In the walk-in cooler, eight sides of lamb hang on a sturdy metal cart. The split carcasses almost look like heavy dresses, ready for a seamstress to hem. Or maybe this comparison is just the mind, grasping for familiar territory in an unusual place.
Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats in Kingston is an anomaly, an old-style butcher shop offering an alternative to the supermarket meat counter. They are odd in another way, too, offering classes and apprenticeships to train people in the dying art of butchery.
Nick Bauer, manager of the produce department at Albany’s Honest Weight Food Cooperative, recently attended a three-day course. He’s going to be heading the meat department at the co-op’s new location, due to open in June.
Josh and Jessica Applestone started the butcher shop in 2004, taking the name from his grandfather’s Brooklyn operation. Dedicated to processing sustainably raised and ethically slaughtered animals, Fleisher’s has a big presence in the Hudson Valley and in New York City, where it has one shop in Brooklyn and another in the works.
Over their near-decade in business, the store’s mission has evolved to include preserving the dying art of butchery. This skill is essential to meeting the demand for locally raised meats. State and federal regulations require farmers to use USDA slaughterhouses: Any beef, pork, goat or lamb meat you buy at a farmers market has been killed and cut at one of these facilities. (Poultry is subject to other rules and can be handled on farm for farmers market sales. Institutional and restaurant purchasing is another matter.)
Farmers have to get their animals on a list at a slaughterhouse long before they’re ready for harvest. Having butchers and shops that can take whole and half animals from slaughterhouses, and break down sides and sections of animals, will help ease this processing bottleneck. Plus customers like fresh meats, and being able to custom order, e.g., telling a butcher how thick they want their steak.
In this sense, the meat sector of the local food movement is no different from scallions or beer: Human contact is a big part of the exchange. Fleisher’s is putting people out there who build relationships with consumers. The school trains 12 apprentices a year, and food enthusiasts and professionals fill the shorter introductory classes, sometimes as stepping stones to a three- or six- month commitment.
In Nick Bauer’s Butchery 101 course, there are five other students, two of them home cooks and three others, like Bauer, with jobs in the food industry.
The class begins with a tour of the store, where people can buy local eggs, and dairy goods. Soap made from beef tallow, as well as meats, fresh and frozen, also are available. Beyond this retail section, the group moves past the cutting area to the walk-in cooler and those curious-looking lamb sides.
“The high end beef is aged three to four weeks,” Josh Applestone explains. “We don’t age the entire carcass, because why age ground beef?”
Aging tenderizes beef by allowing bacteria to break down the connective tissues.
Just outside the cooler, the shop’s chef catches and spirals snakes of lamb sausage from a grinder.
“Butchers are going out of business because they’re trying to follow a model that was developed by the big guys in the 1950s,” Applestone says, launching into a brief lecture on industry basics. While grocery stores used to handle primal cuts of meat—as sides, halves and quarters of beef, pork and other livestock are known—most meat now reaches stores in boxes. Butchers trained to break down carcasses are few and far between.
“Time to suit up,” Applestone declares. “Cut your femoral artery, and you can bleed out before anyone gets to the phone.”
Statements like that need no drama in their delivery, but Josh’s normal mode is friendly and intense. The reformed vegan took up butchering when he fell in love with a vegetarian who wanted to start eating ethically raised meat. Now he and Jessica have this store, and a book, titled The Butcher’s Guide. The school and most of the production work will move to a second, larger facility in Brooklyn this month.
In Nick’s class, three apprentices help the students put on aprons made of metal mesh. The black aprons they wear on top are dotted with little nicks in the fabric, reminders of why wearing the mail is necessary.
The armored students open boxes of brand-new equipment. They slide plastic sleeves off knives, and slide the metal pieces of their scabbards together and thread the scabbards through chains draped around their hips. The apprentices wear these kits already, which hit their thighs as they walk, making a percussion chorus of little thuddy drums.
Standing at a maple butcher-block table, Josh tosses a lamb neck in front of each person—all men in this class—and show which knife to use, how to hold it. Pretty quickly, someone nicks himself, and gets a quick walk to the sink and the first-aid kit.
The class moves to lamb shoulders next, and onto pig forelegs. Nick Bauer avoids cutting himself. He works fast but smoothly, finishing two pig forelegs before other people debone and skinned their firsts.
Bauer never dreamed of becoming a butcher. He trained in photography, but after money proved to be more elusive to capture than images, he followed a career in food. He had worked at Price Chopper when he was in high school, so there he returned, eventually running a fish department for the local chain. From his years with fish, he is easy with a knife.
Six years ago he joined the staff at Honest Weight Food Coop. He planned to continue managing the produce department at the new store, but when the meat manager suddenly left, Bauer was pinned as Most Likely to Manage Meat, and stepped up to fill the vacancy.
The next day of class, Bauer and his classmates watch Applestone break down a side of pork, starting with snipping off the kidney and unzippering the leaf lard. After he finishes, the students break down their own sides. The following and last day, they watch Johannes Sebold, instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, break down another side of pork. As he cuts the pieces, he talked about the business of butchery. Everything comes back to marketing, and waste. Sebold apprenticed in Bavaria in the late 1950s, and his experiences, including working in New York and teaching, lend a very different angle to his approach.
People seem to really appreciate the variety of instruction, not just from Applestone and Sebold, but also from the apprentices, who observe and help the students. Only Sebold, however, shows the class, and a few other interested foodies, how to slaughter a pig on farm.
The slaughter, in particular, readies Nick for his life at home; he and his family raise rabbits, poultry and pigs for their own needs. He has slaughtered birds, but hasn’t tackled larger animals, sending them to Eagle Bridge Custom Meats to be killed and cut. Now, he feels like he can do the work himself.
The class helps prepare Nick Bauer for what he’s going to face at the new Honest Weight store. Fleisher’s has equipped one more person with the basics of butchery.