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Two months ago I began an apprenticeship at Fleisher's Meat Shop in Kingston, New York, that started with a single premise: Could Joshua Applestone and his team of butchers teach me, your humble nasty bits columnist, to break down a pig in one week or less? It took me a week to learn how to butcher a pig, but what I couldn't have anticipated are the months I needed to recover from my time upstate.
What started as a simple goal became a turning point in my meat-obsessed life. I loved everything about butchery: the sound of cracking bones and cartilage, the thrill of digging my fingers into inches of pristine fatback and feeling all that creamy fat lodging deep within my nails. I loved the aroma of raw meat: fresh, feral, and bloody all at once. And when giant hunks of aged steak were pulled out of the freezer, I loved to lean in and inhale the smells of meat mastery at its finest.
I loved it so much, in fact, that my return to the city was almost unbearable. Like the pounds of leaf lard I so enjoy rendering, I myself experienced a meat meltdown. The kind of meltdown that had me wandering around my apartment every morning in my robe, drinking too many cups of coffee and all the while wondering, "How come I'm not at Fleischer's breaking down more pigs?"
The most difficult thing about going through a meat meltdown is the meat that taunts you. For a few weeks I took my version of a meat hiatus and scaled down to eating meat only twice or thrice a week. But everywhere I looked, I saw intimations of meat. People on the subway could be broken down into primals. Long, slim Japanese eggplants looked like purple sausages. And when I finally allowed myself to eat animals, my hunger was insatiable. Each week became worse and worse. I hit a low point three weeks ago when, faced with a very large and delicious hunk of pastrami that Ed had given me, I took the entire piece of pastrami to bed and ate the whole thing between fat slices of rye. The crumbs fell into the covers but instead of getting up to sweep them away, I let them lie there with me as I napped.
Nothing felt quite as real to me as the store and the people who make the place so unique. It would only be a minor exaggeration to claim that Fleisher's sells the best-tasting meat in the country, but then again, Fleisher's is no ordinary butcher shop. It supplies meat to superstar chefs like Dan Barber. It's been featured in countless books and magazines. (Ever heard of Julie Powell and Cleaving? Yes, that was Fleisher's as well.)
The owners, Jessica and Joshua Applestone, insist that what they've accomplished at Fleisher's is no different than what butchers have been doing for centuries. Breaking down animals that arrive at the shop in whole, halves and quarters, and selling all manner of cuts, is certainly a practice in butchery that has been overtaken only in recent decades by sytrofoamed packed, factory-farmed meat. To call Fleisher's a traditional shop, however, would be to underestimate the extraordinary things that take place in the shop on a daily basis. Fleisher's is a store, but it's also a meat university, a place where the art of butchering is discussed, demonstrated and above all, practiced.
Learning from Hans, the Master Butcher
I'm finally ready to talk about meat. I learned so much in my time at Fleisher's, and though I need to return to continue my education in lamb and beef, I have a pretty solid grounding in pig now. It may take Josh a cool forty-seven seconds to break down a half side of pig and me, several hours, but no matter. I can look at a half side of pig and instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of a very large animal, I see bacon and hams, whole loin roasts and shoulders.
My tutelage began under Hans, a German gentleman from Bavaria who'd been a master butcher at the Culinary Institute of America for two decades prior to coming to Fleisher's. His directions were gentle but firm; his speech bears the signs of his Bavarian heritage. Such as, "Chichi, you are putting your knife in the wrong direction to remove the teender-loin. Put it dere. See vat I mean?"
A spry man in his sixties, Hans is quite tall. He has a son who's a professional football player, yet Hans himself is lean rather than muscular. Fond of plaid shirts and sauerkraut, Hans displays a quiet, assured strength that's the closest I've ever witnessed to the zen of butchery. With neither strength nor weakness, Hans wields his knife like it's an extension of his hand. There is an eerie continuity between the two, as if Hans is not leading his knife but the other way around.
