Storey publicist Matt LaBombard doesn’t eat animal products, but his experience at a recent butchering demonstration took him by surprise.
“Matt is going to help you get the carcass when you’re ready to present,” my coworker said to Butchering author Adam Danforth. She was referring to the half of a sheep that Adam would be butchering in front of a crowd of 100 homesteaders. I sat there with a blank face and visions of myself in a walk-in refrigerator, half a sheep carcass hurled over my shoulder. I can’t begin to tell you how I was dreading it.
You see, I’ve been a vegan for the past two years. Though I choose not to eat meat myself, and as much as it pains me to read about or see the animal cruelty in the commercial meat industry, I have come to understand that there is a demand for meat in our food system and that the death and butchering of livestock is a necessary act to supply individuals and families with the meat they need.
That said, when I found myself on a work-related trip to the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, the last thing that I really wanted to attend was the live butchering demo, let alone handle a carcass myself.
Fortunately for me, that day, the carcass was brought to the demonstration stage by the farmer who had slaughtered it. When I met him before the demonstration, I noticed his gentle kindness and the tone of respect in his voice when he talked about the sheep he’d brought. He told me about the day-to-day operations of his hardworking farm that houses a processing unit on-site. He also told me a few stories of working with world class chefs who visit his farm to pick out the livestock they want, stay for the butchering, and bring the meat back to the restaurants where they’ll cook the meat and serve it to patrons of all backgrounds.
As he talked, I began to see the many tables that his lambs have reached and the many families, chefs, and restaurants they have fed. His work extends further than the end consumer. It touches the family members of the mom who bought a leg of lamb for Sunday dinner or the restaurant patrons who ate the loin that was hand-selected by the chef that day. And even though his work differs from the way that I live, I could understand why he does what he does. I began to see the need for farmers like this — not only for bringing half-carcasses to butchering demonstrations so intimidated vegans don’t have to, but for respectfully raising and offering antibiotic- and hormone-free meat to consumers.
Relieved of carcass responsibilities, I found a seat in the very last row (the butchering demo certainly wasn’t something I felt I needed to see up close) and buckled up for Adam’s demonstration — what I was sure would be the longest hour-and-a-half of my life.
Adam began with a discussion of the topic of butchering and described the sheep in more detail than I’ve ever heard, and maybe more than I wanted to hear. He talked about properties of the animal’s body that make for the best forms of cooking — why ribs are cooked one way and a loin another. He talked about what contributes to the luxuriousness of meat stocks and how cooks can get that delicious flavor at home. And as he talked, I noticed that he was carefully slicing and sawing his way through the carcass, but the exact procedure that I had initially been so reluctant to see, which was now happening right in front of me, was not scary or repulsive. It was intriguing and informational.
Watching Adam work on the sheep carcass was like watching an artist carefully chisel out a sculpture from stone. He did it with grace and poise. As he found the perfect place to slice the meat, the right separation in the bone to saw through, or the right tendon to snip, he talked about why he did it that way; and throughout the process, he showed respect not only for the meat, but for the animal’s life. I found myself forgetting my preconceived notions and feelings of dread and instead found myself intently focused. No longer did the last row seem like an appropriate seat.
The class went over the hour-and-a-half time frame. By the end of it, Adam had processed the carcass from one unit down to many pieces of meat, ready to be cooked. As he opened the room up to questions, to my surprise, only a small number of individuals raised their hands — Adam’s thoughtful presentation had covered all there was to know about the process. People’s appreciation for his detailed presentation was reflected in the round of applause given at the end of the seminar. I applauded, too.
That day made an impact on me for the better. Although I don’t intend to eat meat any time soon, I have a new-found respect for those taking the time to teach others about the right way to process meat for consumption. I saw that butchering, when done correctly, truly is an art form. I hope people everywhere get the opportunity to see a demonstration like the one I did. If they do, I believe that they’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of the need to support small-scale meat producers and butchers — and of their vital role in our healthy food system.