The first cut, breaking down a hog American style, photo by donna

What does artisan butcher mean?  What does artisan mean, for that matter?

I’m grateful to Abigail Blake, an American living, cooking, and blogging on the island Tortola, for her comment on my most recent mini-post:

I like this explanation from a 1913 Websters: “An artist is one who is skilled in one of the fine arts; an artisan is one who exercises any mechanical employment. A portrait painter is an artist; a sign painter is an artisan, although he may have the taste and skill of an artist. The occupation of the former requires a fine taste and delicate manipulation; that of the latter demands only an ordinary degree of contrivance and imitative power.”

Basically, almost any butcher who doesn’t deal in mass production could be considered an artisan. “Artisan” and “artisanal” are certainly useful terms. But they’re overused and now have connotations well beyond their definitions, especially among the foodie community.

Well put!  Artisan and artisanal are indeed over used to the point that they’ve been co-opted by big business and turned into marketing terms. And within the passionate food community the words have even taken on moral implications.

Artisan means: a worker skilled in a trade; craftsman (this from my Webster).  It does not mean artist. I love the idea that a sign painter is an artisan.  I hate the idea that any butcher would call himself or herself  “an artisan butcher.” (I feel the same about chefs who call themselves artists; any one who says this outright certainly is not.) Though it seems fine to me if you want to apply artisan to a butcher you know as a way of implying that he  cares about the quality of his work (or her work, but girl butchers are few, see link below to an article on them) and grows increasingly good at it.  Butchery, like any craft, is something you practice, something at which you can always, always, get better.

An artisan butcher is one who makes the best possible use of each animal he puts hand and knife to, and, importantly, one who wastes as little of that animal as possible.  How an animal is to be used should determine the way it is broken down.  The American way of breaking down a pig is very American, in my opinion, a kind of brutal sectioning off into rectangles, without regard to the noble beast itself (pretty much what we did to the country).  It’s not without reason—the method is to maximize the middle of the pig which are it’s most lucrative parts.  In Italy—as we learned recently from Kentucky chef Jay Denham, whom I wouldn’t hesitate to call an artisan butcher and who staged for many weeks under various butchers in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna—when the pig will be turned into salumi, the butchery is designed to maximize that salumi.  In the photo that leads this post, the butcher is cutting straight through the coppa, the neck-shoulder muscle that is one of the best for dry-curing.  You wouldn’t see a shoulder handled this way in Italy, but in America, it’s perfect for Carolina barbecue.

Portland, OR, chef Adam Sappington, this spring, demonstrated how he broke down his pigs at his nose-to-tail restaurant, Country Cat.  He described each cut, not anatomically, but rather in terms of how he served it on a plate. He was proceeded by Dominique Chapolard who demonstrated his cuts, which he defined by how he sold them at his market in Gascony (you can study butchery, via Kate Hill, with this butcher, something I must do before I die!).

The only thing I don’t like about the word artisinal are the implications of moral superiority.  An artisan may well be superior, but I don’t think moral has anything to do with it.  It’s this specious use of the word that grates.  Use artisan and artisanal to denote craftsman and good craftsmenship, not artistry.

I’ve compiled a list of the butchers below from comments left on the mini post in the order they came in, for those who are interested:

Chris Eley, in Indianapolis.

Taylor Boetticher from Fatted Calf in Napa.

Vadim Akimenko is working on opening up a shop in Cambridge, Mass.

Chef Champe Speidel of Persimmon in RI is set to open in the fall Persimmon Provisions, an artisan butcher shop in Barrington.

Ryan Farr 4505 Meats in San Fran.

Revival Meats in Texas raises heritage pigs (like Magnalitsa) and cattle. I know Morgan provides cuts to some businesses and individuals and Houston, and does some of his own curing, but I don’t know if he considers himself a butcher.

Ray Venezia of Fairway, and Pat LaFrieda

The Meat Hook

Christoph Wiesner as seen on the woolypigs blog

La Boucherie in Oklahoma City is great. This was started by Brothers Alain & Michel Buthion to supply their La Baguette Bistro.

Ryan Hardy and team at the Little Nell in aspen

Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, Cochon.

