Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Have you hugged you butcher today?

I spent 11 hours at the processor today. We always help out when our cows are being processed; that way we can make sure that the guys there understand exactly what every customer wants, and yes, it can differ quite a lot.

Butchering is an artisan craft, just like cheese-making or tailoring. Like fine cheese and clothing, we have all been given industrial substitutes for so long that most of us don't even remember the true craft they were supposed to emulate.

Our farm has all of our steaks hand cut, and our roasts are hand de-boned. It takes about twice as long as what I call "Cajun Cut" where all of the cutting is done by machines and the steaks and roasts are left bone in. And it takes exponentially longer than it takes Tyson to process the beef you buy at the grocery store. Butchers are highly skilled craftspeople, and labor is expensive. You'll pay more for a hand cut steak then you will for a machine cut one. If you live in a rural enough area, though, you might be surprised at how much more it isn't.

If there is a locally owned slaughterhouse in your area that sells to the public, it is well worth checking out. In addition to hand cut meat, they often offer local specialties. Ours sells smoked pork sausage, cracklins (fried pork skins), stuffed de-boned chickens, and frozen vegetables, to name a few. And the prices are quite reasonable - if you are not looking for premium hand cut beef, they offer 30-50 pound packages that I think are less expensive than equivalent meat at Wal-mart (I admit I have not seriously priced them all and done the math, this is just an estimate off remembered prices). So, for the same price, or even a little less than you might pay at your local grocery store, you can support a local artisan craftsman. I also have to say that, if you are truely frugal, our butchers will let you take all the bones and discarded fat you like for free. So you can make your own stock, your own cooking fat, or your own soap, at very low cost, just for the asking. Thet don't mind, since they pay people to haul it away anyway.

Government regulations make it prohibitively expensive to open new slaughterhouses that sell to the public, so these guys are a dying breed. Unless we seriously change the way we produce food in this country, when the guys running these places now (who are in their forties, at the youngest) retire, you won't have the option of hand cut steaks anymore, unless you learn to do it yourself. So you should try it now while you still can.

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