This weekend in Boston, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics held it’s annual conference. As a dietitian, I was sent a few special invitations to attend receptions and visit booths. Nestle wanted me to attend their “sustainable nutrition” reception so they could tell me all about their tube feeding products, and Monsanto wanted me to stop by their booth to talk with a local farmer about how Monsanto’s role in sustainable agriculture. I’m not kidding.
Instead of heading east into Boston, I drove an hour west, to Harvard Forest, to attend the Women in Meat Northeast Conference. In my opinion, this was a much better use of my time and money. The event was organized by Edith Murnane, head of The League of Women in Meat, and featured female Kari Underly, a third-generation butcher and author of the Art of Beef Cutting which was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. The goal of the event was to develop skills, knowledge and network for women in meat industries. There were about 40 women of all ages in attendance. Most of them were small farmers or worked as butchers in New England.
I’m going to back up for just a second, to give you some context. Because, even though I’m interested in the nutrition of meat, I’m particularly excited for more women to enter this field. When I was 21 and had just graduated from college with a degree in Art Education, I knew I wasn’t interested in becoming an art teacher in a school setting. I wasn’t sure what I did want to do. I did know that I wanted to be an expert in something, and that I wanted to work with my hands to make things. Obsessed with the idea of functional, fine crafts and wanting making most of my own everyday items (plates, silverware, glass, etc.,) I decided to enroll in a furniture making program. I feel that there are a lot of similarities between furniture making and butchery. Both are skills not generally taught in college, and both are heavily male dominated and can be intimidating for women to break into. Using the machine shop initially made me nervous, and there were some men who thought it was very “cute” that I could make a set of dovetails and knew how to use a hand plane. Even though I am not a full time artist, I still work do some photography, oil painting and cooking, which I also consider an “art,” and I’m dying to learn glass blowing. I can imagine that my experience as a young woman learning how to make fine furniture was not very different from many young women today looking to learn more about the meat business. It’s a topic that I’ve been interested in for a while, and even led me to help produce this short film about Mary Lake, a female butcher from Vermont.
We met at noon for a quick lunch and then headed over to Stillman’s Quality Meats on-site abattoir. I was lucky enough to ride with Kate Stillman, the owner. She’s my age and is the single mother of two kids, runs the whole show, and is a complete badass. She told me all about her issues finding and keeping skilled labor, how stressful Thanksgiving can be (turkeys), and how grateful she is for her customers. They’ve now become her “community,” bringing her coffee, entertaining her kids, and taking her out for an occasional glass of wine after a particularly long day. She drives two hours each way to attend farmers markets all over the Boston area to sell her meat, which she gets a good price for. Sometimes, she said, people will freak out at her prices. For example, Kate charges $25 per chicken, or two for $40. The average retail price for whole chicken is less than $1.50 per pound. She welcomes the sticker shock as an opportunity to have an honest discussion about the artificially cheap price of meat, and how she needs to send her kids to school. Kate has built a dedicated following, largely, I suspect, because of her no-nonsence charm and honesty. Three years ago, Kate invested in her own abattoir, in order to have more control over how her animals were butchered. She picks up the carcasses at the slaughterhouse and brings them back to her farm to be broken down exactly the way she wants. This saves her the headache of the slaughterhouse not doing it the way she wants, and customers are able to order specific cuts.
Once we were at the abattoir, Kari led us during the butchery demo. She was incredibly warm and made lots of jokes as she took us through the major muscle groups of a cow. Volunteers from the group were encouraged to test their sawing and knife skills to break down the large primals into steaks. I was so surprised at how many different cuts I had never heard of before. I’ve never seen tomahawk, cowboy or merlot steaks at Whole Foods before. I asked Kari why most people are only familiar with the basics, like rib eyes and sirloins. She said that it’s because large retailers only buy meat by the “box,” so they are requesting the cuts they know will sell. What happens to the other cuts? Well they get ground or sent oversees to markets that want them, unless it’s a “whole animal butchery,” meaning they try to sell all of the cuts. Kari also encouraged attendees to try to sell customers more bones with the cuts, like brisket. Bones are hard to sell, but can add a lot of flavor to the meat, and it means more money for the butcher.
In the evening, we headed back to Harvard Forest for dinner. While the crew was preparing some of the different cuts we learned about earlier, I got to chat with a handful of women. We talked about the challenges of farm life, and having little privacy from customers, and also discussed some other talented women farmers who have brilliant marketing ideas, like Floret Flowers, a very small cut flower farm that seems to have exploded through a brilliant workshop business (check out her amazing Instagram feed, which is one of my favorites!) At dinner, we tasted different cuts and also tasted the difference between grass-fed and corn-finished steaks, and also enjoyed produce sourced largely from women-owned businesses. The event is continuing today, where the group will learn about developing a HACCP plan, how to break down a pig, and how to develop products like charcuterie and bone broth. I needed to get back to work so I drove home Sunday night, but am so impressed with the quality of the event that I’m wishing I stayed. We even got cool goodie bags including a boning knife, meat cutting glove and scraper.
I thought that this event could spark a larger conversation about women’s relationship with meat. Many of my nutrition clients are women who feel that eating meat should be done in moderation or not at all. It’s so interesting to me how food intake is somewhat of a religion or moral decision. Is it more “pure” to eat only vegetables? I think there are so many messages telling women that it’s better to look skinny and weak instead of strong, and that eating meat is evil. When you think of a big steak, do you picture a petite woman or a big cowboy? Why do I see these “clean” cookbooks feature chicken and fish but not red meat? Is it because red meat is “bloody looking?” Do women need to control our “natural” side by restraining our desires in all ways, including our desire to eat meat? Does that make us more pure? I’ve actually seen a few vegetarian and vegan sites say that women can only truly be feminists if they don’t eat animals. Is this true or completely disconnected from who we are as omnivores? I talked more about this with Anya Fernald, CEO of Belcampo Meats on my podcast.
I love working with women to teach them about the importance of eating meat, because in most cases, if you can help women understand good nutrition, you’ve fixed the whole household. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency, with prevalence highest among young children and women of childbearing age, particularly pregnant women. We’re not going to fix this with more salads. We need to let women know that it’s ok to eat meat. Red meat has gotten such a bad reputation, but meat is an incredibly nutrient-dense food. It’s also not the environmental disaster that many are claiming. I write about this more here.
I’m happy to say that when I returned home, I found out my 10yr old daughter cooked dinner for the family, completely on her own. I’m proud of her independence, strength, and understanding of how nature works. Let’s start talking more about why women need to embrace meat and let’s teach our daughters not only to love their bodies, but to how cook real food instead of baking cookies and cupcakes.
Want do donate to the League of Women in Meat? Click here.
Love the idea? Hate it? Tell me! What are your thoughts on women and their relationship with meat?