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What's at Stake at the Butcher Shop

Pete Wells visits a master butcher to learn how to carve up a steer and comes away with new insights into the best cuts and a fresh respect for a disappearing craft

Let me see if I can put the steer back together.

Spread out on my kitchen counter are 33 pounds of prime aged beef wrapped in brown paper. The biggest package holds eight huge rib steaks, each tapering into a jutting prow of bone. The steaks weigh in at just over 13 pounds. Then, in descending order of mass: a seven-pound standing rib roast, a four-pound pile of meaty bones for stock, thick and enticing short ribs to the tune of three pounds, a slightly smaller quantity of stew meat in one-inch cubes, and, finally, 30 ounces or so of hamburger. Flashing forward to later this evening, six friends will show up for dinner, and when they stagger to their feet a few hours later, the steaks will be gone. The rest of my bounty I will somehow contrive to cook over the next two weeks. But right now I'm trying to run the film in reverse, backing up to three o'clock this afternoon, when these heaps of flesh and bone made up a single colossal hunk of beef.

My original plan was to cut all this meat myself. One day I had realized with creeping horror that I was breathtakingly ignorant about meat for a guy who eats some part of an animal at nearly every meal. I didn't know what a steak was, really, or the difference between short ribs and spareribs, or why I had such trouble slicing a ham.

Apprenticing myself to a butcher seemed like the fastest route to knowledge. If a veteran of New York's meat trade taught me to cut beef into shapes that I recognized from the dinner table, meat would become no more mysterious to me than potatoes or apples. That was the plan, at least. The stupidity of that plan became obvious the minute Pino Cinquemani pulled out his hacksaw.

Pino is the proprietor of Pino's Prime Meats, a butcher shop on Sullivan Street in lower Manhattan. Pino's establishment, with its hand-lettered signs and 19th-century fixtures, is a little piece of old New York, and sometimes it feels like a little piece of the Old World, too, as friends passing by the door sing out "Ciao, Pino!" (More Italian is spoken at Pino's than in certain quarters of Florence or Venice.) Pino has been carving up sheep, pigs and cattle since he was a teenager in the Sicilian town of Castrofilippo, and you might say that meat is in his blood. When I asked him about his family, this was his answer: "My grandfather was a butcher. My father was a butcher. My brothers are butchers. My brother-in-law. My sister-in-law. My nephew and my other nephew—butchers. My son is a butcher." And I, fool that I am, thought I could spend an afternoon at Pino's side and learn how to take apart a steer. I might as well have tried to master rocket science by watching an episode of Lost in Space.

To watch Pino in action is to see an uncanny blend of brute strength and magic. With an unerring pass of his knife, he separates a thick layer of fat from the ribs as easily as if he were cutting a deck of cards. Moments earlier, though, when he took a hacksaw to those ribs, he leaned into it with a force that made me understand why he'd spent the morning in physical therapy. His shoulder has been bothering him since December, when night after night he stayed up late, sawing through bones to meet 182 orders for Christmas roasts.

Cutting up meat is no job for a slacker, and this is one reason butcher shops have nearly vanished from the American landscape. Stanley Lobel recalls a time in the middle of the last century when there was a butcher on every block of Broadway in Manhattan from 100th Street down to the 60s. His family's business, Lobel's Prime Meats, is one of the few shops from that era surviving today. "The other generations didn't want to be in the meat business," Lobel explains. "They're all doctors and lawyers and rabbis and architects—anything but butchers. In those days, butchers really had to work hard. My dad would ring my doorbell at three in the morning, and my wife would push me out of bed. I'd come down late the first five or six years. I'd make it nonetheless, with one eye open and one eye closed. Then we'd go to the market, choosing what was good and what wasn't. Five days a week we used to do that. We'd pack the sides of beef in big, heavy plastic bags and put them in the trunk of the car and bring them up to the store." A side of beef weighs about 300 pounds; driving away, the Lobels' car sagged as if it had two flat back tires.

