For centuries, men of meat, butchers, have brought animals from their pens all the way to the plate. They stunned or shot the animal before cutting its throat and allowing the blood to drain. After the hide was removed or the hair shaved, the animal would be eviscerated, the organs set aside, and the carcass hung in a cooler. Once it was properly aged, the carcass was broken down into “primals,” or anatomically specific pieces of muscle and bone. The butcher used his knife and hook to follow along the natural seams and a handsaw to hack through skeleton, paring gristle before fabricating steaks, medallions, roasts, chops, kabobs, stew, ribs and cutlets. Scraps were ground into burger or seasoned for sausage. Large shanks were hacked up for soup stock, and jowls, hams, shoulders and bellies were reserved for curing and smoking. Fat found itself used in lard or suet. The knowledge of cooking times, temperatures and flavor was also considered part of the territory.
Yesterday’s meat rooms contained entire carcasses to be carved up by the in-house butcher; today, truckloads of hanging meat are shipped to places like the “meat market” (Bostonian meat-speak for the conglomerate of beef, pork, lamb, and veal wholesalers in Newmarket Square and New Boston Food Market). Those outfits process the carcasses into food-wares: top rounds, hotel racks, strip loins, #109 ribs, briskets, and so forth. Retail cutters at Whole Foods, Shaw’s, or one of the few-remaining small independent stores, then receive the pieces vacuum-sealed, boxed, and minimally trimmed, ready to be knife-sliced or sawed into portions. Cutting and merchandising meat that sells requires expertise even at the retail level, but fewer and fewer of today’s retail butchers can transform whole animals into gastronomic works of art — a boned and rolled loin of venison; a “steamship” (round of beef with shank frenched) as a derivative of the hindquarter; or a whole pig eviscerated and mounted on a spit, its body cavity stuffed with vegetables and sewn shut. Nowadays, meat cutters are too often trained to do little more than open a box, and many have never even laid eyes upon a whole carcass.
My entry into the meat business occurred quite by accident. In search
of a job, I applied to a natural foods market and was hired as a meat
clerk. As I packed chicken and waited on customers, my attention often
wandered to the three benches behind the counter. Experienced butchers
turned unshapely hunks of fat and tissue into the enticing pieces of
meat that adorned the service case. I detected something organic and
agreeable about sweating over a biological mass until it became
nourishment — an aged porterhouse ready for the grill or a boneless
pork butt to be simmered for hours. As I washed the floor at night, I
would frequently wander into the cooler with a knife, grabbing one of
the hunks and attempting to imitate the swift but careful motions I
observed during the day. Within months I had begun my meat-cutting
apprenticeship under a large, smiling man named Ronnie. He taught me
how to hold a knife, how to use a band saw, how to keep an immaculately
clean bench and how to properly prepare and cook each cut.
After a lengthy apprenticeship and a year at another store I went “on the road” with Stop & Shop. Every day I trekked to Holbrook, Abington, Somerville, Weymouth or Hyde Park and shipped to any location within the company as needed. Each necessitated that its meat case be cut to the proclivities of its clientele, and I witnessed literally dozens of variations on how to prepare any one piece of meat.
One hot July day I worked in Quincy. The sale on bone-in chuck steaks and roasts — what you’ll see as “7-bone” in many supermarkets because a cross-section of the paddle-shaped scapula bone looks like the number — had whipped the store into a flurry of activity. With the meat at a dirt-cheap 99 cents a pound, even five meat cutters struggled to meet the customer’s demand. Edgy patrons crowded the meat room door, barking in their South Shore patois and readying themselves to pounce on the next cart of meat to be wheeled out. I furiously cut, trimmed and dusted.
A spirited discussion amongst two of the old-timers ensued over their earlier years in the meat business. One recollected being snowed in at the Roslindale store for three days during the blizzard of ’78 with six other butchers and working tirelessly all seventy-two hours, prepping for the post-storm rush by going through an entire trailer of beef and, for sustenance, two cases of whiskey. Another recalled a foreman who antagonized his workers and tried to avoid paying them; after a power outage, he was found cowering under a desk — taking advantage of the dark, a group of butchers armed with their knives had chased him into hiding.