Rain Shadow Meats in Seattle

The Leather District Gourmet wrote about Tray Satterfield and female butchers here.

“The ideal butcher would also have experience on a slaughter line, where artisan practices are just as critical to the end product (not to mention welfare of the livestock and workers). Heck, if they have experience raising livestock, too, for meat, then you’re getting close to batting 1000,” says Carrie Oliver, of the artisan beef institute.

Ted’s Butcherblock in downtown Charleston, SC.

Thanks, all, for the comments!

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52 Wonderful responses to “Artisan Butchers
(Does Artisanal Even Mean Anything Anymore?)”

  • Judy

    Ciao- I shop daily in Italy fro butchers that have been butchers since they could hold a knife.
    Often I marvel at how quickly someone in America becomes a Master in such a short time.

    Having worked myself with Dario Cecchini in Panzano for several years ( I did not break down animals , just cooked and worked in the shop), I see how people take the info and run.

    Here we would look for a Master Butcher, not an artisan.

    I am glad to see the passion in America now for quality and research and learning. Soon I hope we will have Master Butchers in America too and with quality meats, they go hand in hand.

    • Abigail @ Sugar Apple

      I think Master is a great descriptor, Judy. It speaks of a level of proficiency, skill and experience above the norm.

      And thanks for the mention, Michael. Much appreciated!

  • Helene

    I need to add Jason Houser from Meathouse in Charleston. I get all my pork cuts and products from him every Saturday at the market. Butt, shoulder, shank, chops, pate de campagne, head cheese, bacon, pancetta, Butifarra, sausages…you name it.
    To me he’s an artisan – someone who knows his craft and operates a non-mass productive operation relying on sources just like him (the pig farm where his pigs come from).

  • Scott

    I was thinking Paradise Locker Meats as well. They do exceptional work (only people who’d butcher a hog in authentic porchetta style) with exceptional pigs (Newman Farms).

  • Heath Putnam

    I think your response is interesting, and in line with my own views: it is all about making money off the pig.

    I wrote about this on my blog: http://woolypigs.blogspot.com/2010/08/american-meat-cutters-and-mangalitsa.html

    For me, the litmus test is not as it is with some – does the guy destroy the coppa or not, but rather, can he produce a paleta. The Italians I’ve seen cut right through what would be a paleta. The Spanish, Wiesner and our guys at Swiss don’t.

    I was wondering if I was being unreasonable by drawing the line there, so I called some of my butcher friends who know how to cut a paleta. They agreed that if you instead produce trim from what could be a paleta, you are being very wasteful.

    Christoph Wiesner says that you can tell a good butcher from a bad one based on how much meat is left on the bones and how much trim there is. I like that, because you can objectively measure it. If there was a butcher contest, that would be one way to grade them.

    If you try running a business of any reasonable size, you won’t be concerned about who is a good artisanal butcher, but rather, constructing a system (composed of multiple people) that can achieve a goal.

    A team of people (ala an assembly line) can take pigs apart more efficiently than a bunch of individual skilled butchers. By specializing, you can get work as good, and still get efficiency gains. You see the same with cars and at Swiss Meat: http://woolypigs.blogspot.com/2010/04/swiss-meat-and-sausage-company-extreme.html

  • Travis

    Michael,

    Do you recommend any books for someone who is interested in learning to butcher?

    Thanks,

    Travis

  • craigkite

    I often wonder if the term “chef” is over-used or used improperly. It seems like a convenient title-bump in a larger kitchen that may help an owner get around giving a pay raise. If it is derived from Chief…how many chiefs are there in relation to braves? We deal in superlatives and exaggerations a little too easily. Inflated titles, like inflated monetary units, lowers the value of an item, or an individual. True artisans or chefs are getting lumped into the journeyman categories. After all, how can we have a Top Chef, and a Top Chef Master? Isn’t the top the highest point?

  • Susan

    We do seem to confuse the words “art” and “craft.” I’ve never thought of artisanal as relating to anything moral either..at least until the term started being used as a marketing ploy, to which I just rolled my eyes. I just took it to mean “in the style of” as produced by a master craftsman. Bread is a good example. There are loads of books available that show anyone how to make an artisanal bread from a recipe…and in 5 minutes a day, so states one book! It doesn’t make the home baker an artisan or even a craftsman in the sense that they become a master bread baker because they aren’t creating the method, just reproducing one. That’s been my take on it, anyway!

