By Adam Tiberio
[Adam Tiberio is the head meatcutter at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in New York City. He and the team at Dickson's are entirely responsible for converting me from a minimal meat eater into a full-fledged carnivore. Their artisanal meats – humanely-raised, sourced from small-scale sustainable farms, and really good – did the trick. His writings on meat have been published in Edible Boston and on GQ.com. -Suzanne Lenzer]
A cow, pig, lamb, and goat may not all be cut in the same fashion, but that doesn’t mean they differ anatomically. Quadrupeds all have floating scapulas, a pelvis containing one ball-and-socket joint for each femur, and the same muscular configuration; thus, identical primal and subprimal cuts can be extracted from any quadrupedal animal. Pork tri-tip? It’s there, right below the hog’s patella as it would be found on a steer. Lamb top round? Yup, lambs have those, too.
How about a person? We may be bipedal, but a doctor shopping at Dickson’s a couple weeks ago watched me bone an arm of beef and rattled off the scientific name of each separate muscle I laid before him – triceps brachii (clod heart), teres major (shoulder tender), supraspinatus (chuck tender), and infraspinatus (top blade). To be sure, we, too, have tenderloins (the psoas major, perched atop the pelvis and extending down the inside of your vertebrae) and strip steaks (the longissimus dorsi; feel the muscles that run along your lower spine.) Meatcutters call the pelvis the “aitch bone” as a phonetic way to spell the letter H, which is what an un-split aitch bone resembles.
I’ve been told that surgeons call it the “Honda symbol.”
Cutting up quadrupeds for sustenance is surely among the most ancient of all vocations. Taking down venison and bison with flake knives eventually gave way to the butchers’ guilds of medieval England and, later, the American railroads that enabled meat to be transported under refrigeration from the first centralized processing facilities. In large modern plants, carcasses are subdivided into large pieces – beef export ribs, square-cut chucks, pork loins, lamb fores – or hot-boned not more than 2-3 days out of slaughter in assembly-line fashion before vacuum-packaging, boxing, shipping, and eventual distribution to the end-user. Today’s restaurants, small grocers, chain supermarkets, and foodservice corporations all rely heavily on a readily-available supply of this commodity meat to satisfy the 200 pound-a-year craving the average American has for animal protein.
Some retail butcher shops still opt to cut their own fresh meat. At Dickson’s, we process between 7-10 pigs every Wednesday, 7-10 lambs or goats every Thursday, and 3 ½ steers throughout Friday and Saturday. Our goal in processing beef, pork, lamb, and goat is to create an inventory of portioned cuts. These portions – briskets, pork shanks, lamb bellies, boar racks, goat loins – are vacuum-sealed, labeled with slaughter and pack dates, and stored according to its age “in the bag.” With processing completed, the remainder of the week is spent plucking from the inventory in order to cut for the busy retail case – lamb legs and shoulders are boned, steaks and pork chops are sliced, marrow bones are split, and beef & pork roasts are shaped and tied. Opting out of a traditional purveyor-supplier relationship by taking on processing responsibilities directly out of slaughter gives us access to a fresher, less intensely handled product.
Meanwhile, the rest of the meat industry inches towards even less end-user control by looking to implement more “pre-pack” – portioned and shrink-wrapped retail cuts ready for sale – in grocers and supermarket meat departments. One can only hope that, with the advent of machine assistance to reduce fatigue and fully-mechanized disassembly lines, the aggregate of traditional skills needed to dismantle quadrupeds won’t fade entirely into obscurity. (Flickr photos by Clay Williams)