him, but until then, I had to take my time to prevent chopping off a finger or hurting the person next to me. And often times, these guys are working with cows and pigs – significantly tougher animals to break down in a short amount of time. Before Fatted Calf, I had never seen a chicken with its head or feet. I had no idea how much work goes into the meat on our dinner table.

I have learned more about food, cooking and meat in three weeks than in the last 27 years of my life. It has been an incredible experience which has allowed me to get up close and personal with my food. However, eating meat will be a special occasion for me. I believe that we eat too much meat as a society and it encourages companies to speed up the production line to get meat quicker to the plate of each American. Animals become a source of fuel rather than a living, breathing creature. Factory farm workers become machines instead of humans. And the art of butchering becomes a lost skill. Now every time I eat meat, I will appreciate all the work that has gone into my food.

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  1. Gerado
    Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
    Maybe your problem had to do with the lack of cooking skills in the first place. I am a vegetarian and "falling the wagon" is hardly and excuse for me to come back to eat meat; also I am a Native American and even when Pollan et all try to push the "sustainable" beef agenda; I don't need to eat it since that meat has never been part of part of our diet before europeans came along with their unsustainable and fat diets. My rule on meat is: if I kill/hunt the animal myself or take care of her then I can eat her. Have you read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eatign Animals? He says that leavels dont help much on the ethical front. His book might be the greatest book ever written about eating animals. And yes, many ethical choices are sacrifices forthe greater good my friend.
  2. jdalton
    Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
    I love this Layla! What an incredible experience, up close and getting personal with your meat -- very inspiring.
  3. tim baron
    Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
    Layla,
    this is an awesome article. a great learning experience, spreading your wings and trying new challenging things.
  4. Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
    Great article... thougherly enjoyed it!

    As a perma-meat-atarian I would love to go and do what you did and see how things really work... elbow deep in pigs blood... bliss!?!?!?!

    Dylan

    (ultimate Focaccia recipe now up on my blog)
  5. Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
    Gerado... uh, sure, right.

    Your ancestors never hunted deer? Snared rabbits? Hunted bison? Fished?

    Nice try at political correctness, but ... uhh ...

    Wrong?
  6. t
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
    Not trying to tell you what to do, but killing an animal in the prime of its life is not really being respectful or humane for that matter. Humane and respectful killing is putting an animal down that is in pain with no hope of recovery.
  7. Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
    I love this article! I, too, only eat meat when I know where it comes from, and treat every occasion as a special one. Like you, I do not think we need to give up meat, but we do need to stop overconsuming and start thinking more about the reality of it.
  8. Flavia
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
    @ Gerado:
    It saddens me that you feel the need to judge Layla because she chose to learn more about the meat industry. Your judgment is not without its hypocrisy. As a vegan, I can tell you that many dairy products you buy will not only be worse for the environment, but also much more harmful to animals. Any knowledge is power, and I applaud anyone that wants to know more about where our food comes from.
    Layla, thank you for sharing. Although I do wish to see the end of animal abuse and sacrifice, I understand that it is not something that will happen overnight. Any glimpse into the process that takes place before the steak reaches the average American dinner table is powerful knowledge.