The Lobels still break down sides of beef, but Pino stopped some time ago. When he drives to his wholesaler each weekday, he picks up mostly primals, the nine sections into which each half of the carcass is traditionally subdivided. The primal I am buying today is called the rib. I imagine it will resemble a roast. Instead, Pino emerges from his wood-paneled walk-in refrigerator straining to keep his grip on a piece of meat the size of a television. Swaying precariously, he somehow brings it in for a landing on his scale: 53 pounds.

"Uh, Pino," I call out. "How much did you say all this meat is going to cost me?"

Pino had promised that if I bought a whole rib primal—more beef than I'd normally eat in a year—I'd save a pile of money. The big-ticket item on this cut is the prime rib, which can be carved into roasts, rib steaks or both. Pino normally charges $18 a pound for this luxuriously marbled meat. I'm paying $5.99 a pound, but I need to take the whole primal. According to Pino, I will come out ahead. I'm not so sure.

Pino's first move is to saw across the ribs about six inches from where they meet the backbone, dividing the 53-pound mass in two. The smaller piece contains the short ribs; he slaps this down on a battered butcher block for later, then returns to the big round piece, the prime rib. First he uses his hacksaw to loosen the chine bone from the ribs. Then he pries it completely off using his cleaver as a wedge. Finally he switches on his electric band saw to separate the chine into nine blocks. "You can use this to make a stock or gravy," Pino says. Nothing on his butcher block looks like dinner yet, but Pino has gotten more exercise in 10 minutes than I have in the past year.

I can see why a young man who had a choice of dismantling steers or filing briefs might turn to law school. Mere aversion to heavy lifting, though, can't take all the blame for killing off independent butcher shops. The chief culprits are the grocery stores and the meat packers. In the early days of supermarkets, the meat department was a real butcher shop, staffed by men in white aprons who broke down carcasses and cut your brisket to order. Faced with this competition, independent butcher shops across the country closed. Then the supermarket butchers began to work behind the scenes, laying the brisket on Styrofoam trays and wrapping it in cellophane. Old-timers still sometimes asked to see the meat man for a special order, but most customers simply made do with what they found in the refrigerated cases.

Today, bold changes in the industry are making it easier for supermarkets to dispense with butchers entirely. The biggest packing companies sell what they call case-ready meat, which means that they, and not the store, cut up and package the shopper's steaks, roasts and so on. Until recently, this system would have failed, because exposed surfaces of red meat start to look pretty dismal after just a few days. But American ingenuity found an amazing high-tech solution: sealing meat inside plastic with some combination of oxygen and carbon monoxide. (Often carbon dioxide and nitrogen are added, too.) The gas keeps meat looking rosy for six weeks or longer—even after it's begun to rot.

Case-ready meat, which now accounts for more than 60 percent of the stock in supermarket cases, was in the news this winter when critics began questioning the safety of gassing. The real scandal, though, may be the way it is putting butchers out of work. "The butchers used to be the highest-paid guys in the store," says Bruce Aidells, who wrote The Complete Meat Cookbook. "Now clerks put the meat on the shelves and they get the same low wage as everybody else." It might seem that the butchers have simply moved from the stores to the slaughterhouses, but in fact meat packers have perfected an assembly-line system in which unskilled workers repeat a single cutting motion all day long. According to Eric Schlosser in his well-researched book Fast Food Nation, most of the employees are poorly paid, have no health insurance, and stay on the job less than a year. Schlosser called work in a meatpacking plant "the most dangerous job in the United States" because of the high rate of injuries.

Pino locates a thick seam of creamy fat an inch or two below the surface on the top end of the prime rib. He runs his knife through it and the beef falls open like a book. One side of the book will become, after some more fat and the leathery outside edges are removed, my steaks and the roast. The other side is a layered slab of fat and lean that is sometimes called "lifter meat." Pino can extract six or seven pounds of useful beef from this section, but first I have a choice to make: Would I like stew meat, ground beef or flat slices for braciola? I ask for a couple pounds of hamburger for my toddler and the rest cut into cubes that will go into a ragù for me and my wife.

