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Butchery Class

Lisa Morehouse

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A suckling pig at Avedano's Holly Park Market.
(John Jakubowski)
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In San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood, the main commercial strip is usually filled with people pushing baby strollers, walking their dogs or carrying their yoga mats. But the third Sunday of every month, the local butcher shop invites folks to sharpen their knives and really get to know where their food comes from.

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"The first cut we're going to make is to remove the head. Use your knife to cut down 'til you get to the bone."

Tia Harrison is the head butcher at Avedano's Holly Park Market, and she's talking to four guys in white aprons staring at the carcass of a whole suckling pig splayed out on a butcher block.

One of these guys is Chris Perry. He works in a research lab, but today he's learning the art of butchery.

"I see these prepackaged meats in the store, and I know there's something more to it than that. It's getting to know the whole animal, getting a better idea of the cuts of meat I regularly eat, seeing the whole process."

He's come to the right place. Avedano's is an old-time butcher shop with a contemporary attitude. They have a sign reading, "We put the 'butch' in 'butcher'." The three women who own the shop offer cuts of locally and sustainably raised meat.

Co-owner Angela Wilson explains: "It's just kind of a different way of thinking about food. It's not really easy to find pig butts with the skin on 'em and all the fat anywhere in town. We sell tubs of lard, and people want tubs of lard. They want duck fat." Avedano's is the type of place you can buy a whole chicken, with the head and feet still attached. "That's a chicken, that's what they look like. And if you don't like it, maybe you should be a vegetarian," says Wilson.

And for the committed carnivore, Avedano's offers their Butchery for Adults class. San Francisco urbanites can pay $300 for an experience that barely earns minimum wage in a typical meat- packing plant.

"We're going to start by explaining what we're going to be using to break down the animals. Everyone's going to have a boning knife," explains Harrison. She describes how they'll separate the pig into its four primals: leg, loin, shoulder and belly. But before they can get to those meaty sections, students must remove the extremities, like the head and the feet. San Francisco advertiser John Jakubowski feels for where the pig's head and neck meet, then uses a boning knife to slice through the flesh before taking a saw to the bone.

"I'm cutting the head off of a pig!" says Jakubowski. "Oh, no, he's looking at me. Great. Hi, bud."

Chris Perry steps up next, to remove the feet and hocks, the joint right above the foot that has been used for centuries by thrifty cooks to flavor beans and greens. He scores through the flesh on one side of each foot, flips the pig, and repeats on the other side with some trepidation, asking Harrison, "Should I have sawed this before I removed the hock?" After successfully sawing, Perry is satisfied. "Ha ha! Got it! It was a little nerve-wracking, the first one."

They cut out the ham, which is in the hind leg of the pig. They separate the shoulder, great for barbecue, and then saw through the spine, before using a cleaver to separate the ribs from the belly, the fatty part of the pig where bacon comes from.

"The belly is the best part, definitely," says Harrison. And the whole class agrees. "You can find pork belly everywhere now, every restaurant you go in has it on the menu," says Jakubowski, who's excited to see the point at which butchers become decision-makers. "When you do this, there are certain points where you have to make decisions, more of a short rib as opposed to a tenderloin as opposed to a Denver Rib."

With blood on their aprons and sweat on their brows, the students survey their efforts. "I'm just proud of my handiwork here, it looks good," Perry says. "Before it looked like a wild animal, and now it looks like something I'd see in a butcher shop."

"It's all tied up and ready to go," adds Jakubowski.

As Harrison gives each of them a bag full of meat they butchered, Jakubowski says he'll now approach the butcher's counter with a lot more knowledge and respect. "I just think walking out of here I'm going to know a hell of a lot more than I did coming in," he says, "but I'm going to let them do the work! Because it's a lot of work."

Comments

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  • By Chris Webb

    From Venice, CA, 01/21/2010

    Hey Bea you have the right to be a Vegan and I respect that. Go for it! What I don't understand is why you fail to have the same respect for Mother Nature. Look around. How many of Mother Nature's creatures are flesh eaters/butchers? Stop talking down from up on high and get over yourself.

    By Heather Blalock

    From winter haven, FL, 06/11/2009

    Bea....I am sorry you think killing animals for food is primitive. Not everyone is VEGAN~ Personally i couldn't take this class but sure will eat my bacon in the morning.

    By Bea Elliott

    From Winter Haven, FL, 01/18/2009

    I'd like to follow posting guidelines maintaining a "civil" tone... But in response to such primitive practices as "butchery" I think that's impossible - so I'll just be "relevant" & "brief": GO VEGAN.

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