On Consuming Animals

Eating meat is a facet of life with an uncanny knack for riling up debate. Especially with the spate of factory-farming in the U.S. and the quandary posed by vegetarians and vegans, the decision to eat meat is a convoluted one. The Chicago Humanities Festival delved into the topic over the weekend at a symposium titled Consuming Animals. The discussion featured Tom Philpott, correspondent for Mother Jones and co-founder of Maverick Farms in North Carolina; and Rob Levitt, owner of The Butcher & Larder, Chicago's first sustainable whole-animal butcher shop. Here's what they discussed.

The chief ramifications that emerge when discussing meat-eating are the issues of factory-farming and the debate posed by vegans. To address the first cog in the carnivorous wheel, Philpott starts by explaining that a lot has changed since Upton Sinclair broke ground with The Jungle, shedding light on a factory industry shrouded in danger and unsanitary working conditions. While the response to the book shifted the paradigm of factory-farming and our perception of the industry, things in America have steadily ebbed back towards reliance on factories, away from the neighborhood butcher shops and into grocery stores. As Philpott evidences, butchering used to be an industry that helped form the crux of neighborhoods, with food dollars going towards these independent businesses and helping to develop local economics. The re-focusing back towards grocery stores, and thus factory farms, has resulted in the waning of the art of butchery. But that is slowly changing again, thanks to pioneers like Levitt paving the way anew.

The Butcher & Larder
(Photo: The Butcher & Larder)

Levitt first embarked on the path of chefdom, with grandiose aspirations to become the next big chef. At one point during his culinary tenure, he picked up Cooking By Hand by Paul Bertolli, and everything changed. Levitt credits this book as his quintessential game-changer, opening his eyes to the possibilities of the cooking industry and the path he wanted to take. Under the tutelage of the book, he began dabbling in charcuterie and he was hooked. When it came time to open his own restaurant, mado, with his wife Allie, they wanted to do things the right way, sourcing food the most sustainable way possible and asking local farmers to sell them the "unpopular" animal parts they had remaining. mado received shipments of whole animals on a regular basis and the restaurant quickly developed a renown for its butchery and meaty fare. It solidified in the Levitts' minds that there was a resurgence of interest in sustainable butchery and cookery again. When the time came to close mado, the duo decided to hone in on butchering and open a butcher shop instead of a new restaurant. "If people are willing to go to a market and buy their produce, maybe they'll go to a butcher shop to buy their meat," muses Levitt, who opened The Butcher & Larder as the city's first sustainable whole-animal butcher shop to great acclaim. For him, a large part of it is about getting back to the way things used to be, to the era of the neighborhood butcher shop, when locals would spend their money on wholesome, sustainable food rather than funnel it into grocery conglomerates. A wide swath of clientele has helped establish The Butcher & Larder as the neighborhood keystone it is today, with various cuts of all kinds of high-quality meat for every kind of diverse customer. Customers appreciate that Levitt butchers meat right in front of them and offers them cooking tips, aspects entirely unseen in larger, and let's face it soulless, stores. An interesting tidbit is the rise in popularity of off cuts of meat, especially things like sweetbreads and livers, perpetual hot tickets at the butcher shop. Philpott notes the inversion of these items as off cuts and cheap to hot and trendy, once deemed scraps and now slick items on high-end restaurant menus.

The other big snafu for the sustainable meat industry is the great vegan debate, wherein neighborhood butcher shops can feasibly be demonized as places glorifying the unnecessary killing of animals. This is a tough one, and even meat mavens like Philpott and Levitt have a tough time reconciling what they champion. But as Philpott puts it, "I don't want to live in a world without Jamon Serrano." That may sound cheeky, but Philpott has a deep respect for animals, and in his decision to eat meat and support that sustainable lifestyle, he ensures he is doing it in the most responsible way possible. Likewise with Levitt, who actually took his staff on a trip to a farm in Michigan to take part in the butchering process of a pig from living animal to plate, making sure they utilize every scrap of meat on the animal. "You have to understand that you're eating what was once a life," says Levitt. "Treat animals with respect."

As evidenced by the rise in popularity of off cuts of meat, of neighborhood butcher shops, and of sustainable sourcing, people are aware of the state of our food system, and they're advocating for change. Folks like Philpott and Levitt are part of the cornerstone of that change.