With x-ray acuity, Hans can separate joints with a subtle twist of his wrist. He can make the trotter tumble away from the hock by pointing the tip of his knife into the joint connecting the two and giving it one deft twist with his wrist. Once, when the shop was perfectly still, I heard the faintest pop of air as he inserted his knife into the joint, smoothly carving around the joint. It took me several pigs to successfully insert the tip of my knife into the joint. Doing so in the beginning felt like desperate jabs in the dark, but when I finally managed, I felt a jolt of assurance in my palm when the tip of the knife went cleanly in.
A lot has been written about the composition of meat—that, contrary to the common conception of meat as an impenetrable composite, flesh is in fact stitched together by collagen and tissue, by sinews that are plainly visible on the cutting table. Following the sinews is quite a bit like following a roadmap of meat. The muscular groups on the hind leg of a pig are not much different than that of the cow; both kinds of legs can be taken apart and put back together again in discrete masses of flesh.
One of the first tasks Hans had me work on was taking apart a pig's hind leg and putting it back together again. The hind leg is composed of a few cuts: the top round, bottom round, the eye of round, and the knuckle. A few deft slashes of the knife will separate the leg into these parts. It took me the better part of an hour to get the hang of using my knife, during which time Hans had started to break down a whole lamb.
Each time I looked up from my station Hans had further fabricated the lamb. In the beginning he manually sawed off the head with a large bandsaw and set it aside. I looked at down at the head and was struck by its alien nature, so angular and narrow underneath the guise of skin and wool. A lamb's tongue, gray and flaccid, often hangs out of the mouth between perfectly neat rows of tiny teeth. My mouth watered thinking of confited tongue.
When lunchtime neared, I handed the lamb's head back to Hans.
"Let's have the brains," I said.
A real butcher shop may be the one place in the world where I will never have to explain what I love to eat. Without so much as batting an eye, Hans walked over the mechanical saw and cut the head in half, carefully extracting the lobes from inside the skull. Then he turned on one of the burners in the kitchen where, adjacent to our burner, a giant vat of stock was bubbling away.
Adding a bit of butter to the pan, Hans tossed in the lobes. Brain is primarily composed of fat; each segment is barely held together by a thin membrane that displays the intricate pattern of veins and blood vessels underneath. Upon contact with the heat, the brains spurted and sizzled. Hans let them brown for a moment and then cracked a few eggs into the pan as well. Waiting until the eggs had barely congealed, he removed the scrambled brains and eggs from the pan onto a single plate for us to share. A butcher's lunch in three minutes time.
What do brains taste like? The texture is easier to describe: creamy but firm, like overly curdled yogurt or lumpy tofu. The taste is unlike any other part of the animal, with the exception perhaps of sweetbreads. Both brains and sweetbreads possess animalistic flavor that's neither iron-intensive like the livers or gamey like the kidneys. Brains also taste somewhat like a firm fish roe, though without the fishiness, of course.
The general consensus about brains is that they should be soaked in water for several hours to leech out the excess blood. The fresher the brain, however, the less likely it is that you'll need to do so. The lamb's brain at Fleisher's did not have to travel far to be cooked: its trajectory started from inside the skull to the cutting table; then it was plopped onto to the frying pan nearby. We did not soak it in water. It was extremely tender and flavorful, with no extraneous or overly assertive flavor. Furthermore, the membrane surrounding the brain was so fresh, thin, and delicate that there was almost nothing to trim. (Had the brains come from a pig or cow, they would have been less delicate.)
Since the brains you are mostly likely to buy will not have been sitting in a skull immediately prior to your consumption, you'll want to soak them in a water or briefly poach them in salted water before use. To soak the brains, wash them in cold water, then place them into a bowl and soak in several changes of cold water. Then pull off as much of the filament as you can without tearing into the brains.
Continue here for the recipe for Scrambled Brains »
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.