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What Happens to Our Meat When Butchering Stops Being Cool?

I'm a fourth generation butcher, and I've watched the craft quickly transform into the hippest job in the culinary world. But I'm worried that its popularization has watered down the purpose of small craft butcher shops.
Foto: Cara Nicoletti

Despite the interest I expressed in butchery when I was young, my grandfather never wanted to show me very much in his butcher shop. As a kid, I assumed it was because I was a girl, but as I got older I realized that he simply wanted to shield me from what was, for him, a very tough business. When I told him I wanted to be a butcher he would say, "I worked my whole life so that you could sit at a desk and have clean hands," and I tried, I did, but it just didn't work out that way.

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My great grandpa, Jankel Salutski, opened a butcher shop on Salem Street in Boston in 1951. The shop was modest in size—about 1,200 square-feet, with freestanding butcher blocks so small the animals draped over them on both sides. He ran the shop with his brother, Abe, and his two sons—my great-uncle Morris "Bobby," and my papa, Seymour. Except for the beef, which came from out west, all of their animals came from local purveyors, killed, and processed at family-run slaughterhouses one town over. They came whole, halved or quartered, and the Salutski men, who had learned their craft during a lean childhood in Poland, spent long days carefully breaking them down so that no part went to waste. At the time, their clientele was mostly immigrants—mothers and wives who were cooking for their families. This customer base was knowledgeable about meat cutting; they knew what to ask for and where it came from on the animal's body, and they could turn even the cheapest cuts and parts into something delicious. Salett's went through buckets of lungs and tubs of hearts, knuckles, livers, feet, lips—by the end of the week, the shop was nothing but sawdust.

Photos courtesy of Cara Nicoletti

Cara with her grandfather. All photos courtesy of Cara Nicoletti.

The original Salett's burned down in 1970, and the Salutskis rebuilt a more modern shop in Newton, a small city outside of Boston. By that time, a change had started to take place in the way meat was viewed, or as my papa says, "what people saw as 'clean.' Thanks to a huge marketing campaign, supermarkets were no longer just convenient; they were a symbol of American democracy and ingenuity. By 1960, 70 percent of food sales in the US were from supermarkets where cellophane-wrapped steaks were the expected norm. Unlike Salett's, supermarkets were monitored by the USDA, which viewed and labeled what was "good" and what was "bad" differently than they did, who saw all parts of the animal as equally edible. Once people got used to these supermarket grading systems, Salett's found themselves unable to sell offal, which their new clientele saw as gross. It was great for me because there was always a surplus of chopped liver on Ritz crackers and cow tongue on Wonder Bread when I visited the shop in the afternoons. Their customers began to complain about the animals hanging in the shop, expressing that it was too gory for them to look at. My grandfather moved all the meat cutting activities to a back room guarded behind heavy metal doors. In this scenario, the meat appeared like magic in refrigerated cases, ground, trimmed, tied and shrink-wrapped, ready to be rung up by Betty, the cashier, who didn't have a speck of blood on her.

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Photo courtesy of Cara Nicoletti

When I moved to New York in 2004, I immediately started working in kitchens to pay my way through college. In between classes, I worked as a barista and shucked oysters. I plated salads and broke down chickens. All around me, my classmates were putting in hours of free labor at writing and publishing internships, and I envied them in a way that was ugly and poisonous, because the prospects of them getting an office job with benefits after we graduated felt much brighter than mine. When the economy bottomed out in 2008, many of my peers came to the realization (along with me) that the chance of their liberal arts educations getting them a job was very low, so they started to consider what they could do with their hands to pay off their loans. The number of culinary school applicants skyrocketed, and suddenly kids were showing up to the restaurants I worked at in droves, asking for jobs and offering to work for free in exchange for training. People were no longer asking me what I really wanted to do besides cooking. It was considered 'cooler than ever,' and chefs were pushing themselves to new limits in order to stand out of the ever-growing crowd of burgeoning talent.

There was that moment in 2009 when the New York Times dubbed butchers the new "rock stars," and every other food magazine and website seemed to follow suit. I was amazed at how much this new school of butchery, with its focus on local purveyors, whole animals, and nose-to-tail eating, reminded me of the original Salett's. But what was different was the ethical stance that these butchers were taking—their animals were pasture-raised, grass-fed, humanely slaughtered, and every last bit of them was used, not only because these pieces were delicious, but also out of respect for the animal. It was this new way of thinking that excited me most, that kept me up most nights reading about meat, and sent me wandering into The Meat Hook in Brooklyn—whose owners are among the pioneers of the ethical, sustainable meat movement—in 2010 to ask if I could work for free on my days off. I've been there ever since, and my belief in what we do has only gotten stronger.

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Photo courtesy of Cara Nicoletti

But the cool-factor surrounding meat and butchery hasn't waned since 2008. If anything, it seems to be getting more and more press every day. It seems like the hipness of meat, the bravado of blood and gore, has overtaken the original message—to eat more, carefully. Pigs in particular seem to have fallen victim to this new brand of meat fetishizing. It seems like every time I turn on the TV, a commercial for a show called "KNIFE FIGHT" is on, featuring a slew of burly chefs slamming suckling pigs down willy-nilly onto cutting boards. In 2012, a fast food chain put a bacon sundae on its menu and a Superbowl ad ran in which a man literally married bacon. Even

Real

Housewives of Orange County

star, Vicki Gunvalson, has a bacon-flavored vodka, which she uses to make a drink she calls "The Bloody Piggy." I don't want to explain how I know this. Even if the bacon in these products was from ethically raised animals, like it was when the craze first started, does it really need to go on your donut?

Photos courtesy of Cara Nicoletti

Recently, I was reading an article on Esquire's "Eat Like a Man," in which Josh Ozersky claimed that all grass-fed cattle are "sad and sinewy creatures, with no more marbling or tenderness than a big stick of living jerky." Anyone who has ever worked with quality grass-fed beef knows that this is untrue, but it got me wondering what the next phase of this meat craze will be. What worries me is that there will be backlash big enough to undo a movement that many worked hard for, one that came from a pure and decent place of concern for our food systems. Will the next cool thing in food be to say again, "I don't care where my meat comes from, how it was raised, or what it ate, as long as it tastes good?"