Berlin Reed used to be a self-proclaimed "militant" vegan. But after a series of off-restaurant jobs left him working behind a sustainably run butchery counter in Brooklyn, N.Y., he changed his mind. "There was pretty much no argument against it. I knew exactly where the animals came from and how they lived. So I took a nice bite of rib eye at work and was like, 'I'm sold.'"
Fast forward a year—Reed has taught himself how to break down animals, moved to Portland and become a spokesman for the converted. He credits his old dietary choices with his current activism. "I'm doing more now than I ever was before, to ensure that these animals are being raised right, and that the meat's coming from a good place, than I did in the last 14 years participating in veganism."
His potentially most lucrative project to date is taste-based. Through what he calls "The Bacon Gospel," Reed takes public input to develop insane flavors of bacon—like Jasmine tea and lemon or Armagnac and maple syrup. The project was highly successful in New York, and he hopes to debut it at Portland farmers markets next season.
Camas Davis, the former food editor of Portland Monthly, took an entirely different path to the cleaver. After being laid off last January, she traveled to France to learn the craft. Upon her return to Portland, she decided she needed to do more with her new skill than just cut up large animals. Even in the best butcher shops in Portland, the purveyors "still don't have access to a lot of parts of the animals, and are paying a lot of money and charging a lot of money for the meat." The best way to reduce this cost? Buy in bulk from farmers and share with your friends.
U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations require that meat raised in Oregon and sold retail must be shipped to, slaughtered at and processed in one of Oregon's 13 USDA-certified facilities. According to the custom-exempt law, however, farmers can avoid this process by selling live animals to consumers through Community Supported Agriculture meat programs. The farmer may then butcher and process onsite, reducing the cost of meat and guaranteeing sustainability.
Right now, though, animal farmers and consumers are spread out and disconnected. Davis wants to connect them. She is forming the Portland Meat Collective "to be a liaison for both the ranchers who don't have time to find consumers and for the consumers who don't have time to do the research to find out who the best ranchers are." But the PMC will do more than just provide customers better meat.
Members will also be able to take a knife to their new purchase at butchery classes. "It will make the process of buying a quarter or a half pig a whole lot easier for people," Davis says. Further, she believes "the more people who understand that their meat comes from an animal and are comfortable with that and are part of the process, the better the product is going to be in the end."
As part of her education outreach, Davis is co-producing Livestock, a culinary and literary arts event running tonight and next Wednesday. The evening will include butchery demonstrations, meat-centric readings by local writers and plenty to eat. "The idea about Livestock is really about confronting people's fears and concerns about meat—what it looks like, where it comes from, how it's processed," she says.
Davis, however, isn't entirely altruistic. "I got into butchery because it made me feel tough. I won't deny that I feel like hot shit because I can cut up a pig. It feels great."
However, neither Davis nor Reed are full-fledged carnivores. "I rarely buy meat anymore because I think there's just not much good product you can buy," says Davis. Reed agrees. "I don't think by any means that people should eat meat as much as most Americans do. If we could just back off of having meat at every meal, we wouldn't need so much."
Even if we're not eating meat every day, we should still learn some more knife skills, says Reed. "People would do well to learn what Grandma knew. Grandma knew how to cut a chicken up."
Visit ethicalbutcher.blogspot.com for more info on Berlin Reed and the Bacon Gospel.
RETHINK BUTCHERY: Attend Livestock 6-8 pm tonight and Nov. 11 at the Culinary School at the Art Institute. Call 827-6564 for reservations. $25 each night. Portland Meat Collective info at ladebrouillard.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.