A Tell-All Guide to Artisanal Butchery

It’s an unlikely story: A vegan chef and his vegetarian wife open a butcher shop that becomes a commercial hit and an industry game-changer. It all started thanks to that omnivore gateway meat, bacon, which for years was Jessica Applestone’s one vegetarian exception. When she started craving more meat she searched for meat that aligned with her ethics: Something raised with respect for the animal and for the environment. But she found meat labels confusing.

She concluded her best option was to buy a whole steer from a farmer, but how to deal with a whole animal when she was the only meat-eater in the family? Jessica’s dilemma revealed a gap in the market: Butcher shops that break down whole, well-raised animals for the average home cook. Her husband Joshua saw an opportunity and the couple began the painstaking training and groundwork that eventually became Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York.

The couple have chronicled their meat odyssey in the book, The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, co-authored by Alexandra Zissu. Told through the voice of Joshua Applestone, the book gives a succinct history of industrial meat to contrast with the Fleisher’s approach followed by an insider’s guide to butchery including the equipment.

Then there is an animal-by-animal manual on butchering and cooking meat, including diagrams of primals and recipes, with a final chapter on sourcing “well-raised” meat. But more than a guide to butchery, the book is an empowerment tool for ethical meat eaters. By getting to know your meat, inside and out, the book posits, we can change our relationship with food and ultimately transform the meat industry for the better.

The Applestone’s are clear about what they consider “well-raised” meat. Their standards for meat sold at Fleisher’s demand that animals come from a farm within 150-mile radius. The animals cannot be administered hormones or antibiotics, ever (they accept meat from farms that treat ill animals with antibiotics but will not buy those treated animals).

The four-legged animals must be fully pastured, meaning they are on pasture 100 percent of the time, though they can be fed grain grown by the same or a local farm. Their chickens are organic but (with occasional exceptions) not pastured, again a reflection of customers’ preferences. All animals must be processed (slaughtered) within a couple hours’ drive as travel is stressful for animals.

Living up to these standards can be a tightrope act. Applestone is honest about the difficulties of their approach. Timing the slaughter for pastured animals is dicey since animals don’t always gain exactly at the rate you them to in order to fit into a small-scale abattoir’s tight schedule. Due to processing regulations you can’t get everything you want, like organic sausage casings or beef cheeks from pastured cattle (though Fleisher’s and other butchers do sell pork cheeks). Fleisher’s supports farms that are small (60-200 steers) by industry standards but their supplying farms still need to be large enough to provide a steady volume. They currently go through about 300 steers a year.

Trials and tribulations aside, this book is mostly a lot of fun. Inquisitive home cooks will love the copious diagrams and charts that dissect all aspects of meat animals and meat cooking. The Applestones make a point of encouraging whole-animal cooking, which means they explain how to cook every cut, especially the lesser-known cuts that require slow, low heat methods.

Readers will learn not only how to cut up and cook meat, but also how to store it. The Applestones probably provide more insider knowledge about butchering than the average consumer will ever actually put into practice. But obtaining that more complete story provides readers with a thrilling sense of authority. I’m not talking about that annoying know-it-all-ship of foodie connoisseurs, though that is also a potential outcome of reading the book. The more you know about animals and meat the better use you can make of it and the more you can demand of your suppliers and the meat industry as a whole.

This knowledge also makes cooking with well-raised meat more affordable. Is an artisan-cut prime rib expensive? You bet. But it’s not your only option if you know how to cook the cheaper cuts. It’s not even necessarily the most delicious option. (Is it meat blasphemy to suggest this? How many of you love braised short ribs as much as I do?) Jessica Applestone can provide you with a shopping list that supplies 10 meals and adds up $50. You’ll be cooking ground beef, bacon, sausage, chicken, eggs, even bones, and many of those meals will feature meat as a garnish rather than a main course. The Applestone’s aren’t afraid to tell customers to eat less meat in order to eat better meat.

Joshua is clear about placing his shop within a political context. Former Fleisher’s apprentice and food writer Julie Powell described it in her memoir Cleaving, “It might be a neighborhood butcher shop, or it might be a political movement masquerading as a neighborhood butcher shop.”

“It’s both,” Joshua says. “We write in the manual we give new employees that the act of eating is inherently a political one. Though we didn’t come up with that idea, we realize that every bite of food we consume affects the animal from which it came, the farmer who raised that animal, the environment, and our health… we never forget that animals die for our business and your dinner.”

The book concludes with a guide for buying meat and questions you should ask and what to look for whether you’re buying at the farmer’s market, through a CSA or whole-animal share, or even at the supermarket. If your only option is a supermarket Joshua encourages you to ask the manager for pastured meat and to get friends and family to ask for it as well to incentivize supermarket owners. Finally, in answer to Jessica’s initial label disorientation, the book concludes with a guide to deciphering labels with the warning that label meanings can change and your best bet is to know the farmer/butcher.

Meanwhile, the ethical/artisan butcher movement is growing. Fleisher’s is expanding their business and opening a new shop in Brooklyn (a five-minute walk from my apartment, in fact). Fleisher’s is not the first sustainably-sourced butcher in New York City, though they are a welcome addition to the club.

We have enjoyed the services of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, The Meat Hook (owned by Fleisher’s-trained Tom Mylan), and Marlow and Daughters (opened by Mylan) for a few years. But Fleischers is helping to seed the movement by training apprentices, some of whom are opening their own shops. Fleischer’s alum Tim Forrester is expected to open his butcher shop Harlem Shambles later in the month. And in Los Angeles there is Lindy & Grundy, owned by Fleisher’s trainees Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura. And so, little by delectable little, consumers, restaurants, farmers, and processors are carving out growing niches in the world of meat.

2 thoughts on “A Tell-All Guide to Artisanal Butchery