Thomas Keller, the chef at Manhattan's Per Se and the French Laundry in Napa Valley, serves a steak of grilled wagyu beef that is, in fact, lifter meat. Ordinary lifter meat can be tough, but wagyu is so richly marbled that Keller's oddball steak is quite tender, and it's a good buy, too (at least for him). A smart butcher examines a steer and sees a gold mine of these bargain cuts. Alongside $18 rib eyes, Pino sells Newport steaks for as little as $5.99 a pound. The cut comes from the sirloin primal and is known outside New York City as the bottom butt triangle. A butcher Pino worked for in New York renamed it the Newport—a marketing triumph that puts great prime steak within reach of almost everybody. My wife and I served Newport steaks at our wedding without going broke.

Taking apart animal carcasses is a craft, but selling them is an art. Profit margins in meat retailing are slender. To stay afloat, men like Pino have to find paying customers for every inch of the cow. A great butcher is a meat psychiatrist: He can read your mind. At times, he may refuse to give you what you ordered because he's figured out what you really need. Lobel's sells a very tender steak that has too much gristle for grilling. Who wants gristly steak? You do, after Stanley Lobel gives you a recipe for using it in a rich stew that's done in less than 30 minutes.

"Most people know the easy cuts—rib eye, filet mignon, porterhouse, T-bone," Pino tells me. "But there are so many different cuts. I have a lot of customers say, 'Pino, what am I gonna eat tonight?' And I suggest."

Once, this strategic salesmanship made butchers key players in supermarkets. "In the old days, the obligation to sell the whole side of beef fell on the grocery stores," Aidells explains. "It was worthwhile for them to pay a butcher because he knew how to market all those cuts. Now that it's all case-ready, you don't need a butcher. You don't even need a saw."

The modern supermarket refrigerator case is a medley of greatest hits, the cuts that sell themselves. The rest simply don't get sold. This explains why pork legs, prized around the world for their versatility, fetch a rock-bottom price in this country. And it is a big part of the reason that about half the beef in America—the best in the world, ranchers will tell you—gets run through a grinder. For an old-school butcher, turning a delicious cut into hamburger might mean charging less for it and, worse, admitting defeat. With butchers muscled out of the food chain, customers have narrower options and, in many parts of the country, classic recipes calling for old-school cuts already seem as fanciful and as useless as an alchemist's manual.

"The steaks, you want 'em seasoned?" Pino asks me. Go ahead, I say. He dusts the steaks with black pepper and then reaches for a plastic jug with a faded label that says Cheese Balls. Inside are not cheese balls but rosemary leaves that Pino picked in his mother's backyard in Sicily last year. He mashes some with minced garlic and smears a bit of the paste on each steak. Preheat the broiler for at least 15 minutes, he says, but don't let the pan get too close to the flame.

Finally he shows me the thickest, most alluring piece of meat. "That one is yours," he says, scoring the outer layer of fat so that I'll recognize it tonight at the table.

With service like this, it's no surprise that customers drop in to Pino's all day long to ask what they should eat tonight. Not everybody wants artificially rosy beef; some people even want meat that tastes good. Fortunately for them, America is now seeing a small renaissance in butchering. Lobel's has a thriving Web store for carnivores outside New York City. High-end supermarkets like Whole Foods employ butchers and supply them with excellent meat. The chef Barbara Lynch opened a wine bar with a working butcher counter in Boston three years ago, and Thomas Keller will be opening his own butcher shop in Napa Valley this summer.

Now it is time for some math. Pino taps his calculator and informs me that my whole rib primal will cost $315. In return, I get two bags so heavy I start to worry that I'll contract butcher's shoulder, too. They would be even heavier but 20 pounds of fat and bones that I've paid for aren't worth keeping, in Pino's opinion (although, he says with a shrug, "some restaurants would take it"). The steaks and the standing rib roast together, at $18 a pound, would have worked out to $364. Already I've made money, and we haven't even factored in the stew meat and ground beef and short ribs and soup bones. Pino's advice, of course, was right. I thought that by spending an afternoon with him, I would learn to cut up meat. Instead I learned the value of the man who does it for me. •

Pete Wells is a contributing editor to Food & Wine. E-mail comments to him at pete.is.hungry@gmail.com.

Published May 2006
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