Let Every Animal Butcher Popping Up In Maine Introduce You To Something New
Have you recently spoken with your independent whole animal butcher about which cuts of locally, sustainably and humanely raised meat in their crates might best fit your budget? If not, try it. The conversation will be easier and more interesting than you think.
This will be easier as the number of butchers breaking down whole animals in Maine increases.
In 2010, farmer-turned-butcher Ben Slayton opened the Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales. At the time, there were few butchers in Maine who objected to the common industry practice of opening boxes of conventionally raised primal cuts (chuck, Midwestern beef rounds and rumps, briskets , Southern pork loins and shoulders, or Australian lamb racks and legs) and slicing them from the standardized short list of steaks, chops and roasts that American cooks since the 1950s had taken to habit of buying at low prices in grocery stores.
“The art is not only in the decomposition of the carcass. It’s also in the merchandising and retailing of ALL cuts,” Slayton said. In a whole animal scenario, a butcher doesn’t have the luxury of ordering 10 extra cans of ribeye to meet the 4th of July demand. “If we want more ribeye, we also have to accept more top rounds, more shank, more everything. This creates a challenge, but that’s part of the fun – finding ways to move the whole animal (all of its parts) at roughly the same rate.
In 2012, Maine Street Meats (now called Bleecker & Greer) opened on Commercial Street in Rockland. In 2013, Jarrod Spangler and Shannon Hill started Maine Meat Co. in Kittery Foreside. In 2017, Riverside Butcher Shop opened on Main Street in Damariscotta. In February, Steven Campbell became the meat cutting partner of The Butcher & Bakers in Brunswick. Just before Memorial Day, Kennebec Meat Co. opened in Bath in the Water Street space previously occupied by the Beale Street Barbeque restaurant. And last month, Slayton sold Farmers’ Gate to a group of Maine ranchers who are building a processing plant and custom butcher shop in Leeds.
Conversations with these whole animal butchers are more interesting than buying packaged meat at a grocery store because working with whole animals gives them the latitude and expertise to provide you with unique cuts of meat that reach many goals and prices.
I recently went to Kennebec Meat Co. to chat with Chief Butcher Patrick Tweedie about 2 inch thick, heavily marbled rib eye steaks, always attached to a very long rib (up to 18 inches). I had seen this cut appear in chefs’ social media feeds and on restaurant menus all summer and wanted to understand the hype. These gigantic 40-ounce cups look like something Wilma Flintstone would serve Fred in cartoonish prehistoric times, but in reality, each can feed up to six people once the bone is removed and the meat thinly sliced at an angle.
[An aside: They are sometimes branded as “tomahawk” steaks because the bone is stripped clean of all meat, fat and sinew to resemble the traditional Native American tool. I reached out to Darren Ranco, a Penobscot Nation member and a University of Maine anthropology professor, to ask about that name. I know that many Native Americans consider the “tomahawk chop” demeaning. No, that’s not a cut of meat, rather a gesture/cheer made by some sports fans. While Ranco hasn’t heard complaints about the steak’s name, given the current political climate, he could “see some folks embracing the brand as a way to signify that they do not care that certain speech practices are harmful to others and believe that their freedom of expression is specifically tied to practices that some find offensive and/or harm others,” he wrote me in an email. So I won’t be using that name.]
Tweedie says that while grocery stores may offer bone-in rib eye, it takes a whole butcher to create one with such a long handle. In conventional slaughterhouses, the bones are cut flush with the top of the steak, and the few centimeters of ribs, along with the meat, fat and tendons, are cut off to be sold as short bone-in ribs. Tweedie also sells a “poodle cut,” which has just a bit of meat attached to the top of the bone and looks like a poodle’s hind leg. Both cuts sell for around $18/lb. To prepare them, he suggests applying a spiced coffee mixture and toasting them with a combination of direct and indirect heat.
These cuts are breathtaking and a crowd pleaser for sure. But Tweedie says the practicality of whole animal butchers is their ability to produce “weekday” cuts that are typically underutilized but still accessible and cheaper than the standouts. I asked Tweedy and his fellow Maine whole-animal butchers what their favorite “weeknight” cuts were and how to cook them at home.
