The anatomy of meat transparency

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Interview by Gheanna Emelia
Photography by Kyrre Skjelby Kristoffersen

Don’t rely on technology. If you do, backup your backups to your backup. Brutal Magazine sat down with Sara Bigelow, General Manager of The Meat Hook in Brooklyn, to talk all things meat – only to realize that recording apps on phones are susceptible to technical glitches. But Bigelow, being the pro and all around badass woman that she is, managed to produce even more insightful responses the second time around.

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Gheanna Emelia: After our first interview, I was really interested in the Meat Hook’s engagement with their customers. What are the different and unique ways you encourage engagement?
Sara Bigelow: Well, we’re lucky that we are in the retail space as the Brooklyn Kitchen because we’re able to offer classes. So this week I taught a sausage making class and I taught a pig-butchering class. Most of the people that I taught this week were not customers of ours. Hopefully they will be! In the sausage class, I talk about the butchering process. We talk about sausage making a little bit because it’s pertinent to how we use the animal. I also think that the way our shop is physically set up, is with the idea that when we get our deliveries in, everyone can see it. We have to step around people with strollers and people doing their shopping, to bring in the meat on our shoulders and and put it on the table, and break it all down there. Our customers can see what they’re getting. They can ask questions, and often people will stop to take pictures and ask questions like, “What is that? Is that pig?” No, it’s a lamb! Because people don’t have any concept of size or function. Unless you see it frequently, it’s hard for it to stick. It’s hard for you to know, what am I actually looking at? It’s great because we can actually pull things out of the walk-in. If someone says, “I have this recipe and it asks for spare rib.” And you’re like, “No, I think you mean short rib! It’s called short rib, but it’s a whole plate full of very long ribs. Here’s where it comes from on the animal.” We can pull one of the other butchers over and diagram on their body and that’s kind of silly. All of us have brought customers into the walk-in and said, “Okay, here’s what you think you want, here’s what I think you want. Let’s bridge that gap and talk about what you actually need.” I guess again going back to this issue of transparency, being able to refer back to our farms and our farmers by name, point out on a map, “Here’s where our pigs come from, here’s where our beef comes from.” My boyfriend and I recently went to Ithaca, New York, to one of our chicken farms. We talked about not just about how he raises the animals, but about how he interacts with the farm community around him. He wants more than just to grow his own business – he wants to help all the other small farms around him be successful. There’s not a lot of money in that part of New York. Small farms struggle. So he feels if he can sell his product in New York City and charge a decent amount for it, then he can spread that money around. He can lift everyone else up as well. That’s sort of a feel-good story that we can tell our customers, but we also know that we’re living up to our mission statement of supporting local farms that have a really deep connection with the animals, the people who raise them, and the entire process.

I think the last time we talked you said you learned a lot about cooking by working at the Meat Hook. Can you elaborate more on that?
Sure! There were a lot of things I’d never done before I got here and there were a lot of phrases I didn’t know. I didn’t know what a mirepoix was. My boss asked me to make it. I tried to look it up, and it’s a French word. I was trying to spell it in English. Some of our job is really to learn about food science. Like, why does this sausage work? How do these muscles bind together? What are the different proteins that are necessary in order for this thing to function? But also figuring out, okay, we have a bunch of rendered fat and we don’t know what to do with it. What can we do? Oh, you can whip it. And when you whip it, you know to get it to this texture. Just experimenting with different cooking techniques in order to make the charcuterie and the prepared foods has been really fun. It’s been a huge boon to me personally because my food is better for it.

So, a few years ago you burst on the food and butchering scene, seeing as that you’re —
A girl!

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Yeah, a girl in a man’s world. So what has changed since then? Do you feel like there are more women in the field, do you feel more of a rapport?
Yeah, there are. I’m one of three women that work here now. There have been up to four at a time, plus interns. I think it’s cool for me. I’m now in charge of vetting interns and interviewing staff. But when I interview somebody, the main thing for me is: are you cool, do you have a sense of your own vocation and your own interests? When I was looking for a position, the line I always got was, “Oh you can’t do this because you’re small and you’re a girl and you can’t lift stuff.” And when I started working here, when I asked for help, the guys would help me, and when I didn’t ask for help, they didn’t offer. I became much stronger because I was just doing stuff [on my own] and I felt the need to sort of prove myself. At the same time, I didn’t want to hurt myself, so if there was something I couldn’t do, I would ask for help. I still do that. I encourage everyone else to do that – there’s no sense in injuring yourself for your pride. But when we have someone come in, the qualification is not, are you strong enough to lift this stuff? Although that is necessary if you really want to do this job, it’s more like, do you know when to ask for help? Is this really what you want to do? Do you have the passion to push yourself a little but know your own limitations? To speak to the being a woman thing: my past experience as an office employee is what sets me apart more than being a woman. Not having come up in the food service world is what makes me different – not having a vagina. That point is almost moot. That said, there are people who do hold on to that as a part of their identity and I don’t fault anyone for that. But it’s not for me. I don’t feel like I define myself as a woman butcher. I feel like that was pushed. And the thing is, I realize that is part of why I have been successful and why I’ve been invited to do certain things and why I’m able to do demos and stuff, because people find it to be a novelty. And I know that. I’m not blind to that. I accept it. However, my hope is that it will become less and less of a novelty. It’s a weird double-edged sword.

