“I always tell people, ‘When I was a little girl all I wanted to do was grow up and be a butcher. Didn’t you?’” says Monica Rocchino, co-owner of The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley. Reserved and unassuming, she’s not exactly who you’d picture when you think of a local meat-monger. Rocchino isn’t serious, of course.
Her response is a joke meant to counter the common reactions of consumers confronted with the concept of a female butcher.
“If I’m just meeting a person, they’ll be impressed and a little intimidated and kind of confused,” says Kelly Taylor, a 25-year-old who’s been working for Rocchino for the past year. Taylor adds that her friends are typically more sympathetic than shocked.
Rocchino and Kelly are joined by fellow employee, Renee Reed. They’re sitting on benches in an outdoor courtyard behind the butcher shop, sharing stories and sipping on coffee. The girls are young, soft-spoken and a little goofy — like Rocchino, neither looks like a typical butcher.
“I’m definitely not the sort of person who’s like, ‘I like red meat and I want to kill things and eat them,’” says Reed. She is wearing a long-sleeved white button-up, worn blue jeans and a tie — her “Sunday best,” according to Rocchino. “I think a lot of people have this image that we’re knee-deep in animal stuff.”
“Well, some days you are,” says Rocchino. Reed and Taylor look at each other and laugh.
“People say, ‘Oh that’s so crazy. You must be insane. You’re so exciting,’” says Reed.
Neither of the women really agree with that kind of general assessment. The sticker shock of the position isn’t, after all, the reason they got into the industry.
From vegetarianism to whole-animal butchery
“I’m not doing it because I like being around bloody dead things,” says Reed, who grew up in Southern California and at one point decided to become a vegetarian. “I didn’t know anything [about meat], but I knew enough to know that the idea of chickens being on top of one other made me feel ill.”
Reed worked at a vegetarian café in Santa Cruz for two years before moving to Berkeley, where she continued to work in the food industry, but gave up her vegetarianism. “There was no good reason and I felt really guilty about it,” she says.
Though her grandfather had been a butcher, Reed had always been a little repulsed by the profession. But by the time he passed away, she wasn’t quite so squeamish. “There was this moment right after [he died] where I thought ‘I don’t know; I guess I’ll do it.’” A local chef encouraged Reed’s interest and helped her develop new skills, which she brought with her when she joined The Local Butcher Shop, the only whole-animal butcher shop around where she could experience the whole process.
“It matters to me to know the system and to try to be a part of fixing it,” says Reed. “[When I explain that], that’s when people start to get an idea of what I’m doing.” Though she doesn’t eat as much meat as she once did, Reed’s vegetarian days are behind her.
Taylor, on the other hand, has always been a carnivore, though not always a very informed one. “I grew up not really knowing very particular things about meat,” she says. “I think most people grow up that way.” When talking with vegetarians and vegans, Taylor wanted to have an explanation for choosing an alternative. As she puts it, “I wanted to have my own story and reasons for feeling good about meat.”
Though she initially approached butchery as a “quick skill” to learn after finishing a degree in international relations, Taylor soon discovered that there was more to whole-animal butchery than wielding cleavers and cooking with tallow. “It’s very complex,” she says.
Their stories, and the way they talk about their chosen profession, certainly runs counter to the macho stereotype image of the meat industry. “It might just be these two, but [from what I’ve seen] there’s just more compassion in the female story toward butchery,” says Rocchino.
A local butcher shop in more ways than one
Rocchino opened The Local Butcher Shop in August 2011 alongside her husband Aaron, a former chef at nearby Chez Panisse. The two met during mutual stints at Oliveto, and both were employed in the food industry when they decided to quit working nights and to go into business together.
“We [found] we were lacking access to sustainable, clean, pure meat that we could trust to cook at home,” says Rocchino. “We figured if we were having that problem, everyone was having that problem, so we just dove in.”
The “local” in shop’s name is twofold. Not does it serve the local community, but its meat has all been raised and slaughtered within 150 miles of the city. The shop sources from nearly two dozen farms, all of which receive personal visits from the Rocchinos and often other members of the staff. The animals are on pasture from birth to slaughter, “doing what you think they should be doing,” as Rocchino puts it.