No doubt, the dimensions of their tales bespoke the sort of exaggerated machismo that ripens with time — kind of like how your grandfather used to walk five miles uphill to school and five miles uphill home, but those were the trade’s halcyon days, they insisted, and they belonged to Boston’s meat legends. Those butchers labored with unmatched precision and speed, withstanding the bone-chilling temperatures of the cooler for hours by stashing a brandy flask in the rear cavity of a lamb. They made it their duty to see that as much meat moved from those carcasses to a shopping cart as possible, each ounce of product was flawless. If work ended too late, they’d sleep in their cars and stumble back inside the next morning. A legend never, ever slipped up and cut himself. He was a master of his craft.
What should I do if I want to be like that? I asked.
Go to the meat market and get a job, they told me.
So I ventured down to Newmarket Square, returning home without a job five times before being hired at a beef-packing company. The paltry salary I was offered meant that I’d need to keep my supermarket job, at least part-time. The cutters, some as old as 73, broke down forequarters and hindquarters with astounding old-school precision. They transformed the carcasses into the pieces I would receive at the grocery store. When the foreman observed a cutter pausing to offer me advice on boning a neck, I ended up being thrown off the bench for encumbering production.
“Alright kid, school’s over,” the brusque, mustachioed guy barked. “Get off the fuckin’ bench and go load the box truck.” When the bell signaled the end of the workday, I walked out the door and never returned.
Determined to hone my skills, I found a job at a small slaughterhouse over the border in New Hampshire. Producers from across the Northeast dropped animals off oinking and mooing in caravan-sized trailers and retrieved them in packages ready for the farm stand. As one of the three meat cutters, I worked on the processing side of the operation. We opened the cooler door every day to a crowded room full of hanging meat: matched beef and veal sides, pigs both whole and split, a rail or two of lambs and goats, wild game brought in by hunters, emu legs…
For months I worked harder than I ever had in my life. Fascinated by how difficult and intricate the job I’d always wanted to do actually was. The farmer would provide a “cut sheet” when they dropped off their animal, and it was our job to customize the carcass to the retail portions they had specified. I learned by watching the owner, a third-generation butcher, rip apart meat on the rail with an intensity that didn’t even seem conceivable. A USDA inspector carefully scrutinized every motion to ensure compliance with food safety rules and regulations. Every Tuesday was “Pig Day,” when we’d whack up the 25 to 30 pigs slaughtered on Monday in assembly-line fashion — one guy breaking the pigs and cutting on the saw, another skinning loins and tossing them back to the saw to be cut into chops, and a third doing nothing but boning the laborious heads, shoulders and off-cuts (the “bitch table”). Twice a year (Easter and Greek Easter), the cutters went to the kill floor to help slaughter, gut and skin the hundreds of spring lambs that customers requested whole so they could be trussed and spit-roasted.
Within a year I had gone from the bitch table on Pig Day to being the processing foreman. Now I could bust up a side of beef as fast as (or faster than) anyone else. I was lecturing on meat around Boston and at universities. I had also started my own business on the side procuring and processing dressed carcasses for markets in the city. My best customer was Lionette’s in the South End, to whom I sold a weekly lamb and made fruit and anise sausages with the trim.
Then a band saw injury that nearly amputated my finger pushed me away from the slaughterhouse. I trolled around the meat market yet again looking for any employment, even offering to load box trucks. Supermarkets weren’t hiring. I sat at home for weeks, my hand stitched and bandaged and unable to grasp a knife, missing the meat room.
Today I’m at Concord Prime and Fish, a new store in the center of Concord, Massachusetts. In our country’s withered economic state I’m lucky that Michael, the owner and a lifelong fish guy, tagged me to head his meat program. I’m dead set on sourcing clean, farm-raised New England meat. I’ve also found a new frontier for the most elevated form of meat cutting — South America. Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, I’m able to swap secrets of the trade with guys from Argentina and Brazil who demonstrate some of the best knife skills I’ve ever seen.
Meat bears a transformative characteristic that a strawberry, an ear of corn or any other agricultural by-product cannot lay claim to. It begins alive and ends up as something completely different in its finished form — like a block of marble requiring only specific subtractions.
Adam Tiberio is the butcher at Concord Prime & Fish in addition to operating Adam Tiberio Custom Meatcutting. Watch his series on cutting and cooking beef and lamb by going to www.youtube.com and typing "The Hungry Butcher." Adam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.