“Buying Meat at a Butcher Shop” – All photos by Tony Sears
Have you ever thought the meat and poultry section of your grocery store smells a little… off? I have, even at “Whole Paycheck,” where I’m paying a pretty penny for that boneless porkchop! As supermarkets go, I think it’s one of the better ones. At least there are some organic and free range choices. The last time I checked another large chain store near me, their only option for organic beef was a plastic package of pre-formed hamburger patties that expired the week before. Then, voila! I discovered my local butcher shop.
I didn’t even know butcher shops existed anymore. In France, sure, but I’m certain I had never been inside one in the US until just last year. It turns out there are quite a few out there, and they’re trending towards responsibly raised meat. I randomly Googled butcher shops in different parts of the country and found some terrific looking places, a lot of them featuring locally grown product. Now you’re talkin’ my language!
When I walked into the Echo & Rig butcher shop in Las Vegas, I was on the alert. First of all, it’s located under a high-end steakhouse of the same name in an even higher-end shopping center with two Bentleys and a Tesla parked outside at the valet stand. “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought, but since I was making paté de campagne and needed things like fresh duck, I didn’t have much choice.
I’m an actor, so I just strolled up to the counter like at least one of the Bentleys was mine. A butcher introduced himself, shook my hand, and genuinely wanted to know how he could help me. He began by walking me over to the display case. “Alert, alert! You’re gonna spend a fortune!” screamed the voice in my head, but… I did a double take. I leaned in closer (it’s like there was no glass – it was so clean), and laid out as if for a photoshoot were giant beautiful steaks, whole chickens, perfect, plump sausages…Then I saw the prices, handwritten in pretty script on tiny chalkboard-like thingies, sticking out of the meat at just the right artistic angle. “You gotta be kiddin’ me,” I almost said out loud. They were basically the same, in some cases cheaper, than I’d been paying at you-know-where. Yes, some items were a bit more expensive than a larger, chain, grocery store, but you know the old saying, “You get what you pay for!” Besides, we don’t eat meat at every meal. It’s more like a treat for us, so it makes sense to get the best I can find.
At the supermarket, meat products are crammed into downward slanting trays, which drain off juices that… Wait a minute… There are no draining juices at this butcher shop. And where do they go? I found out one day at the grocery store when I asked about a particularly bad odor coming from somewhere around the prime rib. The counter person, whom I would never call a butcher anymore, informed me that the slanted cases were impossible to clean once the juices dripped into all of the places you couldn’t get to. “We have somebody coming in to take it apart,” he volunteered. I nodded, then went straight to the frozen pizza section for our dinner.
Now, I only buy meat from the butcher shop. There is no rank smell. There’s no smell at all. It’s pristine. At Echo & Rig, there are no slanting cases. Everything is laid out flat, dry, no crowding. Every surface of the place is sparkling, every knife sharp as a razor. Gloves are donned to handle the meat, then discarded to finish the wrapping. At you-know-where, they never change their gloves! Those rubber covered fingers dig into the ground turkey, slop it on the paper, press the buttons on the scale, wrap it up, smack on a price sticker, hand the sticky bundle over to me – then go right on to the next customer. What’s the point of the gloves!?
And about the meat… I strolled over to the “slanty” section when I was grocery shopping the other day and did a little experiment. I asked Counter Man, “Where does this New York Strip come from?” …Long silence…. then… “What do you mean, where?” The completely confused squint and slight cock of the head told me he didn’t have a clue, but he continued, “Somewhere in the midwest, I think?” Okay, fair enough, but he must surely know where the organic ones come from, so I asked. Another silence then, “Same place?”
I decided to drive the half mile to Echo & Rig and lollygag in front of their case long enough for Kyle, the head butcher, to fall into my trap. I asked him the same question. Without hesitation, he responded, “Double R Ranch in Washington” and walked me through the process of how the meat gets from the pasture to here.
Kyle also explained that large scale meat suppliers to chain grocery stores do not have the space to properly “hang” meat, a necessary step in production. Those big corporate distributors package the meat too soon, swimming in blood, in plastic, with all the air sucked out. Once the seal is broken on these cryovac packages, the meat is cut up and slapped onto a tray in a “slanty” case where the juices run and pool and rot the meat at a far faster rate than product that has been properly hung and dried. Or worse, it’s placed on a styrofoam tray and re-wrapped in plastic and juice. Ever grab half a chicken in one of those packets, only to get home and find it has leaked all over the rest of your groceries?
The Federal Government regulates the slaughter and packaging of meat to a certain minimal standard (for safety, not for taste), but that doesn’t mean large corporations do it the way it should be done. Time and space are money to them. Smaller suppliers (who, let’s face it, are less greedy) tend to take more seriously the responsibility of humanely raising animals which enter the food chain (there are no federal regulations which apply to the treatment of farmed animals, only pets), and they usually take the time to hang their meat appropriately which results in a better product and longer shelf life. At Echo & Rig, they hang the meat again after it arrives, to further enhance the quality of the product.