According to Rocchino, whole-animal butchery means starting with a whole carcass — head and feet included — and butchering it into usable, sellable parts with as little waste as possible. The shop pays one price per pound to the farmer, which means bones and fat are given an equal value to tenderloin or sirloin. “We use every piece and part,” says Rocchino. “Making sure we use it all is a key component to whole animal butchery.”
The concept of using an entire animal isn’t new, though most consumers default to familiar cuts, like beef tri-tip and lamb shanks. “There are so many other pieces that are awesome,” says Reed. “Like leg meat and flat iron steak. Learning those pieces and introducing them to others is exciting for me.”
“There’s a different form of respect that is a part of whole-animal butchery,” says Taylor. “Why would you just throw away something that is so useful?” In addition to numerous common and less common cuts of meat, the shop also sells bone broth, stock, sauces and stews, sausage, soap and dog food.
“The word ‘whole’ is a big word,” says Taylor. “It goes beyond just the animal itself and [extends to] the system that is involved. It should be a positive thing for everybody, whether that’s the farmer that can sell their entire animal for a good price or the customer that can come in and get literally anything they’re looking for.”
Breaking down carcasses is perspective-shifting work
As one might imagine, the very nature of breaking down carcasses and splitting muscles day after day is not without an effect.
“I was struck by the way that I would start to look at any animal,” says Taylor. “I’d look at my friends’ dogs and [think], ‘I know where I would cut that and where I’d break that down.’ That’s a weird thought to have.”
Reed had a similar experience not long after she began butchering. It’s not hard to make the jump from piecing apart the anatomy of a lamb to looking at a Labrador with a new set of eyes. And while it may seem strange to compare your common housecat to domesticated livestock, as Rocchino points out, “They’re [all] someone’s pets… until they’re not.”
Visiting the farms where the animals are raised has given all of the women more respect for their work. “It’s forced me to be able to look an animal in the eye,” says Rocchino.
“I’m more sensitive to the whole process,” adds Reed. “I have more respect for animals.”
Even when meat comes from an independent shop that sources from local farmers, butchery is part of a system that is bigger and more complex than most consumers realize. There are all sorts of misconceptions surrounding our ideas about meat.
“People have this image of me with a saw in one hand and a giant cow in the other,” says Reed, who has been asked more than a few times if she regularly kills the animals she butchers.
“That [response] is indicative of the larger mystery that is meat,” says Taylor. “What does that say about our society’s knowledge of the food system that we’d think that it’s even legal to slaughter onsite in the city?”
“I think labeling is a total misconception,” says Rocchino, explaining that most of the markings she sees on packaged meat are intentionally confusing and mostly meaningless. “People come in asking for whatever they think is the right thing to be asking for with the misconception that if it has a natural, organic or grass-fed sticker that means that it’s good.” According to Rocchino, that’s just not the case.
Far from alleviating their concerns about product quality, working with meat on a daily basis has only heightened Reed’s and Taylor’s awareness of the glitches in the food system.
“I’m shocked more and more at how inaccessible it has been made for people to eat good, healthy meat that’s being raised by families,” says Reed. Her concern is sincere and it carries into her day-to-day decisions.
When confronted with the option of unsustainable meat, Reed isn’t always sure how to respond. “When I go to a taqueria I have a moment of thinking I should get a vegetarian burrito, but I don’t like vegetarian burritos.” It’s a small thought, but a frequent one, and one that leaves Reed seeking to change the system.
Taylor feels much the same. “You see slowly everything that is involved in getting this kind of animal to people and how few channels there are for that in terms of accessibility for anyone other than those who can afford it. I wonder what it takes to make it affordable to a larger range of people,” she says.
Back in the butcher shop, the women don pin-striped aprons and strap on scabbards. They pose in front of a poster demarcating the parts of the pig, both camera-shy, a little uncomfortable. They’re more at home behind the case, with their butcher shop colleagues slicing steaks and wrapping thighs. Like the system they work in, they are working to bring about change, one customer and cut at a time.
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