These days, it's easy to be skeptical when someone makes a logline-worthy career change—especially when that someone is as media savvy as the Meat Hook's Sara Bigelow. Thanks to the popularity of what Jezebel coined the "personal meat journey" genre of confessional, I half expected Sara to be wrapping up her memoir by the time we sat down to talk at her workplace in October. But there is little hint of a publicity stunt behind Bigelow's decision to abandon a promising, comfortable career in culinary PR to spend her days steeped in animal entrails: She just wanted to be a butcher.
The 25-year-old Los Angeles native moved to New York three years ago after graduating from USC with a degree in Creative Writing. She took a job with the Thomas Collective, working wine and spirit accounts. Knowing she was interested in artisanal food, her boyfriend—The Onion's Dan Mirk—gave her a charcuterie class at the Culinary Institute of America as a gift. Although it was a beginner-level course, "I was the only one who showed up without a knife," she admitted. But right away she felt an affinity for working with meat, and despite a lack of formal culinary training or "strong ties to the land," she started looking for weekend apprenticeships. "At that point I wasn't necessarily looking for a different career path; I just wanted to learn more."
Butchering is one of those professions so irretrievably masculine (and, until recently, so unglamorous) that the presence of gender discrimination isn't really considered offensive, if it is considered at all. While Bigelow's initial attempts to secure an unpaid apprenticeship were frustrating, she took it in stride. To hear her tell it, those who turned her away thought they were doing her a favor: "You have a day job, a college degree, your father's not a butcher—why do you want to do this?" she says in summary of the early rejections: About a half-dozen, starting with A&S Pork Store in Park Slope, where she was a regular customer. One shop assumed she was looking for a cashier job, and told her that they had just filled those positions (with girls). "It was difficult to get across to them that I was looking to train as a butcher, not a cashier, and when I finally made that clear, the response was something like 'Men cut the meat and women work the register.'"
In the summer of 2009 Sara met Tom Mylan at a screening of Food, Inc. at the Bell House. At the time, Tom was at Marlow & Daughters, and had already gained celebrity as the leader of a new breed of rock star butchers—tattoo-baring, cigarette-smoking, craft beer-drinking cutters who deal in local, grass-fed, often exotic and always expensive cuts of meat. First-generation butchers like these are unlikely to have hangups about hiring newcomers without a family pedigree—Tom himself apprenticed alongside his friends at Fleischer's in Kingston, New York, before officially taking the job of in-house butcher at Marlow & Daughters. Also, it might not have hurt that Bigelow is young and pretty. In any event, Tom was immediately receptive to having her come in once a week to observe. "The first time I went in, I just watched. The second time I went in, they handed me a knife and let me cut. It wasn't a lot—cleaning a pork tenderloin or something—but it felt like a huge deal."
A little over a year later, Sara works five long days a week at the Meat Hook, Mylan's shop with partners Ben Turley and Brent Young that opened earlier this year under the BQE in Williamsburg. Sharing a massive space with the relocated Brooklyn Kitchen, the Meat Hook is ground zero for the sustainable, local food craze in Brooklyn and beyond (at least for carnivores). The wide-open butcher counter is the centerpiece of the shop, and a test kitchen upstairs hosts nightly classes in subjects ranging from homebrewing to knife skills to pickling. During a recent visit, local pseudo-celebrity Benjamin Sargent (aka Dr. Claw aka The Lobsta Pusha) was hanging around the meat counter for a little longer than seemed necessary, looking as though he was waiting to be recognized. But the butchers themselves are there to work—heads down, knives up, with occasional and momentary breaks for some good-natured roughhousing (an October 28 tweet reads: "Well, Sara punched Brent and Ben in the face a couple of times today. Was it something we said?"). Sara admitted she might have been the subject of some hazing when she first came on board, but Ben Turley denied any culpability, adding that when it came time to hire an additional staffer, "there was no question" that Sara was the right girl for the job.
Photos by Lizz Kuehl
Indeed, the lady knows her way around a carcass. Once a week a full cow (minus the head) is delivered to the shop from one of their grass-fed farm suppliers in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Sara took me on a tour of the bovine anatomy, explaining with the ease of a veteran the different cuts of beef that come from each part of the cow. "It's not a terribly tough thing to learn," she said with genuine modesty. "You can always be better, faster." When asked if there was anything she was still squeamish about handling, she had to think for a moment before she described the process for extracting guanciale—cured pork gel that comes from a pig's jowls: The traditional Italian method of gaining access to it is to "suck the eyes out" (which she doesn't do).
The walk-in at the Meat Hook is a chilly house of horrors, but it's meticulously organized and squeaky clean. "I would rather eat less meat," Sara said, later clarifying that she meant she'd prefer to eat smaller quantities of higher quality meat than larger amounts of cheap product—not that she had any reservations about meat consumption in general (which is how it initially came across). "It sounds snobby, but I feel like I can happily do without if it means feeling good about what I'm eating, and having it taste better." This echoes what she described as the mission of the Meat Hook: "To provide high quality products that are accessible to everybody." Everybody who can afford to pay $7.99 a pound for bone-in pork shoulder, that is.
Sara Bigelow, Girl Butcher
From the summer of 2009 until she was hired full-time in March, Bigelow kept her job at the Thomas Collective, coming in on her days and evenings off for regular seven-day workweeks. The grueling schedule would have been enough to repel anyone who wasn't completely sold on the new endeavor. She describes the time spent getting her feet wet with nary a grievance, playing up instead her good fortune of having weekends off now. And she's not carrying any resentment towards those people in her life (her Mexican grandmother, in particular) who were less than supportive in the beginning, or the shops that turned her away. "You stand for 12 hours a day, lifting heavy things, and when you go home you smell like pig intestines and bacon and blood. There are hours of more tedious manual labor and customer service to the minutes of cutting you get to do. So I can see why someone who was in that position would look at me, a young woman coming in on her days off from an office job, and wonder where I got the idea and if I had any clue what it really entailed."
Of course, Bigelow isn't the first or last female to enter the trade (in fact, there is another woman currently apprenticing at the Meat Hook). Minus the media whoring, Sara's young career has something in common with that of Julie Powell—the oversharing author of Julie & Julia and Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession. Powell, too, was turned away from several NYC shops before securing an apprenticeship at Fleischer's, where Tom Mylan sharpened his knife skills. "There aren't a lot of butcher shops wanting to let some clueless chick behind their counter... I had to search for someone willing to teach me," Powell said in an interview with USA Today. While Powell abandoned a real career as a butcher once her book was published, Sara is in it for the long haul—but she's keenly aware that what she's done is considered a novelty. When asked by new acquaintances how she makes a living, "I say what I do, and wait for the follow-up questions." Although Sara was happy to toss around some ideas for a website geared towards women interested in butchery, she indicated no immediate plans to brand herself—she'd just like to keep doing what she's doing now.
"I want to keep working in this world... most of the guys I work with now have worked in kitchens for years, and I don't have that experience. I've got office experience to fall back on, I suppose, but if I'm going to continue working in the food world, it's going to have to be based on the bit of experience I have now, and whatever I gain moving forward. I'm not worried, though."
Photos by Lizz Kuehl