Photo by DPerstin/Flickr CC
This post marks the start of a new column by artisan butcher Tom Mylan, who will be writing regularly on all things flesh. In addition to seventies rock and drinking whiskey with friends, he enjoys working as co-owner of The Meat Hook, a Brooklyn-based butcher shop at the vanguard of the movement to promote locally sourced, responsibly raised meat.
I cut meat for a living, but I've never been able to shake my compulsion to write. During my apprenticeship at Fleisher's Meats—the first local, sustainable butcher shop on the East Coast—I found myself spending every evening hunched over my laptop, pecking away with bandaged fingers a chronicle of becoming a butcher that would later run in Meatpaper magazine. While I cut my teeth, butchering in a meat locker the size of a closet at the restaurant Marlow and Sons, I was also a contributing editor to its food magazine, Diner Journal. So it seemed only natural that, in the midst of a Herculean effort to open a 7000-square-foot cooking school and butcher shop in the middle of a recession, I would take on the task of writing about what I do for the Atlantic Food Channel.
After the initial excitement of writing for the Atlantic wore off I found myself in a bit of a pickle: what do I write about first? What is at the core of what I do and how it is different from say, a butcher at a mega-mart? The best example was my most important skill: reading a side of beef.
What does that mean exactly?
While most butchers rely on USDA grading (you've seen these labels on your trays of grocery store meat—choice, select, prime, etc.), all of the beef we source at The Meat Hook comes from small, local farms and is processed at family slaughterhouses that can't afford a grading service. Therefore we must judge every carcass we receive in much the way that butchers did it 100 years ago: by sight, informed by practical experience. Here is a quick and dirty primer to what a side of beef can tell you without saying a single word.
A super animal will have a thick, psychedelic spiderweb of fat throughout the lean section of the eye.
Before we go much further, a reality check: you will more than likely never see a side of beef. Ever. 99 percent of all meat consumed in the US is slaughtered, butchered into small pieces, stuck in plastic envelopes, and shipped at the same enormous packinghouse long before you or your butcher—you have a butcher, right?—ever sets eyes on it. What I'm trying to do here is simply offer you a peek into what can (and ideally should) go into the steak or short rib on your table. It is the first lesson we give our butchering students and dedicated customers, and it is my first lesson to you.
Reading the USDA inspection stamp on the outside of the animal can tell a butcher what slaughterhouse it was killed at (provided you have an index of slaughterhouse numbers or have committed the information to memory). This is important, as not all slaughterhouses are created equal.
While all abattoirs are inspected by an in-house official, many factors can influence the quality of the end product, whether it be the humidity and air-flow in the coolers (important to to the initial dry aging of the carcasses) or the general expertise of the kill floor staff. Hurried employees can and will make mistakes and cause stress on the animal--neither of which is good for the animal or the end result. The attached "kill tag" can tell you what day the animal was killed, its "hot weight" (its dressed weight immediately after slaughter), and even the farm it came from or the farmer who raised it.