MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB…TILL I BUTCHERED IT

Before my first class at Red Meat Market, I’d only seen a whole lamb carcass in one other place—happily roasting on an open spit at an outdoor Greek festival. This time, the lamb laid forlornly on a stainless steel table, like a surgical patient prepped for dissection. It’s my first butchery class at Centered Chef in Fulton Market (Chicago’s historic Meat District), and needless to say, I’m fucking excited. Because unlike most people who prefer their animals filleted in neat little Styrofoam trays, I like seeing glorious structures of tendon, fat, and bone. Forget farm to table; I’m talking about butcher block right onto my plate—in fact, I’d prefer my filet mignons to be mooing if I could. So when Mark Wilhelms, founder of Red Meat Market (RMM), invited me to a lamb butchery class, I pounced at the opportunity.

Mark is an accomplished Digital Marketing, Web Development and Social Media professional who runs a successful technology firm in Chicago. With 25+ years of industry experience, he has spearheaded more than 3,000 digital projects for some of the nation’s best known corporations. Last June, he founded RMM to drive the local meat movement against “Big Meat” (e.g. Tyson) and to develop a “Local Food System” through technology and education. And like the quintessential American, his favorite type of meat is a generous hunk of steak.

When I arrive at the Centered Chef, Mark jovially greets me with an enormous hug before introducing me to the crew and crowd. I meet our class instructor and Master Butcher from Lincoln Park, Ben Harrison, and founder and owner chef of Centered Chef, Ryan Hutmacher. There’s also Bill Bradshaw, an ex-lawyer who procured Katahdin lamb from northwestern Wisconsin specifically for our class. Now this breed is like the Aston Martin of sheep: a cross between the African St Croix and the British Wiltshire Longhorn, it’s naturally tastier, leaner, better adapted to extreme climate, and consumes a broader range of vegetation. Raised on sprawling Amish pastures, the lamb is local, grass-fed, and antibiotic and hormone free. In fact, high-quality meat stands at the core of RMM’s mission: to provide “local, grass-fed, sustainably-produced and humanely-processed beef, pork and lamb.”

After brief introductions, we dove directly into Lamb 101 with Ben Harrison, who butchered a lamb carcass while class participants ogled in utter fascination. I learned several interesting points:

  • Lamb is defined as less than a year, a yearling mutton as 12-18 mo, and a mutton as 18+ years
  • One can determine the age of a sheep carcass by looking at the break joints on the front shank: a lamb will usually have perfect break joints
  • The loin and rib are the most expensive cuts of meat—$22/lb is pretty standard
  • Lamb fat is creamier and more buttery than other animal fats
  • By the time Whole Foods imports their lamb from New Zealand, it’s already aged two months so the lamb actually tastes like mutton
  • Butchers use lamb fat to moisturize hands while working in a cold and dry environment
  • You can actually compost animal fat, as long as you cover it in something loaded with nitrogen (e.g. poop)
  • The lamb is raised for 8 months before “processing” (oh, euphemisms)
  • To make tougher cuts of meat tender, slice against the muscle grain

As much as I loved a good dose of trivia, the best part of the class involved actual hacking, slicing, and cutting. Proudly donning my RMM swag, I Frenched a rack, sliced off some tenderloin, and hacked off a lamb leg. My cavewoman instincts tingled with primal delight as I worked on a spread of blood, gore, and random kidney bits, all splayed out in wondrous glory. One may think that the whole mess would douse any sort of appetite, but I assure you that butchery requires enormous physical effort. After an hour, my stomach gurgled with appetite.

Luckily, Chef Ryan began to prep for lunch and teach class participants how to cook the meat. Some individuals ground meat for mini sliders while others chopped and threaded kebobs for the grill. Me? I stuck to grilling homemade flatbread, which I artfully brushed with olive oil and threw onto the grill like Bobby Flay gone rogue. The food was accompanied by award-winning barbecue sauce, a light tomato and cucumber salad, tzatziki sauce, and an assortment of pickles and relishes. And of course, booze. Needless to say, I very soon collapsed into a fantastic food coma.

And as maudlin as it sounds, the people were just as great, if not better, than the food. Mark reminded me of that favorite uncle during Christmas family reunions, the one that showers you with compliments and slips you $100 when your parents aren’t looking.  Ben Harrison, the beret-wearing butcher, and his apprentice were the mellow cousins, the kind whose grounded personality inspires greater respect and humility in your everyday living. Bill Bradshaw, the lamb procurer, was the elderly grandfather whose gracious mannerisms and wise philosophies filled me with an inexplicable happiness for humanity. And there was Chef Ryan, the cool brother that ran the show while maintaining perfect composure. Jim Slama, President of FamilyFarmed.org and Founder of Good Food Festivals, was that random guy who showed up halfway through the party but exuded so much badassery that their mere presence made your knees tremble with awe. Even the class participants, who demographically resembled members of a NRA hunting party, were incredibly friendly and fascinating characters.

My first RMM class set an important precedent: red meat isn’t the enemy. Ultimately, quality trounces the type of meat you consume, and grain-fed chicken breast infused with hormones and antibiotics can be equally unhealthy. Chef Ryan taught me that Americans used to spend 50% of their income on food but now only spend half that amount. Imagine the benefits Americans would reap if we invested a greater portion of our money into the food that directly impacts our bodies. Alas, various social and economic barriers prevent such lifestyle fixes, especially for individuals who need it the most.

Despite my passion on the subject matter, food inequality requires a complex solution, and I remain rather confused about my role in the overarching scheme of things. So for now, I begin with eating high-quality, sustainable meats. And with the ten pounds of racks and kebobs I took home in my RMM goodie bag, I’d say that I’m off to a good start.