When you step up to a butcher counter, and order a slab of pork chops, the last thing you expect to hear from your butcher is: “I was a vegan.”
Miles James owns Dot’s Delicatessen in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. But before he started hawking his homemade sausages, pates, bacon and lamb chops, he was vegetarian-slash-vegan for eight years. But then he started cooking professionally. Then he had a Dick’s Deluxe. And then he decided if he was going to become a butcher and charcuterie maker, it needed to reflect his morals. He wanted to respect the animals and use every part of them.
“To see an animal get shot or killed or butchered, it’s a big deal. It’s an emotional thing. The first time you see an animal get shot, and other animals recognize what’s going to happen, you know, animals aren’t stupid. It just makes you respect it a little bit more than going to the grocery store and getting a Cryovac bag of chicken fingers.”
Miles prepared food Monday for a book reading at Seattle’s Book Larder, where Brooklyn’s Berlin Reed will be reading from his new book The Ethical Butcher. Berlin was also a vegan/vegetarian for 14 years before becoming a professional butcher.
“First it was rebellion,” Berlin explains. “I’m from Seattle, it was the 90’s, it was grunge and part of counterculture was being vegetarian. But then as I grew, it also became sort of an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate move just to sort of not be helping out companies that were making money off of abusing animals and people.”
But he realized that his punk rock politics transferred easily to ethical butchery.
“I was still a vegetarian when I became a butcher. Looking for a cheese monger job I got offered a butcher position. I took it reluctantly, and two weeks in I got a light bulb moment. I’m standing behind the counter and people are asking me where the meat is coming from and I get to decide where it’s coming from. It’s kind of like all my vegetarian and vegan angst was solved right there. Okay, now I’m in a position where I can actually learn about this and teach others and make choices that actually mean something. Whereas a vegetarian and vegan, the most you can do is wash your hands.”
Not to say that first cut was easy.
“I definitely remember, you know, a lot of heart pounding, a lot of soul searching. I was alone that day so it was me and this goat. There was a lot of stroking the goat and a lot of talking to it. ‘Am I ready for this?’ But once I got cutting it was the most beautiful process ever. To go from when it’s alive and kicking, and have hair and organs that are working, to being gutted and skinned and on your table and then taking it to creating cuts that are recognizable to customers. It’s just such a magical process.”
Both men agree that the average American is completely separated from where their food comes from, and both get annoyed when a meat eater winces when they find a bone or see a feather.
“I somewhat take offense to it,” says Berlin. “They are eating an animal. Yes, it had eyes. Yes, it had a beak, it had wings. It had a mom, it had a dad. I have a hard time with meat eaters who are squeamish when I want to talk about what cut of the chicken this is, ‘Oh God, don’t talk about it! Don’t talk about it, don’t talk about it!'”
Miles was wearing a hat that says “Sausage” on it and Berlin has a tattoo of two bacon strips, but both say they don’t eat much meat. They say it makes more economic and environmental sense to eat one expensive, ethically raised piece of meat a month, rather than a fast food burger every day. Not to mention it’s healthier and tastes better.
“It shouldn’t be cheap. It’s not cheap to produce,” says Miles. “You shouldn’t be eating it every day, three times a day. Little bits at a time and then you respect it a little bit more, I think.”
“There’s no point in ingesting this diseased, flaccid, pale meat if you value yourself,” says Berlin. “Everybody has priorities. You got cool shoes, you got a nice car, you got an iPhone. If food is your priority, I know a lot of crusty punks who eat really well. It will work.”