A Big Idea
You won’t find this butcher shop on any maps, nor in any business listings. It doesn’t have a sign, a phone or a staff… Its not a business, its an idea. The idea, an old world style “neighborhood” abattoir, is housed in what was once a decrepit small dairy barn on Phil Vogelzang’s hobby farm near Chimacum, Washington.
I was visiting a nearby farm when someone asked me if I’d heard about “the Seattle surgeon on Egg and I road who has a butcher shop on his property”. He told me that “the surgeon” was working with local farmers to provide a place where they could butcher their animals for personal use, thus circumventing the commercial process, as well as overly restrictive FDA and USDA regulations.
A Surgeon/Butcher? This was something I needed to see, if for no other reason than overwhelming curiosity. The difficulty was that that was the extent of the conversation. I didn’t have a name or other identifying information for this mysterious surgeon. All I really had was an image I’d ginned up in the space of a couple minutes: A rotund grey haired gentleman farmer, a widower, retired from work as an orthopedic surgeon in Seattle, who had come to the peninsula after years in the city. I imagined him puttering around his 5 acre piece of land, caring for his kitchen garden and gathering eggs.
Only a few days later, I was exchanging emails with the owner of the Chimacum Corner Farmstand who mentioned that her husband had a project I might be interested in… a private butcher shop. She cc’d him on our correspondence. Like magic, the butcher/surgeon was no longer myth, he had a name and an email address.
Rethinking my Vision
After a brief exchange, Phil invited me to come see what he was up to. He’d invited master butcher Dan O’Brien and a couple of Dan’s apprentices out for the weekend. They were planning a basic butchering cram course for livestock-owning farmers in the area. This is how I ended up with a saw in my hand rather than my camera, cutting through the haunch on a side of pork.
I parked my car by the barn and was surprised to be greeted by what I was pretty sure was a minotaur. It turned out to be Hamish, Phil’s Scottish Highland Bull, but with the fog just beginning to lift from his shoulders, he bears a striking resemblance to a mythical beast. A few cows and a couple heifers keep him company in the small pasture next to the dairy barn, but its Hamish who commands attention.
Spreading my hand in front of his nose, I tried to comprehend the size of his head, my pinky and thumb barely spanning the distance between his nostrils. Due to the immensity of his cranium, which must be at least 15 inches across the forehead and inch thick solid bone, you can only see one of his two inch diameter sepia toned eyes at a time. And then there are the horns…
I’ve been around cattle before, but never found myself up close and personal with a bull. The most surprising thing about this encounter was the gentleness I felt from this fierce looking animal. I wasn’t sure I wanted to reach inside the fence to scratch his head and run my fingers through his coat, but I also wasn’t sure I could leave without doing so.
I did a double take when I saw Phil. He looks nothing like image I had created. Where the farmer I pictured was in his 60’s or 70’s, and barely taller than me, this man was at least 6’5″, reed thin, and around my age. At first I thought it must not be Phil, that Phil hadn’t arrived yet, but his warm greeting and obvious awareness of who I was and why I was there required a quick rewrite of the introduction to the story I’d already begun to write in my head.
As I was the first to arrive, I got a short tour. Phil is actually a practicing interventional radiologist and, needless to say, with a small herd of cattle, we’re not talking about a little five acre plot with a veggie garden. No chickens either, but to my delight, I discovered that the property was the home of the original Egg and I farm, made famous by the book of the same name by Betty McDonald, published in 1945. Growing up, my mother talked about that book so often that every time we drove toward Chimacum we knew to anticipate the story, but that’s another tale altogether.
The Nitty Gritty
Dan the butcher soon arrived, along with the other participants, and the rest of the day was devoted to cutting up the meat. I have to admit that as a former long term vegetarian, I was surprised at how much interest I had in the process.
Over freshly cut steaks, a small group of us stuck around to talk about the idea of creating a meat collective: a way for farmers with small quantities of high quality meat from hand raised animals to learn together, work together and pool their resources to make what they do sustainable.
Phil later described his seemingly quixotic original vision: “money does not change hands, the animals are handled with the care and love they deserve, the food produced is the very best one can imagine, and those doing the work are learning and growing and spreading the idea that we and they are much better off if we keep this process away from the ‘free’ market and treat it like it should be treated. As a sacred responsibility. To us and them.” True to his medical training, he imagines the butcher shop as a ‘proof of concept’ operation, “a term that clinicians use when they are trying to figure out if a possible treatment or procedure will work.” He told me that his goal “is to prove that doing decentralized, small scale, low cost, local butchering is something that can be done successfully, pretty much anywhere, with no governmental oversight.”
The steaks we ate had traveled about 50 yards from the pasture where the animal grazed, to the table where they were eaten. Aside from a few Seattleites, the people gathered around the table that evening were Jefferson county farmers, all invested in the idea behind the butcher shop, of a place focused on learning and teaching “the professional arts of humane animal husbandry and slaughter, butchering and charcuterie to non-professionals in the community.”
A couple months later, I was back in the butcher shop. Janet, one of the Finnriver farmers, was in charge. On my first visit, we learned and practiced cutting skills on Finnriver pork. This time I was invited to come make sausage, and considering that all the other participants are neighbors and friends, it felt more like a party in the butcher shop than a class…
Peeling a small mountain of fresh garlic, I listened to stories and plans about happenings in the community, a bachelor party that night, potential plans for yoga classes, animal care and the various personalities of those animals.
We discussed coarser versus finer grind sausage and the merits of each. We took turns grinding, mixing the meat with various herbs and spices, cooking test patties, stuffing sausage into casings, making the links and ultimately mixing up a batch of a secret recipe of the day, invented by us.
Driving back to the ferry that evening, the air in my car heavy with odors of garlic, apple, wine, herbs and spices, I reran the day in my mind and felt grateful to have been included. I wasn’t quite ready for it to end yet, but it was already dark and my Monday responsibilities in the city awaited. I also don’t have a farm in the Chimacum Valley to call home.
After spending a couple days with Phil and Janet in the butcher shop, what I left with, aside from a lot of sausage, was a deeper understanding and appreciation for the whole of the experience; the art of raising, slaughtering, butchering, preparing and eating of meat. And while its been years since I felt ok about the idea of buying anonymous, plastic and styro-wrapped meat of any kind, its a very different kind of understanding having connected with the animals in the pasture, handled the meat through the process of preparation and finally eaten it. While I could mentally agree with Phil beforehand, about the sacred responsibility involved with this process, it wasn’t until I had personally participated that I really “got it,” that the gravity of the words “sacred responsibility” with regards to the the animals we eat sank in to my understanding.
Note to the reader: Given the sensitive nature of the imagery, I’ve chosen to address the slaughter part of this process at another time.