The walk-in freezer is stuffed with carcasses. The air is fragrant with oxidation and decay. Sunlight glints across the weathered orange skin of the lambs as they rest on green metal shelves. The pigs, a little further into the freezer, are pink and bloody, with yawning gashes running down their midsections. And in the way back are the cow chunks — once a single cow, now sawed into eight pieces — flecked with cakey white fat, exhaling blood that trickles over their suet and onto the floor. Zach Pierce leans against a shelf, beholding the thousands of pounds of carcass before him. Within a week’s time, all of it will become meat.
We walk back to the front of Provisions on State, a shop on State Street in New Haven, Connecticut, where Zach works as head butcher. As a whole animal butcher, Zach gets two pigs, a lamb, a cow and 60 chickens delivered to him each week. The carcasses come de-skinned, de-organed and de-genitaled. The cows also come decapitated. Much of Zach’s work, then, is deboning.
The two of us stand before a massive hunk of beef on his butcher block, a large wooden table 9-feet wide and 3 ½ -feet deep. Positioning his knife against a bone, Zach scrapes away at the sinew, occasionally sticking his knife into the fissure and wobbling it up and down until the meat begins to loosen.
Provisions on State smells like the sea, an odor eerily more fishy than it is meaty. The setup is sleek, with slate walls, stainless steel counters, and a pink neon sign in the back depicting a pig partitioned into its various sections: bacon, spare ribs, picnic ham, Boston butt. Front and center is the meat case, packed with the most tantalizing cuts that Zach’s livestock could offer: ribeyes, tenderloins, chops, back fat. Beside the meat case, slabs of salmon bask on a vat of ice — perhaps the source of the smell. Farther left are wooden shelves showcasing a selection of artisanal groceries ranging from hemp pasta to preserved lemon paste.
Zach’s beefy biceps bulge as he slices. His hands are heavy, worn and purple, the color of dry-aged steak. They always seem to have blood on them. “They’re moisturized, I’ll say that much,” Zach says. Besides his muscular arms, he’s an all-around skinny guy with next to no fat. If I were to cut him up and cook him, he’d be very tough and dry — not very tasty at all.
His white apron is spattered with dried blood, and his knife sheath hangs from a white chain around his waist. Zach has three knives: a breaking knife, a stiff boning knife and a curved boning knife. They each cost him less than $20, and I differentiate them by the colors of their handles: blue, black and yellow, respectively. Zach sharpens his knives often, and he rarely gets injured. His hand movements are balletic. Armed with his knives, Zach is unconquerable. The carcass doesn’t stand a chance. Zach will cut it up, and it will become food.
Once the curved boning knife has built up a gap between meat and bone, Zach is able to shove one of his thick hands into the chasm, pull the meat upward, and stretch out the webby fat until the beef separates cleanly from the bone.
The goal is to get as much meat off the bone as he can. Unlike the butchers behind the counter at a large grocery store, whole animal butchers don’t have the luxury of endless flank steaks and briskets. Zach gets only a certain number of carcasses each week, and a surprising amount of their weight is in the bones. Sometimes, he predicts he’ll have high demand for particular cuts, so he orders spare portions from farmers and other butchers to supplement. He calls the process “carcass balancing.” The balance depends on the season: in summer, they sell more skirt steak, good for barbecues; in winter, more short ribs, for stews.
Then, there are scheduled orders Zach can rely on: a guy on the carnivore diet comes in every other week to buy 15 1-pound ribeyes and 10 8-ounce bags of beef fat. Other times, people come to the shop with unanticipated requests: a guy producing a horror movie once came in to buy all the eyeballs Zach had in stock.
It’s important to keep the balance, because money is tight and overhead is low. You’re not going to find Stop & Shop prices at a place like Provisions. Zach’s customers often experience sticker shock. They’re used to a $10 New York strip; a $30 price tag can be unnerving. But Zach is selling a different product. According to Zach, if you buy the $6.49-a-pound ground beef at a place like Stop & Shop, you may end up with a thousand different cows in that cellophane-wrapped package; at Provisions on State, for $8.99 a pound, you can be sure the meat is all coming from the same animal. Zach says the shop is part of “the bougie boutique butcher world.” The cuts may cost a few times the Stop & Shop prices, but they’re custom, artisan and delicious.
An Objection to Meat:
I often consider becoming a vegetarian. My reasons are mostly environmental. The looming threat of climate collapse tends to put a sour taste in my mouth every time I eat meat. Not literally — in general I think meat tastes very good, very umami. Farmed animals are some of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses in the world: the methane from cows — we’re talking burps, we’re talking farts — adds up across the 1.5 billion of them globally. If I were to go vegan, I would cut my emissions in half.
