If you’re an adolescent who likes to carve up dead animals, they call the police on you. Perhaps they should. But once you’re an adult, should you master the art of ripping flesh from bone with sharp objects, they call you a butcher, and perhaps even a slayer and purveyor of the finest meats.
That’s certainly true of the crew at Walden Local, a provider of traceable New England and New York-bred grass-fed products with a main facility in Billerica. They also have a butcher shop on Shawmut Avenue in Boston, where the team’s demonstrations and hands-on workshops are a favorite among hardcore carnivores. With whole animal butchery and sausage-making events coming up this fall, we asked co-owner Charley Cummings to chew on a couple of questions and spit out whatever comes to mind.
Let’s talk butchery. It’s a brutal word. What’s the key to bringing craft and beauty to the concept?
It starts with the land. Land here in New England is uniquely suited to grow grass. It is a very difficult part of the world to grow much of anything else, with a short growing season, heavy rainfall (Boston gets more annual rainfall in inches than Seattle), and hilly rocky soils. But it is one of the best places in the world to grow grass. That makes it an excellent place to graze animals outdoors on pasture.
When an animal that is raised in that environment outside—and receives, in the case of cattle, their entire diet from grass—the result is something entirely different from a health, ecological, and philosophical perspective. The disconnect between our food and where it came from causes all kinds of “out of sight out of mind” problems—environmental, political, and otherwise. The connection to where our food comes from yields amazing rural-urban shared learnings. So the beauty in the craft is in the story of the land, the farmer, and the animal first.
Then there is the element of butchery itself. Simply put, most stores these days receive subprimals that they simply slice and package into the case. In our shop—and in our classes—we are breaking down an entire carcass from scratch, which allows you to creatively cut things in ways you wouldn’t see in a grocery store anymore, and create all kinds of interesting cuts to serve different cooking occasions.
Who is the target demographic for a whole animal butchery demonstration? Rookies? Home cooks? Pro chefs?
It’s a very interesting mix—we have several home cooks that have never been quite too comfortable even cutting up a whole chicken, guys who hunt deer and want to learn more tricks, ardent environmentalists, former vegetarians (these are common!), and many folks who want a job at our shop—butchery is back in vogue.
What’s the hardest thing to teach about butchering? What is the biggest misconception?
You’d have to ask our head butcher Jason … but my answer from all of our classes as far as a misperception is that you have to memorize a bunch of cuts and places to cut. Most primal and subprimal level cuts follow natural seams … so once you’ve done a deer, you can do a pig and a cow as well. The basic anatomy and the placement of tendons and muscle groups is the same; they are just slightly different sizes and shapes. So the hardest thing to teach is how to follow the lead of the carcass itself.
Another misconception is that it’s somehow bloody or messy—although there’s certainly some parts that can be messier, cutting, when done right, is actually very relaxing and mindful.
How do you incorporate lessons about steps in the process that come before and/or after the cutting? From raising and feeding to wine pairings?
I will often talk up front about the farmer and town where the animal came from, how it was raised, and why it’s different from an industrial commodity animal. We often sample a few wines while we’re working as well.
You have a sausage-making workshop, so I have to ask, how is the sausage made? And how messy is this engagement? What should we wear?
This class is the most engaging and fun. … We have hosted several private sausage-making parties as well at our shop—it’s great with a small group. It doesn’t get too messy, but we don’t recommend wearing your Sunday best. The key to good sausage is starting with high quality cuts and balancing your fat ratio. Then you season—heavy on the salt. There is the grind—coarse or fine, and try to avoid putting your arm in the grinder. Then there is the emulsification with honey, beer, or water. And lastly, the stuffing. Stuffing is the trickiest part by far, because you’re looking for a very even flow to keep a consistent width, and it takes a bit to get the feel for the pressure you need to apply. And lastly there is the drying, which ensures that snappy casing and ensures the ends of the sausage do not burst.
[It’s] worth noting that we’ve had a few first dates in our sausage-making class, which in my book is pretty aggressive as far as first dates go.
Check out Walden Local Meat events in Boston at its butcher shop in the South End at 316 Shawmut Ave. The next workshops are on 10.9 and 10.24. For more info and tickets visit waldenlocalmeat.com/fallevents.