  • Natalie Sztern

    Boy would my grandfather be amazed that his livelihood would be one that men/women aspire to. He only became a butcher after the war and when he came here from Europe. Why grandpa did you become a butcher and his answer was always this: because he knew that if he did this for a living his family would always have ‘what to eat.’ That he would always be able to supply his family with food was his sole reason. Somehow this means something, I just don’t know what. Yet he refused for any of his sons to follow in his footsteps…he could not read the future.

  • john p

    my father aged 89 could(and still can) break down a hind quarter of veal and utilize every ounce(including fat and bone) in an era when dining in a restaurant was considered a luxury………….. that’s artisinal!!!!

  • luis

    I have no dog in this contest….But I like to think I can recognize great meat when I see it and great food when I taste it. Some of the artisan breads at Gardner’s look tough primitive and rustic and tough to chew.

    On the other hand terms such as range free or cage free chickens , eggs and organic grown anything… sound like “Goodness” and purity of ingredients of days gone by.

    Semantics or Real…. you folks tell me,, please!

  • tokyoastrogirl

    My favorite local “artisan” butcher shop is McCall’s Meat & Fish Comapny here in Los Angeles, run by husband and wife team Nathan McCall and Karen Woo. You can tell they care deeply about what they do and are passionate about quality. To me, the most appealing thing about them is that they make everyone- from the restaurant chef to the beginner cook- feel comfortable by talking to everyone as equals. Does that make sense? They wouldn’t dream of ever looking down their noses at someone who didn’t know what cut of meat to choose; instead they use every opportunity to educate and inform people in a non-condescending way.

    They inspire me to be a better cook by thinking about what I’m cooking. I couldn’t ask for anything more!

    http://www.mccallsmeatandfish.com/

  • bob del Grosso

    The meaning of the word “artisan” has been so inflated and distorted by industry and journalists, reporters, bloggers, marketers and credulous “foodies” that it cannot even be trusted to convey its basal meaning of “a craftsman who makes something with hand tools or by hand alone.” I mean, how much faith can you have in a word that finds applications like “artisan bread” on thaw-and-bake supermarket bread or “artisan eggs” on boxes of eggs that only the week before were labeled “free range eggs?” And when you live in a culture that allows some 25 year old with hand saw a boning knife and a two week long butchering class under his belt to hang the name “Artisan” over his door, you can be forgiven your mistrust of the quality of his “artisanal” craft work.

    I think the term “artisan [fill in the food/cooking noun]” is at best nearly useless and at worst another one of those Kafkaesque devices whose meaning has little to do with what it is applied to and which, like the terms “free range” and “organic,” does a much better job of obscuring the truth than explaining it.

    So Michael, in answer to your question (“Does Artisansal Mean Anything Anymore?”) : unless it is qualified with supporting evidence that a piece of work was produced by a human being using her hands and hand-operated tools, the word “artisan” cannot be trusted to mean anything other than what the entity that has decided to apply that label to itself or its products thinks you think it means. In other words, when you see the word “Artisan(al) ” on a sign or label you can expect to find handmade or hand-rendered products within, but don’t be surprised to discover that the artisan was a drunken robot.

  • Geoff S.

    Two things that were on my “to do” list this summer that didn’t get done were to find a butcher, and a fishmonger, in the Delaware/Philadelphia area. If anyone has recommendations that are a driving distance from Newark DE, I’d love to hear them.

  • T. Gray

    Here in central NC, there are quite a few folks who raise livestock for their own tables, and small amounts to sell. To fit their needs, and for resale, there are a handful of “packing houses,” mom and pop operations inspected by the USDA, who will butcher animals according to your specs. They also butcher game for hunters according to their needs, and produce awesome venison sausage. Although they don’t have an army of employees, it’s doubtful they consider themselves artisans or craftsmen. They’re just butchers, and proud of their profession.

