Many believe we’ve lost our connection between food and its origins - especially our primal bond with meat - but more and more producers are placing an emphasis on where our food is coming from; from the treatment of livestock to the journey from paddock to plate.
Husband and wife team Terry and Susan Ragasa run Sutter Meats, an ethical butcher shop in Northampton, MA that focuses on whole animal butchery, meat education and the power of food to strengthen communal ties. Sutter Meats is among a new wave of butchers committed to providing complete transparency between consumer and producer by buying whole animals and creating an understanding of where products come from.
This week we had a chat with Terry who talks ethical butchery, his nose-to-tail approach and the biggest meat myth going around.
Tell me a bit about you and your history with food.
I remember eating chicken livers and kidneys with my dad at the dinner table when I was quite young. He said that he bought the whole chicken, so none of it should go to waste. That type of thinking permeated all of the food that he would cook for us. His side of the family is Mexican and Filipino, so I learned to cook many traditional meals under his and my Grandmother's tutelage. I've since adapted some of their recipes for our butcher shop. For example, we make Pork Adobo and Mexican Chorizo Sausages inspired by Saturday evening meals at my Grandmother's and a Pork Chilli Colorado that my dad would make all the time when I was growing up. Those tastes and aromas elicit wonderful memories for me, and I hope that our customers will have their own happy memories eating our food.
Amazing. What first sparked the idea of setting up an ethical butcher shop?
We are very concerned with bringing the consumer closer to their food source. So many people talk about meat in abstract terms. They consume a burger or a steak. They fry up some bacon for breakfast. They don't want to think about the fact that they are eating from another being, and that allows the commodity meat industry to live in the shadows and take shortcuts in order to provide an inexpensive product. Many don't want to know how it got to the plate, as long as it's seasoned well. But there's an abundance of farmers out there who want to feed people and showcase the fantastic quality and flavour that responsible animal husbandry and pasture management yields. That's exciting to us and we work hard to showcase their labours with respect.
What is your philosophy at Sutter Meats?
Sutter Meats’ mission is to bring back the neighbourhood butcher with an emphasis on whole animal butchery, education, and the creation of community. We use the term 'nose-to-tail' as a reference to the unique way that we source and use our products that differentiates our business model from all of our local competition and all but a few businesses across the country. We only buy whole animals from local farms who share our standards and practices and to respect the life sacrificed for our food, we strive to use the entire animal. This means that in addition to offering a much wider variety of familiar steaks, roasts and custom cuts than our competitors, we also offer many unique cuts in the tradition of the European butcheries, and use the remaining meat, bones and fat to make stocks, dog food, cooking lard, etc. Buying whole animals also ensures that we know exactly where our products come from, how they were raised and how they were slaughtered; ensuring complete traceability and quality.
What differentiates you from other butchers?
Many people have their own vegetable gardens, but it's much more difficult to raise your own meat for a number of logistical reasons. We are the closest thing you can get to raising your own. The only "middleman" between us and the farms is our slaughterhouse and our meat has never been frozen. We dry age everything that comes into our shop and cut from whole carcasses. It's a time consuming process, but one that yields a product far superior to what is offered at the supermarket or even the farmer's market.
What's the importance of sourcing meat locally and sustainably?
Our biggest concern, other than maintaining fair and humane treatment of livestock is supporting the local farming community. Our customers' dollars help to bolster the infrastructure that is improving animal welfare and reducing these farms' carbon footprint. Considering the history of shady practices by the commodity meat industry, both actual and perceived, sourcing local encourages a transparency that can only benefit the quality of product, the welfare of both the animals and the farmers, and the piece of mind of the consumer.
How do you think attitudes towards meat-eating have changed in recent times?
We're seeing people choosing to eat significantly less meat, but better quality meat, as part of a balanced, seasonal diet. Many are starting to realise the true cost of $1/kg pork chops, and are shopping accordingly.
What do you say to those that believe you can't be ethical or environmentally friendly if you eat meat?
I'd like to see them sit down with a handful of our farmers and have that discussion. There's a big difference between large scale factory farming and independent family run farms. These farmers follow strict tenets of land stewardship and carry on traditions that respect the ultimate sacrifice made by the livestock they raise.
What do you think the biggest meat myths are?
At least in America, the biggest myth we deal with is that fat is bad. Faux scientific reports were written a generation ago touting the healthfulness of hydrogenated vegetable oil, which demonised animal fats. We're now seeing that the opposite is true.
What are your thoughts on faux meats and do you think it will have a place in butchers in future?
We're big fans of whole foods. Not such big fans of processed food, including faux meats. Fresh seasonal vegetables are amazing gifts and delicious on their own. Transforming them into second rate facsimiles of fresh meat seems unnecessary and superfluous.
What do you think the future of the meat industry is?
We're going to see a proliferation of small, locally focused meat markets that will offer on site butchery to their farmer customers in order to alleviate the burden on centralised slaughter and processing facilities, and the growth of farming collectives that will pool resources to lessen the stress on their livestock and improve the quality of their pasture.