Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bringing Home the Beef

Today my bull calf made it back to us. No, he didn’t run away. All 360 pounds of him was taken away in a trailer 2 weeks ago and now he has returned home in neat little packages all stacked in 6 boxes plus numerous bags of dog bones.

I wanted to have a firsthand experience of seeing how beef was cut so I asked if I could watch as they worked on my Fred the 2nd. The butcher was kind enough to agree and said that it was common for people to want to give their cutting instructions in person. I expected to spend the time paying homage to the animal I once knew and cared for, saying silent prayers of gratitude and feeling sad and all of that. Instead I spent the time with my mouth watering over the various cuts of meat and what I planned to do with them. I imagined the soup bones boiling to make beef stock in glass jars. I had visions of meatballs, spaghetti sauce, moussaka, shepherd’s pie, t-bone steaks on a hot summer day, stir fries, stews, roast beef sandwiches, meat pies and hamburgers. It seems I have gone from civilized urban vegetarian hippie chick to a wild woman who drools over the sight of raw meat still attached to its carcass. That’s quite a distance, I think.

I was also in awe of the friendly butcher who did the cutting as though he could do it with his eyes closed while chatting comfortably about his job. His very sharp knife worked steadily, carving gracefully along the lines and curves of the bones while he talked. He told me which cuts were more tender and why, which ones dry out quickly, which muscles are used more often on the animal, how others like their meat cut, and most especially how to cook the cuts.

Even farther up my alley was the history of the butcher profession in our area. In my lifetime, large grocery stores have gone from having a house butcher to hiring ‘meat cutters’ (and along with the devaluing of a butcher’s job, the pay went downhill too, or at least stayed the same for decades). These far less skilled meat cutters don't know how to begin cutting a whole animal as their job is to take already hacked up pieces of meat and make them presentable in a cooler. The real animal is apparently brought to a place 500km away (Toronto), butchered into manageable pieces and then shipped (frozen?) to a distributor warehouse where it is then trucked again (with additives to keep it from going brown?) to your friendly neighbourhood Super Big Store. That’s a whole lot of middlemen and seemingly unnecessary extra time on a shelf before it hits your fridge.

I learned that meat should always be thawed in the fridge. I learned that when you send small bits of boneless steak through a machine with many pokey things, it can basically turn out the texture of ground beef that you don’t need to chew (kids meal anyone?). I learned that the animal is hung on a hook in a fridge for up to 2 weeks to tenderize the meat (at least this is customary in our culture, one Muslim family is apparently hugely adamant that the meat is cut up right away). Some folks want it all cut into steaks, some want it all cubed and they marinate it when they get home (never freezing), some want it all ground and some don’t know what they want so they get the standard (this was me up until this year). This time I stood there, in this room that bore the faint but unmistakable stench of blood, mesmerized by the possibilities. I learned that the butcher did not go to school but learned his art from his father.

Every new cut on the bandsaw uncovered a mystery for me as it displayed a new arrangement of flesh, fat and bone time and time again. The whole animal was cut expertly and wrapped into packets of my choosing (some steaks, some roasts, some ground, some tenderized). I vowed to make the best use of the meat that I knew how. And when I didn’t know how, I was going to find out.

When I arrived home, I spilled one of the brightly coloured red rounds of ground beef into a bowl and began to mix onions, eggs and oatmeal in with my hands to make hamburger patties. Not long ago, the act of touching raw meat with my bare hands made me gag or cringe or run to a hot, soapy hand washing sink. Somehow I have moved to another place where kneading the meat together with the other ingredients was a sort of a prayer. There was no better place for my hands to be. This was a celebration of sorts. I couldn’t think of a better way to honour an animal that had given its life for our food.

As I have been forced to rearrange my 3 freezers for the homecoming party of Fred the 2nd, I have been able to take stock of the abundance that we have reaped this year. There is a small amount of pork from last fall waiting to be finished, over 60 litres of frozen milk waiting to be turned into yogurt or used in waffles or soups, 8 whole chickens left from the summer and now well over 200 pounds of beef. There are jars of chicken stock, rendered lard from the pig fat, strawberry freezer jam, whole raspberries and blueberries, squash, over 100 litres of tomato sauce, some ketchup, some soups and some green beans, peas, kale and broccoli. In the fridge there is fresh yogurt, milk, 3 dozen eggs, homemade bread, relish, pickles, cheese, granola, maple syrup we have tapped from our trees and sourdough starter that began before Rob and I were born.

I am in a state of sheer gratitude right now. Albeit gratitude with a side of disbelief. The person I was 10 years ago would never have imagined this life or that these skills could be acquired steadily over time with patience and persistence. This was the girl that once lived off of prepared packaged foods and canned pastas and soups. How did I get to this place? How did I get so lucky?

I’m not bringing home a paycheck anymore. But above is the list of what I do bring to the table. And along with the health it brings and the satisfaction it gives, I am now learning to assign value to this notable contribution.

For today, I am going to focus especially on Fred the 2nd and say a prayer that we can bring back butchers to our home towns.

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