Breaking Down A Cow
Today I had the rare opportunity to break down a cow. That’s right a cow. You might be asking yourself, “but Mary, how? I’ve seen your apartment. There isn’t room for a cow in there,” or “my gosh, I bet that must have cost a pretty penny, did you get it at the farmer’s market?”
Some fellow students, instructors and I trekked up to Bow, Washington (about an hour and a half’s drive from Seattle) at 7:15 this morning to the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative processing plant to tour the Lopez Island Community Trust’s mobile USDA approved meat processing unit, and break down a cow.
I’m not training to be a butcher, though I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to intern with Dario Cecchini the Tuscan butcher with whom Armandino Batali and Bill Buford studied under. But meat fabrication is fascinating. So much that I find when I’m looking at domesticated animals I often think about how to break them down into primal and sub-primal cuts. Creepy, I know, but I promise I won’t be coming after anyone’s house hold pets soon.
At school we breakdown chickens like pros, rabbits and legs of lambs, but never have we had the opportunity to break down a whole cow. Every child’s dream! OK not really, but the chance to see where my favorite cuts of meat were from, and trim them up nice and neat was too good to pass up.
Back to Lopez Island. Six years ago the Island co-op got was the recipient of a grant to build a mobile unit that could go around to small farms and dress (clean out the blood and guts) live stock, and break it down so that the farmer could sell his/her meat at farmer’s markets. After three years the unit had moved across the sound to its current location in Bow, running at full capacity, bringing the dressed livestock back to their processing plant to be cut to the farmer’s specifics, anything from cubed or ground beef to chops, short ribs, just about any darn cut you can think of (including one new one I learned today, the peitie shoulder tender).
After a brief tour of the plant and unit we separated into two smaller groups and were put to work, first breaking down the lower cut. We removed the flank, then the top and bottom round, then the sirloin. Then at the table we broke down the sub primals even further, separating the flank steak, the tenderloin, the top round, bottom round, hanger, the sirloin, porterhouse, London broil. After that we moved on to the upper half, the ribs, chuck, brisket, and skirt steak. After a leisurely lunch break, it was round two, starting all over again with the primal cuts.
Butchering your own meat is incredibly satisfying. Following the seams of fat, using my knife to separate where there is tension, trimming off fat, glands, and silver skin I feel consumed by a knowledge that both ancient and instinctive. This isn’t in anyway glamorous work. When an internship was mentioned I didn’t even think of taking it, but I am so thankful for the people who do it, in awe of their lore, and knife work. It is a dying art, and with the mass processing plant scares, supporting small-scale butchers appears the way to go.