What a surprise this morning to power up my laptop, click on my shortcut-link to the MSNBC website, and there on the front page find a photograph of my butcher, Russell Flint, of Rain Shadow Meats. As soon as I saw the photograph, I exclaimed to myself: “Hey, that’s my butcher!” And that got me thinking. People all the time, myself included, use identifying phrases like “my mechanic,” “my barber,” “my dentist,” or “my plumber.” But the phrase “my butcher” is not something you ever really hear. It certainly is not a phrase that I have used before, at least not prior to April of this year, the month that Rain Shadow Meats opened in my neighborhood here in Seattle, about four blocks from where I live.
Since Rain Shadow Meats opened I have become a regular customer, usually dropping by early Sunday afternoon, or sometimes mid-week as I walk home from work. And, I must say, I really enjoy my visits. A large part of this enjoyment is derived from the face-to-face of buying meat from someone whom I trust to provide high-quality meat at a price that I know is fairly set. I know that Russell has taken the time to know from where the meat he sells comes, and that getting the meat cheaper or easier is not given consideration. Much of this is clearly set forth in the shop’s mission statement, which reads in large part as follows:
“Our mission is to bring back the local neighborhood butcher with an emphasis on whole animal butchery, education, and the creation of community. We work with local farms to provide farmers with a means to reach the public through our customers and to guarantee the highest quality products.” (emphasis mine)
So, instead of facing a glaring meat case in a grocery store, with meat from who-knows-where anonymously peddled, buying from Rain Shadow Meats gives me an opportunity to be a member of a community. Moreover, being a part of this community gives me the opportunity to support the values of ethical, local, and small-scale meat production, which is to say, NON-industrialized meat production. Thus, not only am I able to buy what, to me, represents an excellent value because of its high quality, but I am able to buy from a butcher shop that shares and represents my values.
Certainly, the meat that I buy from my butcher costs more than what I could get at the local Safeway or Wal-Mart; however, what I am buying is more valuable. To my mind, I am getting more than what I pay for. I am contributing to the economic success (I hope) of a small business in my neighborhood, and I am offering support for local agriculture, something that the commoditization and industrialization of our food supply has done its level best to obliterate. And, on top of all that, the meat that I buy from “my butcher” tastes incredible.
Of course, I can already hear the naysayers beginning to accuse me of elitism, sneering–“Oh, sure, listen to the well-paid attorney sing the praises of pricey meat. Tell that to the struggling family of four who could never afford ground chuck selling for $6.49 a pound.” But this point (which is a classic red-herring argument, in any case) is nicely addressed in the MSNBC article about Rain Shadow Meat:
“Although he was nervous at first that customers would get sticker shock, so far [Russell] said the higher prices have not seemed to scare away customers who believe in the type of meat he sells.
“On a recent weekday morning, preschool teacher Michael Washington biked up to Rain Shadow Meats to buy a couple pounds of beef chuck — at $6.49 a pound — which he was planning to use to make goulash. The same cut was selling for $3 less per pound at a nearby chain grocery store.
“Washington, 30, said he can’t afford to buy high-end meat all the time. But he said his girlfriend has persuaded him that it’s worth it to at least occasionally invest in meat that is grown locally on small farms and with fewer additives. It’s not just because it might be healthier or taste better.
“(She says), ‘Shouldn’t you be paying more? This is the life of an animal that you’re using,’ ” Washington said.” (emphases added)
What an interesting–and correct, I think–way to look at the value of the meat being sold at Rain Shadow Meats. Buying the type of meat you can believe in is not just a purchase, but also an investment. Moreover, if you focus on the notable quality of the meat that is being purchased, it is suddenly easier to appreciate the real value of paying more, but also getting and giving more. For as my grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, was heard often to say, “Just because something is cheaper does not mean it’s a good value.” Why else would the term “cheap” have become mostly a pejorative term–as in, “a job done on the cheap.”
For this and other reasons, I continue to think it bizarre that large numbers of U.S. consumers still uncritically accept the notion that cheap–or should I say, less expensive–meat is necessary so that it can be eaten with every meal of every day. When I was growing up, in a home of exceedingly modest means, the Sunday roast was a near-celebratory thing. There was simply no expectation that you were going to have a big chunk of meat with every meal. And, as a result, the meat our family did enjoy, not infrequently but not everyday, was valued that much more.
This reminds me of an episode of the cable-television show, “The Fabulous Beekman Boys.” In this episode, called “Bringing Home the Bacon,” Josh and Brent prepare the two pigs they have raised (and given names to) for slaughter. (They had hired two experts from a nearby university to do the slaughter, but Josh and Brent intended to be present.) As the episode unfolds, there is quite some suspense built around whether they will really go through with the slaughter, and quite a few tears are shed along the way–including by me. I will not spoil the ending for those who may want to watch the episode (which I highly recommend).
One of the many things truly notable about the “teaching moment” that this episode made possible is the lovely blog post that Brent and Josh authored afterwards, titled “An Extra Value Meal.” (Notice that word value again?) In the blog-post, among the several points made, is an explanation of the efforts that the boys make to “be sure that all of our animals are cared for in the most comfortable, happy, and safe environment possible. We do not take that job lightly.” (For a video of the boys reflecting on what occurred, go here.)
Nowadays, people mindlessly shove 99 cent hamburgers down their throats, barely stopping to taste them (which might, in fact, be a good thing, now that I think about it). But, as Adele Douglass, the found of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC*), said when asked why she thought it important for people to understand where their food comes from:
“I think because they’ll value it more. I think what they were saying, when Brent says he won’t eat a 99 cent burger again, it’s true. It costs more to raise animals right, treat them right. It’s important for people to appreciate that there’s a sacrifice involved for their food. I think that most of us have an idea of
where food comes from, but the idea we have isn’t a reality.
Neither is it a reality to pretend that bacon can arrive on our plate without there being a death involved–namely, the death of the pig from which the bacon came. In watching the episode of the Beekman Boys mentioned above, my partner Tom said, “I could never kill an animal that I had raised myself.” And I have to say that I agree with Tom; I could not do so either. But neither will I ignore the fact that, but for the death of a pig, lamb, or steer, there would be no meat for me to purchase or eat. Thus, unless I choose to become a vegetarian or vegan, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to make ethical choices–or, as ethical as I can try to be–when purchasing meat. And if that means paying more, that is an investment that I am more than willing to make.
In the end, being mindful about where my food comes from, especially meat, and how it was produced, is the way I choose to eat. I want to think about all of the costs associated with the meat I purchase, and not just its purchase price. That’s one big reason why I am so happy to have Rain Shadow Meats in my neighborhood, and why I don’t think I will ever get tired of telling people to give “my butcher” a try.
*HFAC is, according to its website, a “national non-profit 501(c)3 organization created to improve the lives of farm animals by setting rigorous standards, conducting annual inspections, and certifying their humane treatment.” Its website can be found here.
Rain Shadow Meats is located inside the Melrose Market building, 1531 Melrose Ave., Seattle. They are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Their phone number is 206-467-MEAT (6328). And, for those of you who are of a more cynical bent–no, I have no economic interest in Rain Shadow Meats. I’m just a big fan.