Butcher shops can afford to be more selective in sourcing their meat. They don’t depend on high volume to achieve some arbitrary profit margin established by some corporate headquarters. The chicken I buy at Echo & Rig is not splashing around in slime; it has a neutral smell and tastes terrific. It comes from Mary’s Chickens in California, perhaps the best source of quality organic chicken, other than a local grower. In all fairness, you-know-where also sells Mary’s Chickens poultry, but again, it’s crammed into those “slanty” cases – and there’s juice! And sometimes it smells funny! Maybe it’s the melting ice, heaped all over everything that’s to blame, but, whatever the reason, it kinda grosses me out.
In my quest to understand exactly what it is I’m eating, I also discovered some things about meat grinding. At Echo & Rig, the “hamburger meat” is ground from premium cuts of steak. When the butchers slice those giant hunks of cow hanging in their cooler, they aim for large, pretty cuts that end up on beautiful, tasty plates in the restaurant upstairs or go home with customers like me to sizzle on the grill. Invariably, there are leftover portions, too small for a steak, which get ground and formed into patties. At the supermarket, there is no guarantee what is in your burger. There are strict USDA rules about the record keeping of ground beef product, but they don’t necessarily regulate the contents. A nearly forty year ban on the use of beef hearts and tongues in ground beef was recently lifted by the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service, and packaging is not required to specifically identify animal parts. Next time you’re in the market, look at the label. It will simply say “Beef” and may be accompanied by a string of unintelligible but allowed ingredients, including extenders and preservatives.
Then there is sausage. Many supermarkets offer “house made” sausages these days, in a variety of yummy flavors. We all know sausages are stuffed into “casings,” which are essentially animal intestine products. This does not bother me, and, frankly, I have never given it much thought… BUT… I’ve discovered that before they get to my breakfast table, sausage casings have to be washed and processed. Some of this happens at the slaughterhouse, but guess where most processing of sausage casings happens. Overseas. And in this instance, overseas does not just mean China. There are literally processing facilities all over the world, from Africa to Mexico to New Zealand, and U.S. meat producers often sell their casings to these “cleaners” who supply them back for the manufacture of sausage. Some of these facilities use strictly natural methods, but some rely on chemical additives in processing and transport. How would you ever know which is which? Fortunately for me, Echo & Rig only buys casings produced and cleaned domestically, from a verifiable source.
Service with a smile, goes a long way. The other thing I like about going to the butcher shop versus grabbing some unknown, dripping, mystery meat at a grocery store is the service. The butchers all greet me warmly, and they don’t jump straightaway to, “How can I help you?” We’ve gotten to know one another a bit, so we gab for a minute, before one of them finally asks the all important question, “What are you making tonight?” If they know what dish I’m preparing, they can guide me towards the best selection. They frequently show me something I hadn’t considered or didn’t even know they had, expanding my alimentary horizons. It’s like live Google for meat. Kyle grew up in his father’s butcher shop in Massachusetts; Atavia, his associate who creates the most amazing patés for Echo & Rig, has a degree in culinary arts. You don’t find that level of experience behind the counter in a regular supermarket.
Recipe exchanges are also not uncommon. Another butcher, Mario, and I recently compared collard green recipes while he packaged my chicken. I sometimes discuss with Atavia how to prepare this or that while she points out my best options in the case. Visiting the butcher shop has become an event to look forward to, rather than just part of a mundane weekly shopping routine.
Another advantage of the butcher shop is getting hard to find items. If I need a rabbit for a stew, they’ll order it. If I want Merguez sausage, they’ll make it. The other day I glanced into the case and saw beef jerky, dried and smoked right upstairs. I tried it, and, OMG, it is the best beef jerky I have ever had! Echo & Rig even makes its own beef broth in the restaurant and offers it for sale in the butcher case.
Today I’m buying a pound of New York strip. I watch Kyle line up his knife on a beautiful slab of meat. He rests it there for a second, maybe two, while doing some sort of superhero mind calculation, then moves it – barely a millimeter. He makes the cut and gently lays my steak on the scale. One pound. Exactly. It’s an art. It’s… Almost… Zen. We exchange a look. Mine says, “Respect.” There’s considerable pride in his. And I am grateful that little places like this still exist.
Search online for a butcher shop near you. Go in and ask questions. Find out where your food comes from and how it’s handled, and get to know who is feeding you and your family. Yes, you may spend a few extra dollars, but I bet you will find it’s worth it for what you gain in quality and satisfaction!
Did you know?
Did you know… As meat is exposed to the air, it changes color from it’s natural dark purple to bright red? Myoglobin, a meat protein, becomes oxymyoglobin and causes the change! As meat ages, it can even go from bright red back to dark purple again. These changes have no effect on taste or quality, as long as meat is consumed within its expiration date and there is no bad odor!