I guess any woman in food right now is just facing an uphill battle.
It’s the same thing for women in comedy. No one wants to ask, “Are women funny?” Yeah, women are funny. Can women lift things? Can they cook things? Can they balance their lives? Yeah, we can do that. No shit. We’ve been doing it, it’s 2014. But the fact that it’s still constantly a question is more irritating than anything else, because I don’t think anyone’s illuminating any new things that we haven’t thought about. I think the gender issues will always exist. And I don’t think it makes sense to ignore them and I certainly don’t think it makes sense to ignore the pay gap. That all has to change and talking about it is a way to get that to change. But I feel like the making a lot of noise about, “Oh my god, this person’s successful, and a [woman]!” Just is beside the point.

There’s something I thought about recently. Ruth Reichl said people need to get over paying a lot of money for good food. And I think the Meat Hook is just the perfect example of that. The bacon that I get from here is just like nothing else. I am so willing to pay for it. I’m curious about your general thoughts on that — the cost breakdown of your meats, and why we are willing to pay that premium.
I agree with that. It’s a very weird platform to stand on to say, pay good money for good food. If you have to have the money to afford good food, then you’re very lucky. If you can throw your disposable income around that way, then you’re certainly a minority. A lot of people live below the poverty line. A lot of people struggle. We’re not ignorant of that. The little things we can do here, like food stamps available, is great, but we’re not trying to solve that problem. We’re trying to offer the solution of where do people find stuff that they’re ethically comfortable with, and where do they find something that is local? We’re offering that. Food is not cheap because we believe in paying everyone who works here a living wage. We feel it’s important to make sure our farmers are paid, and we encourage all of the farms we work with to continue to work with us but also continue to exist. When we first opened, we started with a pig farm that was on the brink of going under because they were just not getting paid from one of the places they were working with. Many farms go bankrupt every year and we know that raising the animals the way we want them to be raised is not a cheap endeavor. So we feel we can say, yes, this is what a pig costs for us, this is what it costs to run our business, this is what it costs to pay our butchers, and this is what it costs you. Now if that’s too much, we understand. None of us are saying we’re cheap and breezy. We know that it is an investment when people shop here and we don’t take that lightly. We know that we’re offering something that is a special treat for some people. Some people shop here every day. Some people shop here weekly, some people shop here when they have saved some money and can afford it and are like, I’m going to treat myself. We try to treat all of our customers like they are treating themselves, because we know that it’s not an easily affordable thing. So we really try to impress on everyone here that customer service is really important because people are paying a premium and they should expect that we treat them very well. Good customer service doesn’t cost anything. But yeah, the cost of meat is high. The cost of buying meat on the commodity market is so, so, low that it’s a laughable difference between four dollars a pound and eighty cents a pound. If you go to a Western Beef and you can buy a pack of chicken breasts for five dollars, that is not a sustainable way to eat. It’s hard because you don’t want to say, “If you can’t afford well raised food then you don’t deserve to eat.” But we also recognize [where your meat comes from] is not important to everybody. Where your meat comes from is not important to everyone and I’m not saying it has to be. It’s a totally personal thing. What you eat is very personal. Or your food viewpoint is very personal. Some people don’t even have one that they are consciously aware of, and that’s okay too. But knowing that some people want to eat well and don’t care where it comes from, or they want to eat easily, like whatever is cheap and easy and available and don’t care where it comes from, that’s okay. We’re not trying to radically change their minds. We’re just trying to offer people who do want something else the ability to get that. That was very long-winded, sorry.

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What’s the most “brutal” part about being a butcher? You can take this in any sort of direction you want.
Oh, that’s the hardest question. It’s easy to complain about being on your feet all day, lifting heavy things. I love it – it’s fun and it makes me feel strong and awesome. But it’s funny because to other people, they’ll see me in an apron that’s covered in blood, and I have scratches on my arm and a knife belt. That to them is brutal, awesome, and crazy. To me, I would say that the coolest things I know are the way an animal lives and the way its body works. I can go to any country and break down animals for food – take the most from that animal and be as resourceful as possible. That is the coolest thing to me. The knowledge that I have is much cooler than the way that I look but what people see is, “Oh you’re bloody, oh you’re cool.” That’s an interesting thing, because dressed in just street clothes, one wouldn’t have any idea that that’s what I do.

I think last time I asked you to speak to the theme of “celebration.” What you think the most underrated celebration is?
I’m going to stick with what I said earlier. I’m going to stick with turning 31.

And overrated is 29?
Well, I think overrated is 30. I’m afraid of 31, maybe a little. I’m turning 29 this year and I feel like, oh shit, I haven’t done anything and I need to hustle to get something done immediately. Squeeze it in under the wire. At the same time I’m like, I can’t live my life that way. I can’t live with this arbitrary deadline of thirty-years-old trying to force me to do some things. Although sometimes you need that. You need that little fire under you.

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