When American food writer Camas Davis’ journalistic career evaporated, she took a leap into the unknown, using the last of her credit to fly to France in search of “the art of butchery.”
Under the tutelage of an extended family of Gascon butchers called the Chapolards, she was gradually inducted into the traditions of “whole animal butchery”, the vanishing rural culture of transforming every edible part of the animal into something exceptional.
Her excellent book about the experience, Killing It, is published by Picador on July 27th.
In anticipation of that great pleasure, Strong Words spoke to her about exchanging pen and notebook for some very sharp knives…
Early in your book you confess to a secret desire to become a butcher. What were the origins of that longing?
I suppose when I say it was a “secret desire” I mean its origins were secret even to me and not so much that I kept it secret from others. In fact, there came a time where I mentioned this desire often to others, without having any real intention to pursue it, and without even really understanding what it meant “to become a butcher.”
Only over time, and only many years after I set out to learn this skill, did it become clear to me where this desire came from.
Even for someone like me, a food writer, a restaurant reviewer, who was supposed to know a lot about all ingredients, meat was a bit of a mystery to me. Sure, I knew, basically, where it came from, but not really, and I had mostly always assumed all meat was raised the same way. I’d never dug really deep into the world of meat, perhaps because I didn’t know which questions to even ask. I was starting from a very basic level of assumptions as most people would.
I had also, for much of my life, struggled with my place on that complicated meat/no-meat spectrum. At some point it occurred to me that to find a place that wasn’t either forsaking meat altogether or eating meat out of pure ignorance (both of which I didn’t feel comfortable with), I would have to dig into the middle of it all. Learning how to turn an animal into dinner did that for me.
Perhaps, too, I felt a kind of nostalgia for a time when people had agency in the system that brought food to their table, a nostalgia about a time I had not even really lived in—but which my father and grandfather did. For whatever reason, that nostalgia translated into a desire to learn butchery. For others, I suppose it translates to learning how to make your own shoes, or throw a ceramic pot. Butchery to me felt meaningful, direct, controversial, complicated. Anything that can be described this way has always appealed to me.
At what point in your immersion in French whole animal butchery did you know for sure that butchery was for you?
I’m not sure what you mean by knowing “butchery was for me.” Butchery as a profession? I never did become a butcher professionally. If you mean, butchery as a means to thinking about the world, to understanding better a vast subject (what we eat) that is much more complicated than most of us are willing to accept, I think the moment I stepped into the Chapolard’s cutting room in France I knew.
Or do you mean, butchery as a skill that gave me some small amount of personal agency in a food production system that is set on making sure I have none? By the time I left France I knew, at the very least, I wanted to perfect my butchery skills enough such that I could buy whole animals from farmers raising animals outside of the industrial model and butcher them myself at home to fill my freezer (or my makeshift charcuterie corner). By the time I had worked a few months in a butcher shop in America, I began to understand how the very basic knowledge of butchery I had acquired opened me up to entirely different ways of sourcing and eating and thinking about meat than those customers I was serving.
Is there a particular cut of meat or part of the butchery process that gives you most pleasure to perform?
Before I learned whole animal butchery and cookery, I had favourite cuts of meat. Now, I don’t, because I know that every part can be rendered delicious if you know how to cook it or cure it right. I also know what happens when a public spokesperson says what their favourite cut of meat is. Suddenly consumers start demanding it more, and meat counters raise the price on the cut, and we all forget, once again, that the whole animal is delicious and edible. And then our industrial model of production has to produce enough animals to satisfy our taste for this one cut.
What makes a great sausage?
I often hear this saying, “That’s how the sausage really gets made,” as if it were a big, scary mystery. The truth is that most sausage, or, rather, good, quality sausage is simply meat and fat that’s been ground and mixed with spices, then emulsified to varying degrees (i.e. mixed by hand or in a mixer such that the meat and fat adhere to one another, just as you would mix oil and vinegar to make a vinaigrette), and stuffed into an intestine.