    Many years ago, an aspiring craftsman had to apprentice with a “master craftsman” until he/she was competent in their chosen trade. In fact, they could not practice their trade within their own shop until the master craftsman deemed them quite capable, and this by law.

    There’s a lot to be said about families passing on skill sets, and the accompanying heritage to their kids. The knowledge gained from this type of day in, day out education has to beat a weekend class.

  • Paul

    So my son is a professional artisan bread baker who touches every loaf of bread quite briefly (albeit deftly). I am considered merely a home baker while I spend a good deal of hands on time with each loaf of bread. It is all about adjectives isn’t it?

  • Ryan B

    I just moved to Chicago, can anyone recommend a good butcher shop? Maybe in the Wicker Park or Bucktown area? All I have been able to find so far is the awful meat at the chain grocers.

    • Sean

      Paulina Market
      3501 North Lincoln Avenue
      Chicago, IL 60657-1103
      (773) 248-6272

      GEPPERTH’S MARKET
      1964 N. Halsted Chicago, Il.
      (773) 549-3883

  • Joel

    unfortunately where I live butchers are few and far between. At my local grocery i asked for some chicken bone at the meat counter to make a stock. I couldn’t even get that. CHICKEN BONES! sad

    • Mantonat

      Buy a chicken. Eat the meat. Use the bones for stock. Way cheaper than buying the bones and the meat separately, and probably tastier too.

  • George in Chevy Chase

    The problem I have with “artisan,” as applied to butchers, is that it undersells the animal itself. Artisan cheesemakers and artisan bakers are working with much more shapeable ingredients that make the finished product a much more direct result of their own skill and dedication. A butcher, no matter how good, is working with the animal given to them, and although some butchers are better than others — and some are no doubt much, much better — the smile on the diner’s face after eating the cooked product will likely have at least as much to do with how that animal was bred, fed and cared for as how it was dissected.

    But, to the extent that what we’re really talking about here is skill and not creativity, may I suggest a different word? How about “Master Butcher” — suggesting, well, mastery, which seems to be what most people here are ascribing to the butchers they most respect.

  • Dave_C

    What happened to the days when butchers were tradesmen/craftsmen that learned via apprenticeships and OJT. There was no need to call them artisans. They learned their craft.

    Now, I see artisan butchers and the foodies the buy into it are creating the next wave of snobbery. This reminds me of wines in the early 90′s. There was a wave of foodies getting into wines… I mean really getting into wines speak in high tones about the fine bouquet of wine x vs wine y.

    It looks like meat and artisanal meats are the next wave for foodies to put on airs about their knowledge of organic steer A vs supermarket steer B. “Ah, yes. I can taste the fresh spring water, filtered through mountain aquifers, used to grow the organic alfalfa eaten by steer A. Steer B is horrible. You can taste the Carbon Monoxide inhaled in the tractor trailer on the way to the inhumane slaughterhouse. It’s obvious.”

    It’s all resume padding and snobbery.

  • Ruth

    anyway. Interesting post. Have been following some charcuterie sites also (along with the ‘Mangalista’, ‘Wooly Pigs’ and ‘Meat’ blogs). Am participating in an Ozark butchery (pigs and bulls) this winter/fall. Just down-home folks who kill, butcher and eat what they have raised..they’ve done it for years. Steep learning curve to do this, so much thanks for the (possibly) useful information.:)… (am fascinated with head to tail use without–with minimal–waste)..book references?

  • Joellaco

    My great aunt Mary was the best butcher in East Texas in the 40s and 50s. She butchered only animals she raised. Hogs and chickens, her back room smelled of curing meats when I was growing up. She only fed the immediate family and bartered with neighbors for goods she didn’t grow herself, which wasn’t too much, since she had a 5 acres plot for the barn and gardens.

    I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t intimately know where the food on the table comes from, when I tell my friends about killing chickens, helping in the smoke house etc. they think it sounds awful, those were the best day so of my life and I have had a good life.

    You haven’t lived till you stood stiring the caulden where the pig bits were rendering their lard, so you’d have plenty for the winter time dired fruits pie crusts.

    I do enjoy your blog Micheal, takes me back to my childhood.

    • Joellaco

      opps sorry for the typos,

      best days of my life and dried fruits pie is what I meant.

