Whoa, there! On Prancer, on Dancer…wintertime holiday season has sort of stampeded us here at Nola Studiola, and what we thought were the first few days after Thanksgiving have turned into 8 shopping days left ’til Christmas/Festivus/Stuffmas.
It’s a chilly 40 degrees here in the Crescent City, and at least three undergraduates are sporting Uggs here in the Maple Street Starbucks, where Lost Boy has of late deposited yours truly for ten plus hours of laptop laboring most days, now that my gig at the Writing Lab has abated for the holiday hiatus.
In the second part of my interview with Jamie Smith, I asked her to elaborate on what motivated her to work in the family business; and as it turns out, it’s a great story. If you recall, I interviewed Ms. Smith a whole heck of a while ago.
However, I think the timing is just right for this post, for feeling gratitude for personal vocational journeys–often, they can’t be textbooked or generalized or amassed into some big prescription pad of “What You Are Supposed To Do.”
AB: Why did you pursue the family business?
JS: I started working for my parents when I was in middle school. They needed the help—ours was a typical farm family. I fed the animals when I got home from school, watered everything. Then I got to the age when I wanted to make some money, and working for my parents was the perfect fit. I left high school during the day and drove to work about 40 minutes away, working 40-45 hours a week my junior and senior year, and I balanced a full class schedule.
I paid for my own schooling this way, and when it was time to go to college, I went to Akron, about two hours away, and majored in finance. I had a passion for numbers and helping people save for retirement. I had a full course load, was working an internship in Akron, and also still working for my parents at Bluescreek Friday through Sunday..
I finally reached a cracking point. The stress of everything finally hit and I realized I didn’t want to pursue work in finance. It wasn’t enough interaction with people, and I loved interacting with the customers at my parents’ business.
So, I left college in my senior year—
AB: That’s pretty badass.
JS: Half my family was supportive; half were not. My parents were so emotionally and mentally supportive. I couldn’t have asked for better parents.. They always made it clear that they didn’t need me to take over the business; this wasn’t their “plan” for me. They supported my decision to leave when I decided finance wasn’t for me.
I spent the next 2.5 years traveling, trying to find my “plan.”
AB: That’s usually how reactions break down with really ballsy decisions, right? Half of the people around you are very supportive; the other half are adamantly opposed. Where did you go? And what were some highlights?
JS: I went on a road trip across the country. I feel everyone should definitely visit the Grand Canyon. I think I spent eight hours there on my own just looking at everything. I also really loved Seattle. I loved the state of Washington, the west coast. I spent a week–my longest stay, in one spot on the coast of California.
I feel everyone should go on a road trip on their own, and every one should go on a road trip with a friend. When you’re alone, you experience so much more—you have time to think about what you want, what you are noticing, and you meet new people every day.
AB: I once heard the biggest test of a relationship is to be in the same vehicle on a long road trip.
JS: I believe that.
AB: Probably holds true with oneself, too.
JS: Yes. I agree. You know, my friends asked me what music I listened to all that time on the road. I only listened to music 1/10th of the time.
It was nice to have complete silence. I mean, the state of Texas continues for a while, and I didn’t need noise for that.
That was just a small chunk of my adventures. I went to Greece a few times. I taught for 3 months on an island. I’ve been to France, England, Austria, Italy, Ireland, Germany–and a few other places I can’t think of at the moment. Greece, hands down, had my preferred food.
AB: Is there a stand-out meat dish?
JS: Yes. Moussaka. It’s my kryptonite. But seriously, I miss the food in Greece so much. They are so good at using herbs in their cooking. Dill, oregano…I consumed more olive oil in my five months there than I had in my entire existence before that.
I’d reached a point when I was ready to settle down a little bit and for me, that meant not traveling 3-6 months out of a year. Before I left on my travels, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in Ohio. And afterwards, I missed Ohio, I missed working with my parents in their business. Part of it was that on my travels, it was hard to find food. I try not to eat fast food and I seek out all natural food. I went to different butcher shops while I was traveling–maybe 4-5 markets across the U.S.– and none of them came close to what we have in terms of beef. Looking at our meat case, what we’re doing, I should be able to find hundreds more butcher shops that are doing similarly great things with how they are raising and preparing their meat. And I just didn’t find that.
I want to tell my kids we have a good business. We are providing food for people raised properly; we raise a quality product that everyone should have access to. It’s really sad to me that it’s not more accessible in the United States.
