New Butchers on the Block

I am hunched over a pig’s head, boning knife in one hand. With the other, I am pulling away cold, wet flesh to expose bone. “Where does the cheek end and the face begin?” I ask.

I’m in the south-side home of Chad Moss, one of the chief instructors at Shovel and Fork, an Edmonton-based collective of farmers, butchers, chefs, cheesemakers and the like, whose mission is to teach urbanites heirloom skills, such as butchering and preserving.

Eager to become DIY butchers, the rest of the mostly 20-somethings group and I hang onto Moss’ every word. These days, butchering is the latest old-world skill to be revived, and, thanks to social media and cooking shows, it has become bona fide pop culture.

Moss passes around a plate of home-cured maple cinnamon bacon; it’s moist and tastes nothing like store-bought bacon. “Where can you go to find bacon that tastes this good?” says Moss. “We’ve clearly gone so far in the wrong direction that people no longer know what meat is supposed to taste like. We have to get back to the normal.”

It takes me about 45 minutes to bone out the cheeks of my pig’s head. My knife skills aren’t as exacting as those of 24-year-old Celia Hui, who’s committed to going back to that normal. She previously completed a meat-cutting class at NAIT, where she learned how to butcher chicken, fish and carve an entire pig. “Butchering is lost on a lot of people because we just buy our meat pre-packed,” says Hui. “It’s important to me that I know where my meat is coming from, how it gets cut down and which pieces come from what part of the animal.”

Socially conscious eating has given way to a raft of folks who have turned to butchering as a profession. In 2008, Corey Meyer took ownership of Acme Meat Market, a family-run shop founded in 1921.

Meyer has always known butchering. His father, a butcher, owned Meyer’s Meats on Whyte Avenue before the family business was sold in the late ‘80s. But Meyer isn’t in the profession to continue the family trade; instead, the 36-year-old is drawn to the creativity of butchering. “I see myself playing an important role helping people who are trying to create dishes from scratch. I love it when a customer comes into the store and wants to recreate a dish that they had at a restaurant.” 

Sixteen years ago, when Meyer began cutting meat, standard cuts were stew beef, beef roast and pork chops. Today, pork belly, pig trotters (feet) and oxtail make regular appearances on the butcher’s bestseller list. When people see TV chefs cooking with offcuts, it becomes less intimidating, says Meyer. The liver and onions that you snubbed as child were transformed into Chris Cosentino’s pork and liver paté with hazelnuts and truffles on Top Chef Masters. The health benefits of off cuts are an added bonus too, says Meyer. Liver is an excellent source of iron.

Whether the interest in butchering is for personal growth or to expand your cooking repertoire, Meyer makes an excellent point that clinches it for me. “These animals have given themselves to us for our nourishment. We owe it to them to waste as little as possible. Let’s show respect.”

Originally published in Avenue Edmonton, 2013