  • Rhonda

    Ruhlman,

    Just typed an impassioned response to this and then then my arm cast fell on delete and I lost it.

    Too long to re-type. Fuck it.

    Then, I re-read Chef Del Grosso’s response and see that I was trying to communicate the same message, sans the “Kafkaesque” (love you Chef, but WTF? message).

    While we are rightfully at the obliterating of the word “Artisan”, can we please put a rest to “Umami”. This word means absolutely fucking nothing. It is annoying. Please make it stop.

    • Tags

      Think about it.

      In the vacuum created by the removal of the word “umami,” the surest replacement is the word “meaty” where it just doesn’t belong.

      I say leave “umami” alone, just don’t overdo it.

      And good luck with that.

  • Carri

    It’s true, artisan and organic (um…and umami!) are the new ‘all natural’ and ‘low fat’… tag words added to mass produced foods in order to get people to buy them. It dilutes the meaning to a point that it makes it difficult to distinguish what is actually handmade and homegrown and what isn’t. Our bakery gets grief all the time for not labeling ourselves as ‘organic’, but why bother when the term doen’t really mean that the end product is better for you. It is an important part of this dialog that we don’t get caught up in terms, but, rather to work hard to get people to pay attention to what they are buying and where it is produced. And if you find someone who is doing it right spread the word…

  • Jay

    The only thing worse than the over (ab)use of “artisan” is the faux European pronunciation of the word “stage”. Stage rhymes with cage. Anything else is pretentious. And why not call it what it is, an externship?

    • Rhonda

      Jay, I can see your point. However, the European pronunciation in North America may take the sting off the fact that you are not getting paid? Don’t know for sure, guessing.

      This may not be the best example, but Garde Manger’s usually show up for work on time. “Salad Bitches” do not.

      I agree with you that we should just start calling things what they are. Time to strip away all of the bullshit.

      I think most people are striving to make great honest food right now. The smoke and mirrors vocabulary isn’t helping.

  • john v phipps

    In the Seattle area I love the work done by Brandon Sheard from Sea Breeze Farm’s La Boucherie on Vashon Island. They raise the pigs, butcher them, and use everything. Jason even teaches classes in how to break down a pig.

    (http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnvphipps/sets/72157623511411445/ ).

    You can buy from them at the University District Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and Sundays.

  • rockandroller

    I 2nd John K’s question. I buy almost all my meat from the WSM but am not sure any of them could really be considered artisan?

    I also wonder if “butcher” refers purely to the skill of cutting up the animal, or is it also in what to do with all those parts, even if the butcher is not doing it themselves? I find that most of the people I buy meat from don’t have any suggestions as to how to prepare it. So if I ask questions about a different or alternative offering they have out, they just shrug their shoulders and say they don’t know. But they’ll cut things the way you want and seem skilled at it, so I’m not sure if that’s part of the skill. What’s your take, Michael?

  • Pam

    “Artisan” means ten bucks more per pound. A good butcher, baker, or even candlestickmaker, means the world.

  • JS

    While they use the term “artisan” Dickson’s Farmstand Meats (dicksonsfarmstand.com) in NYC’s Chelsea Market is another that should be included in the list above.

  • Jon A. Holmquist

    Wow, huge number of posts on what I thought was just another thought provoking article. Great question and answer.
    We frequently run across butchers that complain that they can no longer get an edge on their knives. We have found that we can re-shape their knives and restore that edge without the hours of work on a stone that is required by the knife owner. Our equipment removes very little material but just enough to make the steel work to bend the edge back.
    We can’t believe the number of butchers trained OJT or in a quicky school that don’t even know how to properly use a steel.
    These guys are NOT artisans. Thanks, Jon at Edgemaster Mobile Sharpening. http://www.edgemastermobilesharpening.com

  • Lawrence

    Just more examples of how ignorant we as a society really are. The masses are asses, and there is no amount of blogging or complaining that will ever change that fact. To apply terms that once meant something, to second rate BS, so that the masses feel better about the crap they buy and the manufacturers they support with their purchases (The emphasis is on the word manufacturer rather than shop or establishment).