AB: This says a lot about why you expanded to include educational services.
JS: My parents toured a slaughterhouse and butchering facility in England, and the way we are doing things at Bluescreek is closer to what they’re doing in Europe—the butcher shops and the processing is on a smaller scale.
AB: Despite your hyper-local focus, you are still attracting people like me who live nowhere near you—there’s something very global in your reach, as you are putting all this effort into understanding your customers and trying to educate consumers about what you do and how to learn the craft of meat cutting.
JS: Yes. We definitely find that. As we focus on the individual, we are increasing our reach.
We see chefs and other cooking school grads who weren’t taught basic meat cuts.
AB: Yeah! I’ve found that when I started asking around about butchery education. Once I wanted to gain a better understanding about where my food comes from, I wanted to understand the body of the animals I’m eating, too. My chef friends often tell me that they really didn’t get much meat cutting training in culinary school.
JS: A lot of chefs are starting to be more conscious about working with meat. We deal with a dozen local chefs. Several of them do weekly specials and some of them, they get a couple of their main staples from us. We have a cap on our quantity. Some of the chefs are starting to see—in Columbus anyways—there’s a demand for locally raised and produced foods, and when they put it on the menus, it makes a difference.
There are plenty of our customers who go to those restaurants because they use our stuff. Plenty of people tell us they don’t eat out much, but they see the restaurants who use our meat and so they go out and try that restaurant.
AB: In New Orleans, I’ve noticed there’s been an influx of outside talent and funding and one cause is the issue of food deserts and grassroots efforts to supplement the chain grocery stores that don’t respond to the health needs of the region. There are organizations like Good Eggs that deliver locally produced goods to consumers. I’m looking for something here in New Orleans that bridges that gap in consumer education about food and meat in particular.
JS: You’re not alone. A lot of people have come to us the past 3-4 years. We’ve seen an increase in people who want to learn—most don’t want a career change, they see it as an artistic and important part of their day to day lives. It’s not a skill like gardening. Breaking down a round or a chuck is more demanding in terms of what you need to know.
AB: I started this blog to build community, and because processes differ from artist to artist, and engaging in food preparation requires a different process. This is what inspired me to turn to people in your field—it’s a different world of art, and it’s hands-on. I think there’s something useful in people of my type of art talking to people of your art.
JS: Yes. Have you read the blog Fishmonger vs. Butcher?
AB: Yes! I went by there a few times.
JS: He does a great job of creating that visual connection most people need when they are trying to learn about where the different cuts of meat come from. Its one thing to see a cut of meat on its own, and it’s something completely different to see it still in the primal. But to have the step by step visual break down of the primal (along with words that explain what’s going on) is amazing. He does a fantastic job of taking what we teach in our classes and putting it, piece by piece, on his blog. Ultimately Tim is sharing a chunk of what we teach in our classes for free on his blog. We think it’s fantastic! The more educated people are the better choices they have the potential to make at the meat counter. Everyone should have the basic knowledge to ask the right questions at their butcher shop (no matter if it’s in Columbus or Atlanta).
The gap of misinformation with our food here in the United States is astonishing. If we can educate people on the basics about the different cuts of meat they can use we have the potential to inspire people to search for those different or unique cuts. What Tim is doing is creating a door. He is helping that demand for unique or special cuts of meat expand. The best part is that most of the larger grocery stores don’t tend to carry these unique cuts, like Brazilian Picanha, Asian Ribs (thinly sliced beef short ribs or flanken ribs – cut from the plate), Bone in Filet, or even Flanken Ribs. Or maybe someone in Texas will go to a butcher shop looking for Pork Columbus Ribs (Tim’s very own cut). It’s creating a demand for smaller, more specialty butcher shops that are trying to get the most out of every muscle.
AB: That’s awesome.
JS: To ring in the New Year I challenge everyone to learn something new! Completely new! It doesn’t have to be about meat, but I think you would definitely enjoy it if you did. Take a class on bee keeping, attend a seminar about improving your communication, educate yourself about some aspect of your food system that’s completely foreign, or volunteer at a community garden or retirement facility.
My point is we take the simple things for granted.
The things we see every day, the people we talk to, and the food we put in your bodies. That little education could spark something magnificent inside you; a fire that could eventually propel your life into another realm of understanding.
AB: Thank you, Jamie, for your visit at the Studiola, for your time, and for your work at Bluescreek Farm Meats. I hope to meet you one day!