A Cut Above
The Modern Butcher Shop
by Genevieve Rajewski
At Fairway Beef, the last standing original meat house in Worcester, customers turn up their coat collars and shove their hands in their pockets when they enter. The store is completely refrigerated. Milk sits right next to cereal boxes on the shelves, and salad dressings and olive oils temporarily congeal from the cold.
Although the butcher shop—which sees 2,000 to 3,000 customers pass through its doors each week—seems decidedly oldschool, it has changed dramatically over the last several decades, as have all local butcher shops.
“Years ago, the meat used to come in by rail cars from the Midwest,” recalls owner George Sigel, 75, who mans the counter six days a week at the shop his father opened in 1945. “It was exposed to the elements—dirt, rain and snow—and had to be rinsed clean when it came into the shop.”
When Sigel first starting working at Fairway Beef as a teenager, meat arrived at as whole carcasses, sides (carcasses halved lengthwise) and 150-pound quarters for processing. A rail suspended from the ceiling ran the length of a room in the back of the sprawling red-and-white metal building. As the meat hung from this rail, the shop’s butchers would saw through bone, fat and sinew to divide the pieces into “primal cuts”—smaller sections such as the brisket, chuck, rib, plate, short loin, flank, sirloin and round for beef and the leg, belly, loin, Boston butt and picnic shoulder for pork. Sawdust sopped up the fat and blood that dripped to the floor, which was pitched to a sewer drain and hosed down nightly.
About 20 years ago, Sigel says, things started to change.
“The government came in one day and said, ‘No more sawdust on the floor,’” says Sigel. “We fought it at first, because we feared men would slip and cut themselves on the buzz saw.”
Then, “little by little, the meat started coming by box,” Sigel recalls.
Today, the rail and sawdust are gone from the back room at Fairway Beef. Now, every morning, trucks back up to the room, where staff unload pallets from some of the nation’s largest meatpacking companies.
“Everything is in separate boxes, and each box is full of the same cut,” says Sigel, pointing to a stack of boxes full of shrink wrapped beef short loin. “One box will be all ribs. Another box will be all tenderloins. All the meat comes wrapped in Cryovac bags, and you only open it up when you’re ready to use it.”
“Boxed beef ” (and similarly distributed pork and lamb) is the norm at nearly every retail shop selling meat these days—from the deepest-discount supermarkets to the highest-end specialty food shops. Most meatpacking companies will break an animal into any cut, including case-ready products, explains Michael Dulock, managing partner of Concord Prime & Fish. This means a butcher, if so inclined, can buy a steak from a packing house, open the package and just put it out for sale as is.
Butcher shops’ reliance on the modern meatpacking system has made it difficult for consumers to find grass-fed, local or humanely raised meat for purchase at a retail store.
At Concord Prime & Fish, the meat on sale is prime (arriving via box from the Midwest), local or grass-fed (which may be local or boxed). “I understand that it’s better for cows to eat grass and [for consumers] to support local farmers,” says Dulock. “But if I don’t sell those really sexy prime steaks, I would lose my soapbox to promote those products.”
“I work pretty closely with Rick Adams of Adams Family Farm in Athol. I have him source animals from western Massachusetts and then finish them on his property. I butcher the animal whole here,” continues Dulock. “I don’t know of any other local shops that cut whole animals, other than a few halal shops and ethnic food markets. It’s not as lucrative a business as one would think.”
Dulock breaks down two to three local cows a month and at least one lamb a week in the back of his elegantly minimalist shop. He has difficulty getting local pork, which he says is usually just too lean to be a quality product.
But finding all types of local meat can be challenging.
“I can’t establish one-and-done relationships. I need farmers who can produce an animal a month, and most can’t,” says Dulock. “I’ve actually looked into maintaining my own herd and trying to find people who would let me rotate my cows through their land in return for haying their fields.”
Jahangir Kabir—who owns the halal food market Well Foods Plus in Somerville’s Union Square with his wife, Rokeya—also works with Adams Family Farm to bring in whole animals and beef quarters for butchering on-site. Animals raised throughout the Northeast are purchased at auction and then slaughtered in Athol.
Although from the street the international shop hardly seems a place you’d expect to find a thriving locavore economy, Well Foods’ customers continually wind their way past canned goods and sacks of basmati rice to a meat counter hidden in the back.