    The word Chef did once mean something, and to some, it still does when qualified with known and valid experience in a quality establishment rather than a hack at the local (insert shitty chain restaurant here). Artisan(al) also once meant something, as something special or out of the ordinary, now applied to anything inclusive of mass produced garbage from your local supermarket. The next over used word will unfortunately be ‘sustainable’. We already see it applied to anything due to the vagueness of wording within the industries and their governing bodies. Those such bodies that are paid to be ambiguous by the very members of their constiutency. Every spin doctor marketeer is looking for their way to get a hold of this one now, and the rationale behind their claims is borderline hysterical. The masses ARE asses, and we cannot expect anything different.

    The community to which we belong (by just being on a blog that supports communication to this extent, or other channels to which food enlightened people speak to quality) is the only current viable manner that I can think of to which establishments of reputable character can be identified, and then frequented (often).

    Umami? Could care less. The taste sensation imparted by MSG in Asian foods needs a descriptor, this one is as good as any other.

  • art

    All great responses.

    “Basically, almost any butcher who doesn’t deal in mass production could be considered an artisan.”

    The mass production aspect of an artisan vs. non-artisan argument has given me a lot to think about. I had a few back and forths with one of the specialty pork producers mentioned above about mass production of livestock. They asked me if I ever had foie gras and I replied, hell yes. They pointed out that foie gras is an example of a product (artisan) that is often mass produced.

    My mind is often on two different subjects–food and drink and design. Where do we draw the line in artisan beer production? Pretty much all beer, micro-brew or not, is mass-produced. Sam Adams is America’s smallest brewery at roughly 1,400,000 barrels. Is Sam Adams an artisan beer? Is Sam Adams super-limited triple bock (not sure if they still produce it) an artisan beer? Are the ultra-modern furniture and lighting designs, some of which are iconic, artisan because they are mass produced?

    Artisan is kind of like a terrine. A terrine is the mold and also the product that comes out of the mold. An artisan makes the mold and the product that comes out of the mold. The artisan can make 10 molds per day or 50,000 per day. Or can he/she? I called someone who made some built-in furniture for me an artisan. He laughed at me. He said, “did you hear that? he called me an artisan!”

  • Mantonat

    Isn’t it funny that “to butcher” has come to mean “to make a mess of.” If someone tells me I am butchering the English language, I will ask them if they mean an artisan butcher or a factory butcher? Mantonat: hand-butchering the English language since 1967.

    As an aside, I saw a sign in front of a sandwich shop the other day that read “hand-made coffee inside.” What exactly is hand-made coffee?

  • Kevin McCann

    I consider myself a butcher, but artisinal? Seems like a “Hallmark” lable to market goods. Consumers will see the word ART in artisinal and automatically equate it with higher quality. I’m confident in both my cured and fresh products but would rather consider my work proper and thoughtful than artisinal. I’m glad you bring up the differences in carcass breakdown based on country. As you stated its all about usage. Because of my interest in sausage making and cured meats I’ve researching and utilizing these different techniques. Couldn’t agree more about the idea of farm to fork. As you know the Hudson Valley is full of local small farms. I’ve had the opportunity to witness these farms raising their animals, and then to slaughter them at a later date. Both are completely invaluable experiences that give you a very solomn sense of the life you are taking and a responsibility to utilize that prodict efficiently and respectfuly. Thanks for the list of solid butchers too, the Meat Hook is the only one I’ve been to (and this past years Butcher’s Blackout they hosted).

  • Jenny Jen Librarian

    I’m wondering if anyone out there has a good butcher reference in the Detroit area? Eastern Market is not what it once was in the meat department…..I’m loyal to a few local markets (Hiller’s, Westborn) that have excellent meat counters, but I’m looking for somebody more full service and a true butcher. Any suggestions appreciated.

  • EDCinci

    “Artisanal” and “artisan” fatigue is easily explained. Watching the Cooking Channel yesterday afternoon, in 70-ish minutes there were 4-5 references to “artisanal” products or “artisan” producers in the shows. Add to that multiple references in ads to “artisanal” bagged salads by Fresh Express. The gag reflex is all that is left.

  • Monica

    Aaron Rocchino of the soon to open The Local Butcher Shop in Oakland, CA!

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