THE BUTCHER AND I
So yes! I'm a meat eater. Although, I was not a natural born meat eater. When I was a child meat actually grossed me out a little. I remember many dinners when I was left at the table to eat a cold piece of meat until I cleaned my plate which sometimes took well over an hour. It was agony as I took a bite, swallowed and then had to mentally prepare myself for the next bite and subsequent bites until my plate was clean. I was born in the 1960's and my grandparents and mothers generation believed you needed to eat meat for a balanced diet. Nowadays we have a lot more research available for us to read and we know a balanced diet is more about a balance of the food pyramid. So the meat our parents and grandparents insisted we consume was more about the balance of proteins in our daily diets.
The question I often ask myself is when did my disgust of meat turn? I somehow went from a natural born vegetarian to a trained carnivore. Not only do I love a good bone-in rib eye or T-bone steak but I also want it RED. Yes, med-rare is the perfect temperature I like for my beef and pork. Don't worry it's safe now for pork to be just a tad pink. Just a tad. Chicken and fish I prefer cooked to a medium temperature and no pink whatsoever. But whatever the temperature, I now love my meat! I love fish, chicken, beef and lamb. Every now and then I make a conscious effort to limit my meat consumption and revisit my natural born vegetarianism but eventually my love and desire for a good steak or burger takes over and I'm back to my carnivorous ways. How did that happen? I have no idea. Maybe it had something to do with my growing curiosity and fascination with the local butchers.
In Chicago there was a food market called Treasury Island (TI). I remember my first visit to this market in the 1970's and browsing the different stalls of olives, breads, cheeses and meat. The meat display was fascinating. Until this visit I'd only seen sad pieces of meat laid out on white styrofoam cartons and wrapped in plastic. No flair! No style! No nothing! But at TI large pieces of meat hung on hooks from the ceiling. Steaks and chops were decorated with sprigs of rosemary, thyme and garlic cloves. Ground pork shaped into little piglets and decorated with tomatoes. As my eyes took in all the different displays and cuts of meat my mouth watered. WOW!!! I never knew meat could look so appealing and decorated. Then to top it off...when you purchased your selection the butcher then hand packaged each individual piece of meat in sturdy white paper and wrapped with string and a bow. It all felt so special. Much more exciting than the sad little displays the supermarket was offering. Maybe all this time it wasn't the meat I found disgusting. Maybe, just maybe it was the lack of style and pitiful packaging I found revolting. Maybe, just maybe, I wasn't a born vegetarian, but instead a born packaging snob.
When I moved on my own and had to fend for myself I always tried to shop at the local butchers. I loved walking into the local butcher shop in my neighborhood in Chicago, saying hello, having an actual conversation about food, dinner and taking them up on their suggestions and cooking tips. But as time passed finding a local butcher became more difficult. As the neighborhood mom and pops began closing and taken over by the big box stores, so did the days of going to the local butcher that not only knew your name but also your cut of meat. Gone was the place you could go and not only give your list for daily dinners, but they would also put together for you a package of hand picked cuts of meat for that dinner party you planned. An end to an era of shopping and sourcing locally. An end to the beautifully packaged cuts of meat wrapped in string and a return to the sad little packages of meat that are pale under the fluorescent lights.
Fast forward years later little did I know I would reunite a relationship with a local butcher once again. After I moved to London I walked around with my best friend that had already been living in London for several years prior. She wanted to run to the shop to pick up dinner. When I walked into the little shop off the main street I was amazed and awe struck. It was an actual local butcher. A local butcher with amazing cuts of meats, displayed beautifully behind the case and scattered around the store specialty food items and cheeses. It was a foodies paradise. It was then that I learned local butchers still exist all around London and in the UK. When I moved into my new neighborhood they became my new local butcher where they knew my name and I knew their names. They knew I loved a really good T-bone steak and how to cut it to my liking. They even talked me into trying my hand at beef carpaccio. I wanted something special for a dinner party and they suggested beef carpaccio and provided me with the best cut of meat and instructions. And I have to admit it was delicious, my guest loved it and it became a staple for whenever I had friends over.
My appreciation for my local butcher was renewed a couple of weeks ago. Not that I had lost my appreciation, but you know how it is when sometimes you just take things for granted but then you're reminded how special they are and/or make you feel. A couple of weeks ago I had a desire to make pork milanese. You know that kind of desire you can't shake, can't stop thinking about and nothing will satisfy you until you get exactly what you want? Well that was me with the pork milanese. Well due to these unknown times unfortunately I've reduced my grocery spending and reduced the number of times I splurge on certain items including my butcher visits a few times a month. So in an attempt to keep in line with my new grocery spending I decided to try the local supermarket for a cut of pork to make my pork milanese. I could not have been more disappointed and decided only the best will do! So I headed to my local butcher.
I walked in and browsed the case of all the lovely cuts of meats and marinated chops, I didn't see any pork chops. The gentleman behind the counter smiled and we exchanged hellos and how do you do's. He's helped me many times before and very lovely. Matter of fact they are all lovely and friendly. I told him I didn't see any chops and planned to make pork milanese. He stated no problem I needed a cut of pork butt or something. Next thing I know he goes into the swinging doors and disappears. Then he comes back through the swinging doors with this huge piece of meat over his shoulder. I'm thinking to myself, "I hope he knows I only need enough for dinner for one." I stood in awe watching as he began using his butcher skills to cut from this huge piece of meat two pork tenderloins. The buzz in the butcher shop as the others prepared meats and packages for other patrons was exciting. Maybe this is something only a foodie can understand. While we discussed if the size was good and to my liking he offered to pound my tenderloins to flatten for the milanese. I said, "Perfect!!! I thought I was going to have to do it myself, and since I have no hammer and I didn't know if a can would work." After he pounded the tenderloins he presented them to me and said, "You shouldn't need them pounded out more, but if you want you can do whatever you were talking about with the can." We both laughed. I went home and for dinner cooked myself a perfect pork milanese.
Sometimes it's the little things in life that brings us the most pleasure. Even the purchase of a piece of meat and banter with the butcher can bring laughter into your life and make you smile. The minute I walked out of my local butcher, The Parson's Nose, I recognized how that moment made us both smile and I realized that was an interaction you just can't get in the grocery aisle. Finding and supporting your local butcher, or mom and pop, isn't just about locally sourced meat, grass fed and no GMO's, it's also about building relationships in your communities. Going to a place they know your name and you know theirs. That connection with people. The social interaction and the exchange of "how do you do's?" and smiles. It's a connection that maybe until recently we took for granted or just didn't bother developing. But after having to spend time with limited to no interaction with people, I realized something as simple as buying a piece of meat can have an affect. Social interaction teaches us, broadens us and enlightens us. Social interaction can even change who you thought you were and are! My exchanges with local butchers in various neighborhoods changed this born vegetarian into a meat lover and eater. All their talks about herbs, marinades, cuts of meat, pairings and cooking tips cultivated a girl that wasn't much of a cook to a born again cook!