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Famished: Respect The Beast

Sara Deseran | September 20, 2012 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

Standing in front of a dead pig, Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats—a sweet, soft-spoken guy who once wryly described himself in the New York Times as a “producer of porcine pleasure”—sported a chainmail apron and a holster containing some impressively long, sharp knives. The head of the pig had been decapitated and set right side up for the audience to see. Its tongue stiffly lolled out, capturing the humiliating side of death, and I had to quell the urge to stick it back in. Just before Farr’s butchery demonstration started, a woman brandishing a cocktail and an iPhone giddily rushed the table so she could take a picture. For all her enthusiasm, she could have been a tween, and the head could have been Justin Bieber’s.

Considering this demo happened just a few months ago, the “hipster hottie butcher phenomenon,” as the Times described it back in 2009, is clearly alive and well in San Francisco. The glamorization of the profession of butchering is, no doubt, intertwined with the philosophy of respecting an animal enough to consume all of it—or “nose-to-tail eating,” as London-based chef Fergus Henderson dubbed it in 2004 for his cookbook The Whole Beast. The cult movement he started nobly encourages cooks and eaters alike to venture beyond the white-meat safety zone, and in so doing it has sparked an obsession with meatmongers that flourishes to this day. Eight years after Henderson’s meat Magna Carta was published, though, I wonder what the famous chef thinks of the turn things have taken.

Television has made eating the whole animal into a game of truth or dare. On his show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain gave us plenty of insight into the culinary world, but he got the most high fives for his ability to eat bloody seal eyeballs without gagging. Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods is often pictured proudly holding his dinner by the tail. (Mmmm…armadillo.) On Chefs vs. City, Chris Cosentino of Incanto—one of the first chefs to bring Henderson’s message stateside, and a proselytizer of the joys of fried duck testicles and candied cockscomb—joins his costar, chef Aarón Sánchez, at a Chinese restaurant. They’re challenged to scarf down cubes of steamed pork blood as quickly as possible (“That’s gamey, bro!”). Even the high-minded Lucky Peach, a punker-than-thou food magazine started by chef David Chang and published by San Francisco–based McSweeney’s, has succumbed to certain frat-boy exploits. The magazine has featured animals as cheeky cover models: a cow being fed a beef hot dog, and a pig being tattooed with a butcher diagram of a human.

You can add to all this the popular carnivorous festivals, such as Cochon 555, which started in 2009 to promote heritage-pig diversity. Today it attracts 6,000 people annually to feast on any porky thing a chef can dream up, all the way to s’mores made of pork belly marshmallow and lardo caramel. Josh Ozersky, a food columnist for Time and founder of his own festival, Meatopia, admits that the whole-animal movement has become almost disconcertingly aggro. “The more into meat you are, and the weirder the meats, the more hard-core you are,” he says. “It’s become a thing of one-upsmanship.” Ozersky started Meatopia in 2003. Today it may be the largest meat-driven festival in the United States, with 40 chefs showing up in New York to cook up 10 species of animals, plus a 1,000-pound whole steer. (On September 21, a smaller satellite Meatopia will debut at Oakland’s Eat Real Festival.) Not surprisingly, approximately 70 percent of Meatopia’s ticket buyers are male.

Now, I’m not going to say it’s all men behind this frenzy—but it’s mostly men. A report in this month’s Chicago Journals, a consumer research journal published by the University of Chicago Press, titled “Is Meat Male?” concludes what I already suspected by being married to a steak-loving man: The excitement over hunks of flesh that has propelled much of the movement might just be inherent in the male subconscious. The study delves into the metaphoric link between meat and maleness in Western culture by conducting six studies, including a survey about the gender gap between certain foods. For example, “medium-rare steak” scores high for maleness and “chocolate” for femaleness. Thank you for your hard work, Chicago Journals. But tell me something I don’t know.

The report finally concludes that one of the links between men and meat “likely derives from factors such as the relation between males and hunting and the link between muscle-meat and strength.” I’m not sure how that applies to the unbrutish female chefs participating in the whole-animal craze. April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin in New York is on the cover of her book A Girl and Her Pig with a dead pig casually slung around her neck. Naomi Pomeroy, the chef and owner of the meat-centric Beast in Portland, Oregon, has been photographed maternally cradling a pig carcass over her shoulder. But these women are definitely the minority.

There’s undoubtedly a deeper psychology to this meat-driven mania that’s not gender specific. When you live in a culture that’s so far removed from its food source—not to mention death—the feeling you get from seeing, say, a pork chop as a pig first is memorable. We’re starved for this kind of connection. Years ago, with the help of a chef friend, I once was shown how to properly butcher a pig, part of which calls for a saw. (It’s hard work, I might add.) We ended up making a delicious headcheese, and the whole thing was kind of thrilling. I liked how tough I felt—macho even.

But as it stands now, the whole-animal movement has collectively metastasized into something more gluttonous than virtuous. It’s been brought to the masses through the power of shock and spectacle. Tia Harrison, one of the women in the butcher game and a co-owner of Avedano’s in Bernal Heights, as well as a cofounder of the Butcher’s Guild—whose mission is to restore butchery to a reputable, respectable profession—says, “The people who are the ‘shockers’ get all the attention. The whole thing has been about how much pig fat you can eat.” Another butcher entrenched in the movement compares the sensationalized side of butchery demos to the vibe at a “town hanging.” “All these people gather around to see this spectacular thing that they haven’t seen before. But it’s a dead body—a dead animal.”

Not that there isn’t a positive side to all this: It’s clear that people have expanded their meat mindfulness. I’ve seen friends proudly posting their attempts to cook pig trotters on Facebook. Choosing a dish of tendon or tongue on the menu is considered cool. “I feel like any exposure is good exposure,” Harrison says gingerly. “But there’s been so much hype about meat—it’s like a primal scream.”

Surely this fervor will mellow out. But while we’re in this unrestrained adolescent stage of meat worship, it’s useful to refer back to Founding Father Fergus, who once said, “It seems common sense, even polite to the animal, to use all of it. Rather than being testosterone-fueled blood lust, it actually seems to be a gentle approach to meat eating.” Nicely put, and a reminder that this isn’t just about being a proponent of responsibly raised heritage breeds or consuming every bit of an animal, but showing it—from the beginning of its life to the moment before it makes its way into our mouth—some well-deserved respect.

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