We devote more land space to animal agriculture than to any other purpose: a quarter of all land on earth houses animals, and a third of all land grows crops to feed animals. We’ve cleared hundreds of millions of acres of forest just to satisfy our meat addiction. And it truly is an addiction: we slaughter seventy billion animals each year. In America, we need to produce 892 billion pounds of meat a year to satisfy our hunger. But as the population increases, it’s getting harder and harder to sustain this behavior. We’re running out of space, nutrients, water and — because of climate change — time.
Most cheap meat in America comes from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that pack livestock in tight quarters. Each CAFO may hold over 125,000 chickens, 1,000 cows and 10,000 pigs. And CAFOs are massive polluters — one CAFO can produce 1.6 million tons of waste a year. This waste finds its way into the local soil, air, and water, almost always in low-income communities of color.
In CAFOs, bulls and male pigs are usually castrated to render them docile and flavorful. This process is almost always conducted without anesthesia, since it would cost an extra 25 cents an animal. Bulls have been reported to have their eyes roll back in their heads and have all the muscles in their body contort. About 19 million cattle are estimated to undergo this torture each year. And it’s not just castration. Animals are also subjected to hot branding irons, tight crates and physical mutilation — pigs get their tails chopped off, chickens get debeaked.
On small farms, like the ones Zach buys from, things can be better. Zach gets his lambs from a 70-year old farmer with a balding head and an infectious smile. The farmer loves his lambs dearly, and although he emphasizes that they aren’t pets, he basically treats them as such: he scratches their heads, he tends to their injuries with gentle care and every time he sees them, he bellows, “Helloooooo!”
And his lambs aren’t castrated. On the contrary, there’s only one ram on the farm, and he’s there for breeding. “The ram has quite a life,” the farmer tells me with a smirk.
Of course, his lambs end up getting slaughtered, but they get to frolic in pastures for a while before meeting their demise. Zach describes it as, “One bad day for the animals. They just go have one bad day and that’s it.” A primary tenet of whole animal butchering is respect: let the animal live happily, and when it’s slaughtered, use as much of its body as possible. Zach tells me it’s the love and care shown to his animals that make them taste so good. It’s the difference between a steak from Provisions and a steak from Stop & Shop.
Yet some still find “one bad day” to be reprehensible. Almost all farmed animals live shorter lives than they would outside of captivity, and they are subjected to brutal killing practices. Most are stunned by a bolt gun before having their throats slit, but often the bolt gun fails, and the animals remain fully conscious as they choke on their own blood.
And we don’t even need meat to survive. We’re omnivores. Entire empires have been built on agricultural systems that barely even involve animals. And while it’s easy to believe that one’s personal decision has no effect on the larger world, a single vegetarian can save around 400 animals from slaughter each year. Admittedly, most of these are fish and small crustaceans, but that’s still a big number.
But you don’t care about any of that, do you? If you’re not a vegetarian yet, chances are that’s not going to change. You’ve probably heard all of this before, and it still hasn’t changed your mind. Because it just tastes so good.
When you don’t witness the killing, when you don’t feel the blood, when you don’t hear the screams, it’s easy to pretend the meat has always been meat.
I stop by Provisions about a week later, on a warm Saturday in October. Zach is just finishing breaking down chicken halves for the dinner special at Tavern on State, the restaurant from which Provisions was birthed. His butcher block is smeared with blood and viscera, so he takes his bench scraper and zig-zags across the wood, collecting the gunk in a little pile before depositing it in the trash.
We step outside and sit at a metal table, usually meant for customers to enjoy a Provisions sandwich. Zach removes his mask to sip on a hipster soda. He has a sharp, masculine face, with patchy mutton chops running down his cheeks and a thin mustache cradling his nostrils. His t-shirt bears an image of Rocky Balboa raising a leg of mutton in the air, and his hat says “Thicc Chops” in white block letters.
Zach has pretty much always worked with meat. In college, he made sausage for a German restaurant, cubing 300 pounds of meat a day. But despite the adage to the contrary, Zach found nothing gross about learning how the sausage gets made. He tells me, “Sausage is just pork that’s ground up. If you’ve ever had dumplings, that’s basically sausage.”
His primary training in whole animal butchering was at Fleishers in Westport, Connecticut. Fleishers is well known in the butcher world. When craft butchering experienced a renaissance in the mid-2000s, Fleishers was the East Coast’s bellwether. It was at Fleishers that Zach met Emily, the owner of Tavern on State, in 2014. Early in the pandemic, Emily reached out to Zach to ask him, if she were to open a butcher shop, would he be interested in running it? An enthusiastic yes from Zach. No questions asked.
As Provisions was getting off the ground, he hired two of his Fleishers compatriots, Jared and Sam, as butcher and deli manager, respectively. Zach sourced his meat via old contacts and furnished the shop through Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and what Zach calls his “butcher mafia”: a network of butchers he knows through Instagram, past butchering jobs and travel. Whenever Zach goes on vacation, he always seeks out craft butchers, always adding members to his mafia.