Tweedie immediately brought the oyster and the underblade. The first, also called spider steak, is a half-pound, half-circle piece of meat woven with a web of intramuscular fat that sits inside the cow’s hip. This tasty little cut costs around $19/pound and is easy to make with a quick skillet. The latter, taken from under the cow’s shoulder blade, is also called the “false flatiron” and sells for around $15/pound. Underblade is great seared in a cast-iron skillet with a little fat or thinly sliced against the grain and used in a stir-fry, Tweedie said.
Farmers’ Gate’s new butcher, Matt Lewis, is also a fan of the spider steak, which he sells for $14/pound. He also likes boomerang steak, also named after what it looks like, which he describes as a delicate little piece of meat hidden under the short ribs, between the chuck and the rib bones. “At $15/pound, you won’t be disappointed (if you apply) some salt, pepper and garlic, rub it in and throw it on the grill,” Lewis said. When it comes to pork, he prides himself on being able to deliver the cut a customer wants.
“We brought in a couple who had driven all over the state looking for pork presa, which is the cap on the butt of the pork shoulder. Since the first one was sold to them, it’s become one of our top pork sellers,” Lewis said. Very tender and well marbled, the oval-shaped presa is prepared quickly and simply by roasting. Slice it to serve.
Butcher & Baker’s Campbell states that spoon bone sirloin is the cut that best illustrates the difference between whole animal butchery and canned meat. In large meatpacking houses, the top sirloin, tenderloin, and tri-tip are separated from the hip bone of the beef sides and packaged, as with as, in boxes shipped to grocery stores. The spoon steak is a cross cut that contains some of these three tender cuts. When Campbell sells them ($14/pound), he draws a picture on the butcher paper wrapped around them to show which part is which. “It helps extend the conversation about where the meat came from and how it ended up on their plates,” Campbell said.
Spangler distinguishes Denver beef steaks; pork blade steaks cut from the butt; and lamb sirloins, which are as tender as butterflied legs of lamb but perfectly sized to serve one or two, like some of the best everyday local cuts of meat. Denver steak comes from the cow’s shoulder area, specifically from a section below the shoulder blade bone. Because this muscle is not used much by the animal, the cut is tender. Denver steaks are around $18 a pound. Cook them for two minutes on the side in a frying pan and finish them in the oven before coating them with compound butter.
“You have to make your customers comfortable with these different cuts,” Spangler said. Although they may walk into the store looking for a particular cut, “if you find out what their plan is, do they want to grill something fast or braise something slow? – you can steer them towards all sorts of cuts that will work for their plan.
The benefits of buying meat from a local butcher are many. You limit the carbon footprint of meat in your diet. You support local ranchers who practice regenerative farming techniques. You circulate dollars in the local food economy. You support a small business in your community. You are giving butchers a chance to hone their craft for an economically viable career. And finally, you are preparing to learn to love very interesting cuts that have been cut from the conventional meat industry.
Coffee-Rubbed Bone-In Rib Eye Steak
This recipe is adapted from a Kennebec Meat Co. head butcher, Patrick Tweedy, dictating to me his favorite way to cook this steak. He cooks his over charcoal or an open fire, but I can attest that this recipe works well for a gas grill as well.
For 4 to 6 people
1 rib-eye steak (2 ½ pounds) bone-in, at room temperature
2 tablespoons finely ground coffee
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants Senor Pistole Sweet Chilli Seasoning
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons roasted ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Rub both sides of the steak with oil. Combine remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Rub the mixture over both sides of the steak and let it sit while you heat the grill to a very high heat. If using a charcoal grill, place charcoal on one side of the grill before lighting to create direct and indirect heat zones. If using a gas grill, light both sides of the grill.
Place the steak on the grill directly over the heat and cook for 2 minutes. Flip the steak and cook for another 2 minutes over direct heat. Place the steak over indirect heat to finish cooking. For a gas grill, that means putting the flame out directly under the steak. For the charcoal grill, this means moving the steak to the side without the charcoal. Place the lid on either type of grill. Cook until the internal temperature of the meat is 115 degrees F, 10-12 minutes.
Transfer the steak to a cutting board to rest for 10 minutes. The residual heat will finish cooking the center of the meat to rare. Cut the steak off the bone and thinly slice it on the bias. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Local food advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is editor of Edible Maine magazine and author of “Green Plate Special,” both a sustainable food column in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her cookbook from 2017. She can be contacted at: [email protected]
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