THE FEMINIZATION OF BUTCHERY
The Feminization of Butchery explores the art of slaughtering animals, dressing their flesh and breaking them down to prepare meat, but from a feminine perspective. Butchery is something that I've always been fascinated with. Yet, I haven't eaten meat in over 30 years. As a food writer and food enthusiast, and someone who is passionate about food and cooking; I feel like meat is my last frontier. I decided that if I'm going to indulge in meat, then I should at least know where it comes from. This is my exploration to understand the art and profession itself and to determine if being a female butcher brings a softness and a more humane approach to taking an animal's life for human consumption. Ultimately, I aim to discover if I could ever eat meat again and if so, could I break an animal down, slice it into cuts, then serve it up.
This meat-cutting rock star comes from a long line of butchers and grew up working in her grandfather’s butcher shop. But it wasn’t til years later, while working at a New York restaurant, that she learned to break down an animal. She had no intention of becoming a butcher. Her grandfather discouraged her from going into the business not because she was a girl but preferring instead that she find a career that she didn’t get her hands dirty. She even studied literature in college and has written the book Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books. But her passion for food service work brought her back to her roots and she found an apprenticeship at the Meat Hook in Brooklyn, a whole animal butchery shop that focuses on local meat from family run farms. She has been breaking down meat and cooking it ever since.
Another woman that comes from a long line of butchers is Chicago-based. Kari Underly is credited with coming up with the flatiron steak cut of meat. She encourages other women to enter the business and hosts a slew of female focused meat classes and demonstrations around the country. According to a piece on NPR called Women Butchers are Slicing Through the Glass Ceiling, she says that the meat industry is changing in a way that there is finally more room for women. Because this industry can be intimidating—especially for females—her company Range Incorporated offers online classes in how to butcher and break down an animal and even how to sell it. As a vegetarian, I find the idea of taking butchery classes online intriguing as I’m not sure that I could even stomach the smell of live meat flesh.
Then, I met the colorful and vivacious Allison Hines also known as Butcher Bettie. After speaking to her about my fascination with butchery even though I haven’t eaten meat in forever, she made the art sound so seductive. When I asked her what she thought female butchers bring to the table that males do not, she answered that women tend to approach butchering holistically and from a place of nurturing and nourishment. She feels that women want a connection and have a need to know where their meat is coming from. A former corporate chef, Allison was getting downsized from the company she was working for and longed to do something besides just cook. She had always been interested in butchery when her husband came up with the idea to open a pin-up inspired butcher shop marrying her passion for meat and her glamorous, vintage look. It was a great idea, but she needed the skills to bring the concept to fruition. When she approached the family run meat shop Avril-Bleh’s in Cincinnati about an apprenticeship, they thought she was joking. “But you’re a girl,” she remembers the head butcher saying. But they took her on and 18 months later, she learned everything she needed to slaughter and break down whole animals. Slaughter? As in kill? In all my dreaming about learning butchering, I never thought about killing an animal. When I asked Allison about the kill, she said: “It’s the most devastating and exhilarating thing I’ve ever experienced.” She feels that until you kill an animal for consumption, you can’t truly understand food and just how long it takes and how much work is involved to take an animal from farm to table.
Ultimately, I wonder if I could kill an animal?
In an article for Feminism and Psychology called Gender and Slaughter in Popular Gastronomy, the author Jovian Perry looks at the New Carnivore movement—the trend of meat-focused eating—and the genderization of the various aspects of raising, killing and dismembering animals for consumption. She feels that the caring and concern for animal’s well-being is characterized as feminine while the slaughter, butchery and eating of meat are masculinized and celebrated. But what happens when the killing and butchering of an animal is done by a girl?
She examines the book Cleaving: A Story of Meat, Marriage and Obsession by Julie Powell. Perry finds that the text entangles sex, butchery and meat and that Powell’s foray into butchery stemmed as a way to tame her out of control carnal desires. Perhaps, that’s part of the story. But maybe Powell's motivation was about empowerment. Not about deriving power that comes from dominating and breaking down an animal, but about the empowerment that one obtains from mastering something.
Empowerment is what I discovered in my exploration into the world of butchery. The women in this profession that I read about or spoke to are all strong, incredibly capable and yet very feminine. They are concerned with the food that they eat, what they serve their families and what they sell to their customers. They believe that ethically raising, killing and dismembering animals just makes for healthier meat. They also source their animals locally, believing that, as Allison Hinds told me: “Eating locally-raised animals that are grown on the same soil that you walk on, and that breathe the air that you breathe and drink the same water that you drink, not only builds your immunity—it’s just plain healthier.” They are pursuing a different relationship with food than what has been the normal, sterilized acceptance of meat consumption. They are intimately involved with the animal that ends up on their table.
These women are also mastering something that was for most of history; a predominately male thing to do. There is power in that. Just as I never saw a woman work a grill, growing up I also never saw a woman behind the meat counter.
These women have showed me that there is a feminine side to the art of butchery, despite it still being masculine and somewhat primal. There is the deep connection to food that you get from knowing where an animal comes from. It’s nurturing to know how this animal was raised and what he was sustained on. It’s insightful to know that he was well-cared for and then slaughtered ethically. Knowing the animal’s back-story is a far more intimate food experience, than just walking into a grocery store and picking out an unidentified piece of meat encased in a cellophane wrapper and calling it dinner. Knowing how to take an animal that was raised for consumption and being able to break it down into fine cuts of meat, feels to me, like the most authentic and respectful way to consume animals.
But, I’m still on the fence. As much as I admire these women and am so inspired by their journeys into a male-dominated profession, I do question whether I can be a part of the death of an animal for gastronomic pleasure. No matter how ethical it can be or how empowering and completely bad-ass it seems.
Music: "All That" by Bensound.com