What kind of person takes a butchering class? I’ve taken Italian and Spanish cooking classes at the Culinary Institute of America. There are all manner of one-pot and quick meals classes. If I baked, there are several classes I could take. Why, on a late October morning am I and seven others headed for the basement of Roth Hall, to the meat fabrication room?
I’m a pretty good cook, certainly as good as I need to be. Fantasies aside, I’m never going to open a restaurant or even work full-time in one and, appealing as the thought always is, I’m not going for a culinary arts degree. No, I’m going to continue to cook on a dinner party level or do prep or sous at the odd fund raising dinner. But lately, my interest has been more piqued by making products rather than preparing and serving dishes.
No jams for me, however. I made quarts of hot sauce this summer. If I’d had the time, I would have worked on ketchups. I dried herbs and tomatoes. I regularly make fresh mozzarella and ricotta from raw milk, and, when the time suits, fresh pasta to go with them. I learned to make pastrami. I have a freezer full of veal and chicken stock, frozen in 1 cup batches.
So, meat. Chef Elia is clearly having fun, demonstrating the fabrication of center cut pork loins, beef shank, Frenched racks of veal, and chicken parts. We bone out the meat, make scaloppini, roasts, beef stew meat, airline breasts of chicken. I’m under no illusion that I’ll be a butcher after this. But I’ll be better than I was and know more about meat besides poultry. Sure, it’s cheaper to cut your own. Sure you can get it how you want. Sure there are bones and scraps for enriching stocks and sauces.
But the draw is the skill. We’re all too focused to chat much in class, but Slawa, the Ukrainian guy on my left, is wearing as big a grin as I am as he separates the meat from the shank bone. On my right, the only woman in the class turns out to own a farm on which she and her husband are beginning to raise pigs commercially.
We learn some cool tips—trying roasts, stripping silverskin, using butcher’s twine to strip ribs for a Frenched rack of veal, separating a chicken drumstick from the thigh. I cut two chickens this way, and each time, it never fails to amaze me. Follow the drumstick from the tip to the thigh, pressing down on the knife. When it drops into the natural separation between the drumstick and the thigh, cut straight down. Boom. Works first time, every time. I am less successful removing the oyster with the thigh, but I think that the combination of the cold room and the five hours on my feet has something to do with it. I hope so. Chicken is last in the sequence and I am already comfortable hacking one apart.
From the conversations in passing and at lunch, I gather that most of the others feel somewhat the same. There is just something about food and ingredients that fascinates us. It doesn’t seem to be about saving money by cutting big pieces into portions. It’s not even about sustainability. Chef Elia is OK with grass fed and sustainable meat “It’s part of my industry,” but he’s a real corn-fattened beef fan. “There’s a buttery taste that is just…” he trails off, oddly speechless. No, it seems to be about the skill, taking a raw ingredient and rendering it edible that got most of us into cooking in the first place. It’s about looking at the meat, cartilage, bone and seeing what they will turn into in the finished dish, how the collagen will render a sauce unctuous, how the hard moving muscles will soften and become a delicacy, how the grain determines the cuts. It’s about looking closely at things and seeing what they were and what they will become. And, as always, it’s about the flavor.