I suppose it’s the intestine part that scares people, although these same people often cringe at the thought out of some cultural need to distance themselves from this very real reminder of where the sausage came from, and then eat the sausage anyway.
There are some sausages, like boudin noir, that have other ingredients in them, like blood, and somehow blood has been deemed less acceptable than intestines by many people. And I have eaten some delicious Thai sausages with cooked pig skin in them. All of these ingredients are food, and when handled and cooked right, provide the rich flavour and desirable texture and bite of a good sausage. The best sausages I ate in France were so simple. Meat. Fat. Salt. Pepper. That’s it.
That said, on a practical level, I have learned over the years that the emulsification process and the size of your grind is very important, not to mention the quality of the meat (but that should always go without saying). As well, just recently, one of my instructors taught me her secret. She cooks pig’s skin until it is very soft and then blends that up into a thick paste. The pig’s skin has a lot of collagen in it, which basically acts as a binder. She adds a little of this to all of her sausages to, if you will, glue the meat and fat together and it provides such a velvety, soft texture as well as rich flavor. Her sausages are some of the best I have ever had (shout out to Sarah Schneider at The Nightwood Society).
Why do you think there is this surge in numbers of people wanting to learn butchery skills?
I think the surge in the number of people who want to learn butchery goes right along with the surge in the number of people who want to learn to grow their own food, and the number of people who want to learn to sew their own clothes or build their own houses. In this modern, industrialized world, and especially in urban centres, we have lost all our agency when it comes to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in. I think this slow loss of agency has created a cultural panic that only continues to grow.
I quote John Berger in my book: ““Recently the insulation of the citizen has become so total that it has become suffocating. He lives alone in a serviced limbo—hence his newly awakened, but necessarily naive, interest in the countryside.” This is from his book, Pig Earth, which he wrote in 1979. Nothing has really changed since then.
What do butchers argue about among themselves?
Most of the butchers I hang out with don’t argue, actually. Although I have seen a few fierce debates about charcuterie and mould and salt online. But for the most part, the butchers I hang out with are mostly inquisitive people who like to share their different techniques and styles and philosophies and who are all working toward more responsible meat production and consumption wherever we live.
I’ve witnessed a certain amount of bravado, I suppose, almost solely among male butchers, and that bravado can come off as a kind of arguing. I once saw an Austrian butcher criticize a French butcher for not leaving the rib meat on the belly and instead leaving it on the bones for stock, which seemed silly since both butchers planned on using the meat for something edible. I suppose the sort of butchers I hang out with tend to discuss intently (rather than argue over) what kind of farmers they want to work with, where they think the better meat comes from, what “better” even means or should mean or can mean. But it’s all mostly in the service of figuring out what the “right” thing to do is when you work in the world of meat. There’s a lot of debate over accessibility and affordability for sure. And fervent discussions about the new model of mail order meat as well as test tube meat right now.
You express frustration that people won’t try anything that looks like it has come from an animal, especially as your French mentors use every part of the animals they slaughter. What do you recommend people try to start experimenting with meat beyond burgers and pork chops?
Most of us tend to only want to eat muscle meat (as opposed to fat, skin, or organs). So I recommend people maybe start to try cuts of muscle meat they have never heard of before and which are typically cheaper, at least in America, than the cuts we are used to eating (like pork chops and steaks).
These tend to be cuts of meat that need a little more coaxing in the kitchen (low heat, longer cooking times, marinating, curing, etc), and also cuts of meat that will have more interesting flavours and textures. Ham hocks perhaps, or skirt, flank, or bavette steaks.
Then once you have a sense for how different these cook and taste from the usual burgers and chops, try moving on to that fifth quarter, i.e. organ meats like heart, or muscles from the head or neck (beef and pork cheeks and lamb neck are some of my favourite cuts—even though I said I don’t have a favourite cut, earlier). Maybe also open yourself up to charcuterie: pate, ham, salami, blood sausage, head cheese, all recipes that were adapted specifically to those parts that are not turned into burgers and chops.