“We sell more than 25 whole goats a week,” says Kabir, and the shop also goes through about six cows a month.
Savenor’s sources some of its meat from Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England, according to General Manager Juliana Kolson Lyman.
But it’s tough.
“The hardest thing is sourcing prime meat,” she says. “With prime, an animal has to age longer to develop more of what I like to call ‘lusciousness’—or fat within the muscle. It’s hard for a farmer to do that, as it’s the antithesis of making money. Raising an animal to prime means more feeding, more caring and more waiting. We try to bring in humanely raised prime; sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don’t.”
As for the actual consumer demand for local meat?
“I think people inquire more about local meat than walk out with it,” says Lyman. “People want to know that we carry it, but there can be sticker shock.”
To cover the costs associated with raising and slaughtering an animal, Dulock notes that local farmers often need to charge a price for hanging weight (the total weight of a carcass right off the slaughter line) that’s higher than what most meat shops could sell the finished cuts for.
“I can’t pay a farmer $4 to $4.50 a pound for hanging weight,” says Dulock. “A brick-and-mortar business carries enormous expenses, and I cannot count on getting the $8 a pound for ground beef seen at a farmers’ market. In retail, if you can get $6 a pound for ground beef, you are lucky.”
“So the prices on my USDA prime and local cuts end up being pretty comparable,” he says.
For customers seeking a better price proposition, Concord Prime & Fish sells whole and animal sections.
“If you buy a beef hindquarter, for example, you get top round, bottom round, top sirloin, sirloin tip, strip steak, tenderloin, cross-cut beef shank, plus some ground beef, tri-tip and stew meat,” says Dulock. “So if you pay $4 a pound for hanging weight, [after butchering] that works out to $6.67 a pound for your meat—that’s for ground beef but for tenderloin, too.”
“The only other places I know offering this service are the slaughterhouses themselves,” he says, or if you buy directly from the farms.
A journeyman butcher who studied at the Culinary Institute of America before cutting meat at Market Basket in Somerville and going on to become the head butcher at Savenor’s, Vadim Akimenko hopes to soon also help bridge that gap between city dwellers and local farmers. Akimenko is trying to secure enough funding to open Akimenko Meats, a new butcher shop in Cambridge’s Inman Square. His plan is to bring in whole animals, including some heritage breeds, sourced from within 250 miles of Boston to break down in full view of his customers. When butcher shops like Concord Prime & Fish,Well Foods Plus and Akimenko Meats butcher whole animals, the advantage to consumers is a far wider selection of cuts, particularly hard-tofind offal, shanks, heads and neck meat. At Well Foods, for example, a recent Saturday scouting trip turned up cow feet and stomachs; goat heads, feet and livers; and a full array of bone-in and boneless cuts from both animals.
The downside is that there are far fewer of the most popular cuts.
“There’s only one hanger steak on an animal that is split in two, so when it is sold, we won’t have more until we get a new cow in,” says Akimenko.
Just as how an animal was bred, raised and slaughtered plays a huge part in how it tastes, so too do does the skill a meat cutter brings to the table. If he or she can’t cut straight, the meat won’t cook evenly, notes Akimenko. Meanwhile, if a whole muscle cut, such as a shoulder or chuck, gets hacked up, it won’t hold together during braising and some parts will overcook. (You want a braised meat to fall apart only when you put a knife to it, he says.)
“I can’t stand it when someone cuts the fat out of a rib eye,” Akimenko laments. “When it cooks, it steams in the cut part.” Lyman says she often sees poorly cut lamb for sale. “If a cutter leaves the fell on, that gives lamb a very off-putting, pungent taste.”
Even ground burger tastes better when produced by a skillful butcher. Large industrial grinders have the capability to process larger portions of meat, sinew and cartilage, says Dulock. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean that these parts go into all commercially ground beef, every once in a while you may find some in a burger. But that’s due to more to the integrity of the company grinding the meat than the size of the grinder, says Dulock. “Small batches, closer attention to detail and a better raw material will produce a better end result,” he says.
To stay in business, local butcher shops have pursued divergent paths to profitability—to the point where they often no longer resemble the shops of the past, nor each other.
Some have chosen to offer convenience foods and value-added products. Savenor’s, for example, does a steady trade in marinated meats, including a grill-ready pepper steak.
