If you’ve never experimented with vegetarianism, you should. There is a long list of reasons for giving up meat, if only temporarily or intermittently. It’s healthy for your body and for the environment — studies show that conventional meat farming is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than cars. So, why would someone who has given up eating animals suddenly start consuming them again? Even more curious, why would he decide to make a living off dissecting them for others to dine on?
The new wave of butchers dealing in local, organic, hand-raised and artisanally slaughtered meat is driven by idealists who have discovered butchery not only as a craft or career, but as a sort of salvation. It’s a way of life that appeals to those who have thought long and hard about what they should and should not eat.
“I was a vegan for 10 years,” says Ben Runkle, who just opened Salt & Time, a butcher shop and salumeria in Austin, Texas. His shop buys whole animals directly from farmers to break down for fresh cuts, sausages and cured meats. “When I started eating meat again I was very interested in where meat came from and it not being anonymous.”
Like many a non-meat eater who changes dietary course, he says his body was craving meat, but that it led to him eating a lot of processed foods. He realized he wasn’t living up to the ideals that had led him to go vegan in the first place.
“My still-vegan and vegetarian friends would cringe at this, but I think it’s a natural pattern for people who go vegetarian young to return to eating meat later in life,” says Runkle. “Once you decide to eat meat again, you’ll never be the type of person to buy it in a styrofoam package at the grocery store.”
Jessica Appletone was a vegetarian — and her husband Josh a vegan — when she decided to start eating meat again. Eventually, her husband joined her (it was bacon that finally turned him) and the two opened Fleischer’s Grassfed and Organic Meats, which has locations in Brooklyn and Kingston, New York. Last year, they published The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.
“Ten years ago, I’d go to the store and find local meat, but I didn’t know what that meant. Then, there was antibiotic- and hormone-free, but I didn’t know what that meant, either,” she recalls. She and Josh wanted to address the lack of information about how meat is raised. “It’s everything from having horse meat in your burgers – which is the least of all possible horrors – to E. coli to inhumane treatment of animals and workers.”
Now, she says, the butcher shop is more than a business. It’s their way of life. That doesn’t mean that meat is their way of life: the couple has always advocated eating less of it. It’s a sentiment that has become a mantra for this new breed of butcher. Or meatsmith, as it were.
Andrew Plotsky, who works for the husband-and-wife team Brandon and Lauren Sheard, the visionaries behind Farmstead Meatsmith, is a former vegan and now calls himself a meatsmith. The Vashon, Wash.–based company teaches local homesteads and small farms to raise, slaughter and butcher their own animals.
“I became aware of all the attrocities that existed pertaining to how animals are turned into food,” says Plotsky of his conversion from abstaining from to raising, butchering and eating animals. Eventually, he found the Sheards and discovered a way to have complete control over the animal products he consumed: a truly farm-to-table way of eating. So, what advice does he have for people wanting to venture into a butcher store for the first time in years? None, actually.
“It’s funny. People ask me this sort of thing all the time, but I don’t really have much experience buying meat in a store,” Plotsky explains. “I’ve only ever eaten the animals I’ve raised and killed myself.”