Zach loves his work, but he recognizes that he could be making more money. The salary from working at Stop & Shop would be a downgrade, but the salary from working 30 years at Stop & Shop would be an upgrade. But it’s not about the money for Zach; it’s about the animals, and it’s about the meat. “It’s kinda like, how much do you wanna sell your soul for?” he says.
A bee flies around Zach’s head. He flinches, but ignores it. He’s an animal lover. He grew up with dogs, and he and his fiancé now own two. Zach is not a huge meat eater — three nights a week, he eats vegetarian. He likes pork, enjoys a Provisions steak every once in a while, doesn’t mind a fried chicken sandwich — but in general, he feels healthier when he eats less meat.
In fact, many of his buddies in the butcher mafia are former vegetarians. Most were dissatisfied with the industrial meat system and found a home in whole animal butchering. Zach, Jared and Sam are no different. Sometimes when I’m around the shop, the three of them will talk about YouTube videos they’ve seen showcasing the terrible treatment of animals in CAFOs. Since the most ethical meat production doesn’t operate at scale, Zach argues that people should buy less meat. Of course, the problem with ethics is that they’re expensive. Zach’s solution is, “Eat the same dollars’ worth amount of meat, but just eat better meat.” Invest in one Provisions steak instead of three Stop & Shop ones.
A Defense of Meat, Part I: Um. Uhhhh. Hmmmmm.
Come back to me.
It’s the middle of November, the precipice of the Holiday season: a very busy time of year for Zach, with Thanksgiving turkeys, Hanukkah briskets and Christmas rib roasts right around the corner. When I arrive, Zach is bagging up steaks and beef fat for the Carnivore. The shop has changed since I last stopped by. There’s a new meat case, which Zach hopes won’t break as often as the old one bought off Facebook Marketplace. Zach now has a second butcher block, this one pointed toward the entrance of the shop and fitted with a glass screen, so customers can see him cut without contaminating the meat, and without the meat contaminating them.
This week’s lamb arrived shortly before I did, and Zach heads out to the walk-in to grab it. He heaves the bloody, garbage-bag-wrapped carcass over his shoulder like a sleeping toddler, and he walks down State Street with her in his arms. He brings the lamb into the shop, lays her down on the butcher block and removes the garbage bag.
Zach motions to the carcass and explains to me, “All four-legged creatures, great and small, have the same anatomy. Actually, you and I have the same anatomy, we just walk upright. So if you want to be graphic, imagine this as a human.” He begins the process of breaking down the carcass into primals — the larger subsections of the animal, like a leg or a loin — and subprimals, moving from front to back.
The first step: decapitation. He finds the lamb’s Atlas joint — where the head connects to the neck — places his knife against it, and slices. As he works to sever the joint, I notice that the lamb still has a tongue, which hangs below her chin through a hole in her jaw. She still has teeth, black in the back and white in the front. Her skinned face is bloody and scowling. Her eyes are wet, like little balls of Jell-O. I watch the head jiggle as Zach attacks it with the knife. Watching this makes me throw up slightly. That’s not a metaphor; I had to swallow it back down.
Zach removes the head. He says this step literally “takes the face off” and makes the lamb look significantly less alive. It’s true. I notice the change: headless, mindless, the lamb is significantly easier to look at.
Next, Zach squares off the neck. He makes a mark at the edge of the shoulder with his knife, then takes a large hacksaw and drags it back and forth till he breaks the bone. He cuts the rest of the meat with his knife — the hacksaw would just tear the flesh up — till the neck is removed.
He sticks his hand inside the carcass. Most of the organs have been removed, but the lamb still has its liver and kidneys; usually, the lambs have hearts, but this one doesn’t. Zach wonders if it might have fallen off onto State Street when he carried it over from the walk-in. He counts out five ribs from the inside, and he makes a mark on the outside. Then, he moves his knife around the lamb’s circumference, the blade gliding as smoothly as an ice skater. The hacksaw returns, and he scrapes away at the bones until the shoulder separates from the rest of the body. He then proceeds to saw off the ribs — one of the most prized cuts, where crown roasts and racks of lamb come from, or any lamb dish you see on the menu of a fancy restaurant — before transferring them along with the shoulder to the smorgasbord of meat accumulating on the new butcher block.
