Bacon is easy. I want to say that loud and clear. Bacon is easy."
That's Tray Satterfield, meat associate at Skagit Valley Cured Meats in Washington State and she's speaking about curing pork to 36 women gathered for a three-day conversation about all things meat.
Now in its second year, Women Working in the Meat Business is a conference hosted by NC Choices, a program of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. Coordinated by Sarah Blacklin, the goal of this event is to bring together women who work at every stage of meat supply chains to help close the gaps that make moving pasture-raised, local meat from farm to table so difficult.
The women at the early November conference hail from West Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana and Alabama, among other places, and they are farmers, butchers, processing facility owners, buyers, retail outlet managers and restaurant owners. Several of the Triangle food scene's heavy hitters are here, including Eliza MacLean of Cane Creek Farm, Jennifer Curtis of Firsthand Foods, Leila Wolfrum of the Durham Co-op Market, and Vimala Rajendran of Vimala's Curryblossom Café. They offer other participants a strong model for what communicating across the supply chain can look like.
The conversation begins at the Chapel Hilltop Lodge on a Sunday afternoon over drinks and a pig carcass. The women sip Biltmore wine, Fat Tire in cans and hot tea, while CEFS staff prep a mobile butcher's table on the luxurious back patio. Situated atop Pickard's Mountain in rural Orange County, the space looks across a melange of fall color.
The official program begins with Kari Underly of Range, Inc., a master butcher from Chicago and author of The Art of Beef Cutting. She's "going whole hog" today, demonstrating nose-to-tail breakdown of the aforementioned carcass into retail cuts.
Underly sports a crisp white coat, dark jeans, patterned Danskos and a pink glove. She explains that as she butchers she'll keep in mind cuts for charcuterie and salumi, the French and Italian styles of meat curing, in mind.
MacLean, whose hog Underly will cut, gives the back story on this particular animal: It was a white pig with black spots, a cross between an Old Spot and a Farmer's Hybrid, and it was shot with a bullet five days prior and processed and hung at Piedmont Custom Meats. Underly says, "This particular hog's life was ended in a respectful way. I can see it in the meat quality."
One of the first orders of business is to remove the leaf lard, a layer of fat that is ideal for making meat pie and pork butter. "This was the original Crisco," Underly says, as she passes around a cube of the lard for everyone to touch.
Next she extracts the tenderloin, complimenting its quality: "It's a better product when you use a better pig," she says.
Being careful not to re-open a wound on her hand, a recent "vegetarian accident" with an avocado, Underly deftly proceeds. A meaty vocabulary of potential cuts and preparations spills across the evening: prosciutto, chicharrón, barbeque, spare ribs, baby back ribs, St. Louis spare ribs, country-style ribs, rib tips, sirloin tips, top rounds, top sirloin chops, tomohawk chops, brisket, ham, bone-in belly, porchetta, coppa, lardo, boneless loin, soppressata.
The women gathered reveal the diversity of their backgrounds in the questions they ask. Genell Pridgen, farmer from Rainbow Meadow Farms in Greene County, asks about country ham and side meat for morning biscuits with molasses. Rajendran speaks to pork vinadloo, a Portugese dish prepared in the Indian state of Goa, and Satterfield discusses authentic proportions of fat and skin in true Italian sausage.
Several hours later, the temperature has dropped significantly, and Underly has completely rendered the carcass into retail cuts. It is dinnertime. In a quick set change, the hog is cleared away and a long banquet table on the patio is set and spread with bouquets of local flowers, Carolina apples and candles. CEFS staff have cooked a simple chili dinner with meat from Curtis' Firsthand Foods, and they serve it with cornbread, salad, and fixin's. There's a festive spirit to everyone breaking bread together, and I hear dinner table conversation that ranges from mobile processing units to chicken tractors, meat lockers to grandfathers, legal issues of shared farm land to "the joy of the Lord is my strength."
Monday morning the group caravans to Lantern on Franklin Street for more instruction from Underly. The dining space has been transformed into butchery work stations, each equipped with a large red cutting board, four boning knives and orange gloves. They're labeled with titles like Seaming Ham, Deboning Brisket and Trimming Beef.
This morning the focus is beef, but the animal has arrived improperly cut. The situation is a live example of the challenges farmers face in articulating how they want their animals cut and the challenges processors face in meeting a variety of "cut sheet" requests. Underly improvises, arranging the pieces of meat she has like a three-dimensional puzzle to discuss muscle groups and potential cuts. Again, the details are meaty: chuck, shoulder, shoulder tender, mock tender, petite tender, grass-fed versus pasture-raised, flat iron, sirloin, ranch steak.
Most of the women sport iPhones in their back pockets and whip them out to alternately photograph mock tenders, type notes on marinades—pineapple, kiwi and papaya will aggressively tenderize a cut, and attend to email and texts as they keep abreast of issues back home.
Underly speaks to the need for a renaissance of the artisan butcher, a topic attendees discuss in detail later in the day with a panel of butchers that includes Justin and Kate Meddis of Rose's Meat Market in Durham and Ross Flynn of Saxapahaw's new Left Bank Butchery.
During a break, event coordinator Blacklin addresses the challenges and opportunities of working in this business as a woman, and invites Maggie Hamm, of event sponsor Farm Credit, to do the same. "My mom started a pasture-based operation 10 years ago," Hamm says, "She was a woman before her time." Everyone here are convinced that women play an essential role in "retooling the supply chain" and their commitment to this goal is palpable.
"I want to write a book about the people that work in slaughtering plants," Underly says, "and how they won't even look at you." She pauses, unable to continue. Her eyes fill with tears as she recalls a visit to a large-scale processing facility, one of the links in the ethically and environmentally unjust system that underpins most of our nation's commodity meat production, the very system that these women and their businesses challenge. Underly recalls a woman whose sole job was "vacuuming buttholes of cows." Animal after animal, she says, this woman cleaned cattle, a cog in the machine that delivers cheap feedlot-raised beef to American tables. "I can't get that woman out of my mind," Underly says, "I never will."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A meaty topic"