Students at Thursday’s Saybrook College Master’s Tea got something meaty to sink their teeth into. Literally.
Tom Mylan, the head butcher and co-owner of the Brooklyn butcher shop Meat Hook, carved beef sashimi as he answered questions and passed around savory slices of the shank for an audience of about 50 to try. In fact, the event was dubbed a “Master’s Juice,” because the organizers thought tea would not go well with raw meat. Blackcurrant juice and seltzer were served instead.
The Yale Sustainable Food Project co-sponsored the event, and Mylan spoke enthusiastically about the mission of his butcher shop to make sustainable food more financially and culturally accessible.
At Meat Hook, Mylan and his two co-owners use only local and sustainable meat, and he said they do their best to use every part of the animals they butcher. In order to take advantage of animal parts not usually eaten, such as ears, skin, liver and bones, Mylan makes dishes like scrapple, pork rolls, brined pigskin and patés.
“We try to resurrect dead recipes from before the meat industry turned all that into dog food and breakfast sausage,” Mylan said.
He spoke out against the commercial meat industry many times during the talk, criticizing the taste of their products — which he said is “like the inside of a refrigerator” — as well as the poor treatment of animals.
“They do not go quietly into that good night,” Mylan said, referring to seeing pigs slaughtered.
Meat Hook is currently planning to raise eight pigs in the backyard of a museum in Queens, and the store’s owners will give discount coupons to customers who bring in buckets of acorns that they can glean locally in the fall; the butchers will then feed the acorns to the pigs to improve the quality of the meat. Mylan added that they are also working on developing two breeds of cattle to be raised locally.
But when Mylan was not elaborating on his plans for Meat Hook, he spoke angrily about the large-scale implications of the current state of the meat industry. He hearkened back nostalgically to the 1950s, when most meat was raised locally and sustainably, even if the neighborhood butcher charged more. Today, he said, Taco Bell can sell tacos for 59 cents, but society as a whole pays in different ways.
“It is not our birthright as Americans to have ridiculously cheap meat,” Mylan said. “We can’t continue lighting our cigars with hundred dollar bills and eating 59 cent tacos.”
Rather, Mylan argued, Americans should accept that they will have to pay more for better quality, more sustainable products even if this means meat will return to being a treat — something to eat only on Saturdays, for instance.
Yen Duong ’10, who was in the audience, said it was unusual to hear someone talk about how sustainable food should cost more.
“I’d only heard people talk about how people from lower socioeconomic classes can’t afford local or sustainable food,” she said.
Elaine Zhou ’12 added that she was surprised to hear a butcher advocating for less meat consumption.
But not every audience member was most interested in the political side of Mylan’s work. Holly Rippon-Butler ’12 said she had a personal reason for attending the talk: Her family owns a dairy farm in Schuylerville, N.Y., and raises the cows they eat, so she said wanted to learn more about the process. (Rippon-Butler is a contributing reporter for the News.)
In addition to running Meat Hook, Mylan writes for The Atlantic Food Channel, a Web site about food and cuisine, and he has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Correction: March 28, 2010
An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported how Holly Rippon-Butler’s ’12 family gets its meat. The family has their cows slaughtered at a slaughterhouse; the family does not slaughter its own cows.