When it comes to butchering, lambs are a peculiar species. Of the standard livestock, they’re the most expensive, offer the lowest yield and have the least marketability to American customers. For Zach, lamb is essentially a loss-leader: something relatively unprofitable, but which he needs to sell to get customers in the door. You can’t be a butcher without selling lamb. When butchers learn their craft, they begin with chicken, then graduate to pork, then beef and finally finish with lamb. There’s a lot of risk in breaking down a lamb, many points at which money can end up in the trash can. Already, around 30 percent of the lamb carcass, between the fat and the bones, is unsellable. A 70 percent yield is considered extraordinary. Whenever Zach makes a small error, nicking the edge of a rib, tearing the meat with his hacksaw, he announces how much money he just lost. Eighty cents. A dollar twenty. “It’s really a pennies business.”
Now, only the hind section of the lamb remains on the butcher block. Zach feels for the end of the sirloin bone to determine where he’ll split the loin from the legs. He caresses the meat gently, before guiding his knife through the line formed by the bone. Then, he hangs the sirloin over the edge of the table and pushes down, cracking the spine and separating the final two portions. Zach holds the sirloin in his hands. The leg is left on the table, with a thin white tube hanging out of it like toothpaste. This is the spinal cord. Zach pinches it with his fingers and invites me to do the same. Squishy.
Zach positions all the cuts of lamb on the new butcher block. They no longer look like an animal, no longer like anything that can reasonably, unironically, be given a pronoun other than “it.” Though watching this process made me feel a bit sick, when I look at the finished cuts, they just look like food, with deep red meat and cream-colored fat. It’s an appetizing tableau.
I ask Zach if I can purchase a couple lamb chops and a bag of neck bones. He obliges, slicing the shoulder to give me some round bone chops. Meanwhile, Sam breaks up the neck bones and bags them. The chops cost around $12, the neck bones he gives me free of charge. I exit the shop and walk down State Street, looking down at the sidewalk to see if I can spot the missing heart.
A Defense of Meat, Part II:
I’ve done a lot of digging to find an ethical case for eating meat, but there is little to find. Most of what is out there boils down to, “Meat tastes good,” or, “It’s only natural.” Many cite René Descartes, famous for saying animals are machines lacking feeling. Of course, animals do feel, and recent research indicates they might even have sentience akin to humans. Also, Descartes was a vegetarian.
But regardless of how much philosophy I read, how many documentaries I watch, how many PETA ads show up before my YouTube videos, I still eat meat. I don’t really plan on stopping. I’ve been hardwired to crave the taste of flesh. In the womb, our amniotic fluid is flavored with glutamate, the molecule that makes meat taste umami.
Temple Grandin, a noted animal rights advocate, has stated that meat eating could perhaps be justified if we “give animals a life worth living.” In other words, if we assure that they have only one bad day.
Many of the arguments against meat don’t apply to Zach’s cuts. Yes, Zach’s animals still emit greenhouse gasses, but at a significantly lower rate than factory farms. The transportation cost of the meat falls and almost no part of the animal gets wasted. And the animals are treated well — they have the taste to prove it.
It’s 10 p.m., and I’m getting ready to fry up my lamb chops. I gifted the neck bones to a friend so she could make lamb soup, in exchange for letting me use her kitchen. The chops, lying on the counter, have oxidized to the color of wine. I salt them and allow them to rest for a few minutes, letting the salt burrow into the meat. Then, I drop a couple tablespoons of butter into the pan. I let it sputter and brown, and a rich, fatty smell fills the kitchen.
I lay the first chop down in its hot butter bath. The meat crackles as it begins secreting blood and juices. After a few minutes, I flip it. The cooked side is grayish-brown, frankly much uglier than when it was raw. A few minutes later, I flip it again, till the other side reaches that same ugly gray. I’ve never cooked meat before, so I’m not sure when the chop is done. I let it sit for a little while longer, until it crisps and caramelizes, blackens and browns. I remove the chop from the pan and set it on the plate.
I visited the lamb farm, and I met the lamb I’m about to eat. I watched her carcass meet the knife. I’ve seen her outsides, I’ve seen her insides, I’ve seen her insides’ insides.
I cut off a piece and take a bite: overcooked, too salty, a bit chewy. I keep eating. Very fatty. I excavate lamb from the filmy strips of fat attaching meat to bone. Armed with a butter knife, I lack the agile fluidity with which Zach approached meat. Every bite I take adds to my disappointment, the torn edges sitting uncomfortably in my mouth. Of course, all the issues with the chop were my own fault — Zach’s meat was high-quality, and in the hands of a better chef, I’m sure it could have been outstanding. Yet I can’t help but think, the lamb gave its life for this?
When I finish, I feel a little sad. First and foremost, because there’s no more lamb. It wasn’t delicious, but it was meat. With nothing left to do, I chew on the fat. I suck the marrow out of the bones. I’m full, but I want more. Just as Zach balances carcasses on his account sheet, I balance carcasses on my conscience. I imagine thousands of them stacked up: oozing blood, dripping liquid from their eyes, staring at me.