pix 328Last winter, a butcher lamb buyer emailed me expressing concern over some negative Yelp reviews given for the local butcher. Curious, I gave them a read, as well as the reviews of all the other local butchers. And they made me chuckle! It seems, there are some things to learn about custom butchers that may be novel to the uninitiated. Fortunately, most of the reviews of our hard-working butcher shops are positive. But the angry customers have some quote-worthy complaints!

I had to load my meat into my car myself!

This, in my experience, is standard at custom butchers; and it is by-design. This is not the grocery store. The idea is that you should carefully inventory your meat at the time of pickup, and resolve any potential discrepancies before you leave the parking lot. Custom butchers are managing a lot of orders; especially during fall, when volume is high due to hunting season colliding with I-don’t-wanna-feed-this-cow-hay-over-the-winter butchering season.

In fact, this time of year, custom butchers are going downright crazy, working twelve-hour days, six or seven days a week. They do the best they can to carefully label every crate of meat and track each person’s unique order. But mistakes happen. If you don’t discover the mistake ‘til you get home, you, and the butcher, are gonna be mad. So, yes, load your own car, and count every single package and compare it to your receipt to make sure you got what you expected. If not, sort it out with them right then and there.

The cuts I came home with did not weigh what I paid for!

This is that hanging weight versus final weight confusing issue. Hanging weight is the weight of the carcass right after it’s been bled, skinned, gutted and beheaded; but before fat and bone has been removed. It’s standard for butchers to charge per pound of hanging weight for the processing of the meat (plus a kill fee). But yes, the number of pounds of packaged meat you’ll come home with will be less. Less by the fat trim, the bones (unless you ask for all of them back) and some shrinkage due to water loss during hanging. Usually there is about a 25% loss there.

The other confusing factor here can be whatever the farmer charged for the live animal (which technically, by law, should be live , or “on the hoof” weight). But that is not the poor butcher’s issue, that’s between the buyer and the farmer. I’ve written before about the complicated math that goes into live versus hanging versus final cuts of meat weights.

Tons of ground beef! And odd cuts of beef!

Ah, yes. This is the bummer reality, that cows are unfortunately not 100% comprised of steaks. They are made of a few steaks, and a whole lot of the tougher parts that need to either be ground or made into slow-cooking cuts like pot roasts. And weird cuts, yes, especially if you don’t know what you want or how to order what you want. A side of beef has a shocking amount of this not-so-exciting meat. If you buy beef by the half or quarter, prepare to embrace tacos and meatloaf, because you’re going to be eating a lot of them!

They butcher animals in view of the street!

Well, it is a butcher, after all. When I was a kid, there was a large slaughterhouse in the middle of downtown, right across the street from my junior high school (now that building is a soccer dome for urbanite sportsmen). I saw freshly-slaughtered cows from the school bus most mornings. And this wasn’t too big of a deal back then. Though some butchers I know are more careful to make sure passers-by can’t directly see this obvious reality of the business they’re in, others don’t worry about it so much. If you’re a vegan, I can see why you might take a different street to work. If you’re a meat eater, well, say hello to how meat gets on your table. Grocery stores may be happy to obscure this for you, custom butchers, not so much.

The leg bones had the hide on, and the hooves still had poop on them!

These are not typical things customers request (the lower legs and hooves, that is). If you are asking for something peculiar, like the head, or the stomach and organs to make haggis, be very explicit about what you want and what you’re going to do with it. For all they know, you’re going to feed it to your dog, and you don’t care if it has poop on it. If they don’t know you want something uncommon, like the hide, they are likely to cut it fast and put holes in it, and it’ll be disposed-of by the time you arrive (unless the producer holds you responsible for picking up your own offal). They are custom butchers, and theoretically, should be able to custom-cut and wrap to almost anything you specify- for a cost. But, again, during the crazy season, they are less apt to agree to do something irregular. So be sure to work it out ahead of time exactly what you expect, and be willing to pay extra for atypical services.

The ribs were slabs of fat!

Ribs aren’t muscle meat. They hardly have any meat on them at all. As for the fat, well, that’s mostly determined by how finished (or over-finished) the animal is. Maybe some butchers leave more fat on than others, that is a matter of preference. But, ribs are another slow-cooking cut; and when cooked that way, the fat should render off, leaving delicious flavor behind.

This place is a bit of a circus!

Yes, it is, in fall. It’s absolutely insane, in fact. It’s easy to take offense if butchers are impatient, in a rush to get off the phone, or make an error in an order. But when you realize that the majority of their annual income comes from this short season, and they are working themselves to death, you have to take a step back. If you visit during summer, you’ll meet a completely different set of very sane, friendly, relaxed and conversational people. But catch them at hour 11 of a 12-hour day, yep, you might see their unpolished side.

When I picked up they forgot a box (for me a round trip is two hours)!

As above: check your meat order carefully before you leave! Especially if you live an hour hour away, for gosh sakes!

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I have learned to treat all of our few-that-are-left local custom butchers with patience and kindness. One near me went out of business a year or two ago. He said he was just tired. Tired of the long days and hard physical labor; and it just didn’t pay enough. It is really hard work, and a very uneven income flow over the course of the year. It’s challenging to find skilled help to do slaughter and meat cutting. My neighbor’s departure from the market left other shops even more overwhelmed and stressed-out, trying to suddenly absorb his customer base. So, we need to treat our local butchers with care; and try to patronize them year-round as much as we can, rather than just in the fall. We can’t afford to lose any of them, they are a threatened species!

Ordering custom-cut meat is a learning curve. I know we had some disappointments the first few times we did it. But over time, we’ve kept careful notes on cuts we like and don’t like, and other things to tell the butcher: that we prefer most of the fat cut off, that we like small roasts since there are only two of us, that we hate lamb steaks. And we understand better now how the frame is parceled-out, so aren’t shocked by how quickly we go through beef steaks and lamb shanks, and how much ground is always left in the freezer. It also helps to remember that the meat cutters in the back may be from any number of cultures, especially in our diverse coastal region. What may be wayyy too much fat for my tastes could be just right for someone from Mexico or Turkey. So you’ve gotta be crystal clear on your preferences.

Our butcher has told me funny stories of folks trying to navigate the cut-and-wrap list. A lady bringing her cookbook, with recipes bookmarked, asking for six whole-leg roasts from a four-legged animal. Someone asking for turkey hams from a hog. For some of this, we can blame the grocery industry, for introducing nonsensical terms like “turkey ham” and “chicken tenderloin.” Dang if it isn’t difficult for everyone to figure out how all this works again, after a few generations of being separated from it.

But, we’ll get there. You can see the learning process happening, right there on Yelp!

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