What do you think is the meat dish to beat all others? (And is it cassoulet?)
Cassoulet is a pretty magical dish, and it utilizes so many different parts of duck and pig. But I think any meat dish holds the potential to beat all others if it is made from an animal who was raised humanely, who was allowed to eat what it was meant to eat during its lifetime, who was allowed to move around like an animal should, who was slaughtered without stress, pain or suffering of any kind, and whose carcass was then given over to the hands of a knowing cook willing to take the time to understand the story of the animal and translate that into the kitchen in a respectful and resourceful manner.
What advice would you give to other people who, like you did, are contemplating gambling everything on a radical career change? How can they give themselves the best chance of success?
This is always a hard question to answer. Since I started the Portland Meat Collective many people have come to our classes as lawyers and doctors and computer whizzes and insurance agents and administrative assistants, and then, perhaps partially because of our classes, have decided, over time, to quit their careers and do something in meat, or in food. I am always so nervous for them. I feel responsible for them. When they come to me asking me how I did it, I tell them how scary it was, how I still am unsure of what I am doing. I tell them not to be scared and to be scared at the same time and to harness whatever energy exists in between.
I tell them to be comfortable not knowing how the hell it’s all going to play out for quite some time. It’s not as if I lost my job as a magazine editor and immediately said “I have a plan. I will go to France and study butchery and become a butcher and make a living.”
I was quite lost, and quite panicked and I wasn’t sure how I was going to make ends meet, and really it would have made much more sense for me to keep doing what I knew how to do, what I had been doing for ten years. At the same time, losing my job the way I did, forced me into an existential crisis that I wouldn’t have allowed myself to have otherwise. I had to lose my job to even entertain the idea of going to France. I don’t know that I would have ever done it otherwise.
I also think back to that time in my life, and see that even though it felt dire, even though I had no savings, couldn’t make rent, etc., I still had support to fall back on. I had unemployment checks. I had a generous boyfriend who allowed me to move into his house without paying rent. I had a family who, if worse came to worse, would always take me in. I had a credit card in the back of my filing cabinet I had forgotten about. I had friends who let me sleep on their couches. These frames of support allow us—give us the privilege—to make drastic changes in our lives. It’s much harder to do that when we don’t have those support systems. So I always tell people to make sure they have that support system in place beforehand if they are so lucky to have those resources to draw from.
I also always tell people that they should be willing to hustle. To sew things together like a crappy patchwork quilt. They should be willing to do anything they need to do to support themselves while they learn a new skill or what have you. They should be ready to be uncomfortable, and to not know what in the hell they are doing. They should be assertive. Be inventive and creative and curious. They should be prepared to do shit they don’t want to do, to start at the bottom, to feel, literally, dumb, at times. They should be willing to admit they don’t know to the people who will help them know.
Would you also secretly still rather be in Gascony with the French butchers? If so, what’s stopping you?
Of course, yes, especially now, given the way things are going in America. But it’s easy to romanticize life over there. I was a mere tourist, really. It was easy for me. In reality, life in Gascony is complicated too. The Chapolards struggle with what to do with the farm, how to run it, whether to continue it. They work so hard.
Kate (Hill, an American expert on Gascon food who teaches in Gascony) continues to do the amazing things she does, but she and the Chapolards both, as I say in the book, riffing off of John Berger again, have “employed their own kind of guerrilla strategy, a shared network of precarious paths across an ever-changing, often hostile economic and cultural environment.” I think I can best do justice to what they taught me about employing those guerrilla strategies by interpreting their approach over here, my home, where my family and my friends and my roots are.
I started something here I want to see continue, something that was planted in me in France but which grew up a bit in America and continues to grow.
You can read a review of Killing It in Issue 3 of Strong Words, out now and available to buy here.