Although Fairway Beef sees strong demand for its gray corned beef, which is brined year-round in large vats on-site, its strongest product comes from selling “the sizzle.” By creating a story for his “honeymoon steaks”—a tip steak cut in no particular shape or size—Sigel has come to move more of these than any other piece of meat.
“When people come to your house, you want to serve them all the same size steak in a uniform cut,” says Sigel sly. “But when two people are in love, it doesn’t matter what the steak looks like. This is the most juicy, tender piece of meat you’d ever want…but it’s not for company.”
Like many butcher shops, Fairway Beef also has survived in part by carrying produce and pantry items in addition to meat.
“We even have 99-cent deal items,” he says, gesturing to an end cap display of lipstick and lip liner combo packs. “If you can buy a ham in the drugstore now, why can’t I carry drugstore items?”
For both financial sustainability and a respectful use of each animal, Akimenko is striving to have no more than 7% waste with any carcass. It’s an astoundingly small amount, but Akimenko plans to sell house-made charcuteries and stocks to creatively make use of the whole animal.
The primary quality the diverse butcher shops seem to share is a personal connection with their customers.
“We’ve made it our business to make friends with our customers, to know many mouths they have to feed at home,” says Dulock. “If they say they want steak tips, I want to be able to ask, ‘Is it just the three of you tonight?” A local store should know each customer’s preferences and a little bit about their history.”
Lost in translation
Making sense of how a retail meat label relates to the animal it came from can be tricky—particularly without the help of a butcher. Here’s a quick guide for navigating some of the more common terms.
All-natural or natural
This is misleading: All fresh meat qualifies as “natural,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (“I can buy factory-farmed commodity pork with an all-natural label,” notes Michael Dulock, managing partner of Concord Prime & Fish, “and there is pretty much nothing natural about that product.”) For this label, meat need only be free of artificial ingredients and added colors and be minimally processed. It may be still contain antibiotics or growth hormones; if you are concerned about those additives, look for a label that reads, “no hormones added” on beef and lamb (hormones aren’t allowed in pork or poultry) and “no antibiotics added” on meat and poultry.
Meat sold under the USDA’s National Organic Program must be from animals that were raised free of antibiotics and growth hormones and never fed animal byproducts. (However, veteran butcher Vadim Akimenko notes that some local farms meet or exceed the organic standards but cannot afford to pay for the certification.)
Meat labeled as “grass-fed” under the USDA’s National Organic Program means that, once weaned, ruminant animals (cows, sheep and goats) only ate grass and forage during their lifetime. Animals cannot have been fed grain or grain byproducts and must have had continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
This term sounds closest to what many consumers may want for their meat animals, but there is currently no formal standard for meat labeled as pasture-raised. Talk to your butcher if you want to know if the meat you are buying came from animals that grazed freely outdoors on grass—which is likely only the case if he or she has made a considerable effort to source such products.
While USDA inspection is mandatory for all meat, grading is voluntary. A processing plant may choose to pay to have its meat graded; the two USDA slaughterhouses in Massachusetts and the one in New Hampshire do not have their meat graded.
Prime meat has more marbling (white flecks of fat within the meat muscle), so it is the most tender, flavorful and juicy grade; only about 2%of graded beef qualifies as prime. Other USDA-graded meat sold at the retail level includes choice, select and good (for lamb). Retail stores may use other terms, but these must be different from the USDA grades.
A local animal could possibly grade as prime, notes Dulock, but it is unlikely unless the animal was consuming copious amounts of grain. He says that since most of the local animals he sources are pasture-raised and grass-fed, they likely wouldn’t even grade as select if they were subject to voluntary inspection.
This meat and poultry is from rare and endangered breeds that typically went out of favor for not being as prolific breeders or not as quick to gain weight as other animals that ultimately became widely raised in commercial agriculture.There are no government standards for this label. Heritage meats help preserve biodiversity, and its proponents argue that it tastes better (think heirloom tomatoes).
Juliana Kolson Lyman
A regular contributor to Edible Boston,Genevieve Rajewski writes about animals, science, food and more as a freelance writer for publications such as Smithsonian, the Boston Globe and Wired.com and as the new editor of Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine. Read more of her work at www.genevieverajewski.com and follow her local food adventures at www.wickedtastyharvest.com.