As it turns out, I most look forward to the things that give me the most frustration. Probably a sign that the whole butcher shop thing was a good idea. Part of the fun of being a butcher is the challenge of consistency. The pigs, beef and lamb are all about the same size each week, but it is always a goal to be faster, more efficient. The more I cut the cleaner I want the bones to be. I have a thorough grasp of the parts of a pig, but beef presents a greater challenge. Partly due to less experience, but also because beef is, well, bigger. Their muscles are dense. The meat is heavy. The bones are sharp. Removing the brisket from the chuck takes time and concentration. I end up tired and short of breath with a mist of perspiration across my brow. I need the assistance of gravity and a meat hook. The work is really physical and, more than any other sub-primal, causes me the most frustration. I recently had a bit of a breakthrough, and am convinced that, like most tricky cuts, once I get it, I’ve got it. Now I just have to wait until my next beef delivery to prove my theory.
But when the beef is all cut I am left with pigs. I would never dismiss the pig as boring, mundane, banal. To the contrary, I am still fascinated by the versatility the pig offers.
I was recently talking to a customer, a fellow who fancies himself a private chef, who was interested in a, “Bone-in pork belly.” I dismissed this as silly, but, being in the business of selling meat for a living, cut him what he wanted and sent him on his way. I returned to the block to clean up what was left of the belly and thought about the idea of serving it bone-in. I cut two bones worth off the side and removed the tips. I frenched an inch or so off the top, scored the skin and folded the bottom half back to where the bones ended and tied it in place. The “belly chop” was born.
Silly. A ridiculous harkening back to 1996 and, perhaps, a result of my time working in a David Burke kitchen, but nonetheless fun. Cute. A cut that could be easily reproduced and marketed as “a Butcher & Larder original!” To lend my new creation a bit of legitimacy, I invited long time customer, avid home cook, chartuerist and blogger Mark Smrecek to take the “chop” home and have a little fun. The results will be posted here and on his blog, http://homemadebacon.wordpress.com.
The point of all this isn’t that I hade a moment to have a little silly fun, or to further prove the versatility of the pig. While I would be happy letting this be about offering up a fun challenge to a valued, trusted customer (and more of these challenges with different friends will follow…) that isn’t the point either. This was a lesson in marketing. In creative butchering. There was a time when pork bellies were just used for bacon. A noble cause, no doubt, but we should be reminded that, until Celebrity Top Chef Tom Colicchio put “braised fresh bacon” on his tavern menu at Gramercy Tavern. No one was cooking it at fancy restaurants. No one was making their own bacon. Of course, most of Argyle St. was aware of how good the belly was and it was applied all over China Town, but the fancy set didn’t take notice until “Fresh Bacon” was born. Soon it was everywhere, and continues to be everywhere. So much so that bellies are one of the cuts my pig farmer rarely has extras to spare. Fortunately I don’t buy parts and each pig comes with a belly.
In the opening frenzy, I was ‘speed butchering’ my way through pigs just to keep the case stocked full of chops, loins, and all the other usual cuts, and some of the unusual cuts my customers were requesting. Now that we are settling in I am easing up on the accelerator and looking to find parts I can offer as a fun and interesting alternative to the usual suspects.
Will the ‘Belly Chop’ be a staple? A Butcher & Larder featured item? Probably not. But as we continue to examine and dissect our pigs, as we learn new techniques and cuts from other cultures and as we just get better at what we do we will find new things to offer. New ways to approach the muscles we work with. More options to talk to our customers about. With time we will better understand all the animals we cut and our case will be filled with the familiar, the unfamiliar and the never heard of. The other day Chris responded to a customer’s quizzical reaction to his suggestion saying, “Sometimes the more expensive cut isn’t necessarily the best cut.” Indeed, sometimes the best cut is the one you never knew existed.