Butchery: the Missing Link

wild caught trout

Something has been missing here at Nola Studiola. We’ve got almost everything: snarky comments, interviews with courageous writers, a thrilling love story with a broad-chested deep sea diver. What’s missing? Oh, yeah! Food. Understandably, the link to food somehow got lost along the way.

Some curators at Nola Studiola have continued the food thread, and some have not. More avid and recent readers may remember that I’ve mentioned during my year in Denver, attempts to get myself behind either 1) a seafood counter or 2) a butcher’s block. Both were possible when I used my fertile imagination and Starlily’s kitchen. (Pictured to the right is our wild-caught trout, a red meated number, from Tony’s Market in Centennial) But as for full time employment, mostly I received quizzical looks from large men in blood spattered aprons and/or fishy smelling rubber overalls. Yeah, I’m talking about YOU, you well-known grocery chain with fancy third-party sustainability certification. (That was seafood chain of custody nerd talk, which I  memorized in order to wow above mentioned smelly rubber overall men, mission unsuccessful.)

I enrolled in a month-long French fundamentals in cooking class at Cook Street in Denver this past spring, and I mostly got the fantasy of Alison the Chef out of my system. I can brag that six months later, I do actually still use two of the countless fundamentals they attempted to instill: I make a good omelet, and I can blanch an assortment of vegetables with the best of them. My aioli is still a work in progress, much benefited from a mini food processor (hey, Julia Child said if we don’t feel like whisking to death, we can use this appliance to make our aioli. Note: aioli seems to be the backbone of all cooking if you believe established culinary stuff. So, we should all learn to make our own aioli stat.)

Ahem. But I digress.

Unexpected discoveries always gift me when I follow my whimsy. 

Why isn’t meat education a stand-alone program? In a meat-dependent culture as America, why aren’t there butcher schools as prevalent as there are French-inspired culinary schools? And why are the foundations of our most basic cooking fundamentals still regarded as continental European or French? Julie Powell’s success with Julie and Julia and Julia Child’s lasting legacy notwithstanding, we’ve plunged head-first into an artisanal renaissance, where just about anything “hand crafted” sold in a container vaguely resembling a mason jar can garner top dollar. If you are upper middle class and live near a city of at least 40,000, you have the luxury to access fresh ingredients, and so the reliance on old country preservative/flavor masking sauces has waned and the focus on fresh is possible for many Americans. Foodies and foodie-wannabe’s like myself have gone apeshit over process and preparation and the how and why of chains of custody (that’s how food gets to your plate for the purposes of this discussion). There’s slow food movement, and sustainable farming, and cage-free, and buy/eat local. And haven’t the ethnic demographic changes in our country over the the past fifty years infiltrated formal cooking education? We eat far more rib eyes than we do crepes Suzette. At least, I thought we did.

Focus on meat cutting: I found one place, in San Francisco, 4505 Meats, and they’ve been offering a la carte butchery education for the past three years.  I also found Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat, run by one of my chef buddy’s former professors Mark DeNittis, (and hopefully a future visitor here at NS) who taught at Denver’s culinary stand-out school Johnson & Wales.

This is currently the only place that teaches only meat cutting I’ve found devoted to deep community engagement and foodie culture, and if I hadn’t fallen in love and left Denver for more tropical climes, I’d consider DeNittis’ weekend professional butchery program, which is a jointly sponsored certification project with Cook Street.

I am still eating meat, and still wondering where my meat comes from when I sit down to a home cooked meal and when I sit down to a high priced restaurant meal (At the cheap places I am not willing to wonder, lest I lose my appetite).

bluesI found Bluescreek Farm Meats on the internet one night when I sat down to find butchery education outside of a culinary school setting, intrigued by the idea of cutting meat and seafood. I might not be great at making aioli or convincing seafood markets that I’m a good investment along with their filet knives, but I know education, and I know how much work it takes to make education relevant to consumers. I asked my chef friends in Denver about butchers that also teach meat cutting, and after they stopped laughing, they’d admit they received very little butchery in their culinary education, and they did very little cutting in their professional lives. Both chefs and meat consumers want and need to understand our meat. Without getting political about it, meat education feels like the missing link to me when I rub shoulders with foodies and chefs.

belgian blue

The Bluescreek website is chock full of information about their farm, their butcher shop….and their classes. That’s right. They have a full consumer education program as part of their farm and butcher shop. And what’s more, it’s a short drive from my relatives in West Virginia, so I can add their butcher-for-a-day program to my Christmas wish list. I wondered what was behind this singular butcher shop’s impulse to host classes on lamb and beef and hog cutting—cutting classes as well as butcher for a day programs. Why are they doing this, when it seems very few butcher/farm set ups include education?

And so after a few emails back and forth with a willing conversant at Bluescreek, I picked up the digital phone a la Skype, and spoke with a woman named Jamie Smith in Columbus, Ohio, to learn about what –and why her family’s business has invested in the ‘missing link’ of meat consumer education.

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