The Vegetarians Who Turned Into Butchers

How several former vegans and vegetarians across the country came to see meat as their calling.


By Melissa Clark, The New York Times (NYT)

Aug. 6, 2019


At Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in Denver, Kate Kavanaugh trimmed the sinew from a deep-red hunk of beef the size of a bed pillow.


“Flatiron steak is the second-most tender muscle in a steer’s body,” she said, focused on her knife work. “This guy sits on the scapula, and I love it because it has beautiful lacy fat.”


After the meat was cut down into several smaller steaks, she wrapped one up, grabbed a couple of tallow cubes molded into the shapes of “Star Wars” characters, and headed to a nearby kitchen to cook us some lunch.


Before she was a butcher, Ms. Kavanaugh was a strict vegetarian. She stopped eating meat for more than a decade, she said, out of a deep love for animal life and respect for the environment.


She became a butcher for exactly the same reasons.


Ms. Kavanaugh, 30, is one in a small but successful cadre of like-minded former vegetarians and vegans who became butchers in hopes of revolutionizing the current food system in the United States. Referring to themselves as ethical butchers, they have opened shops that offer meat from animals bred on grassland and pasture, with animal well-being, environmental conservation and less wasteful whole-animal butchery as their primary goals.


It’s a sharp contrast to the industrial-scale factory farming that produces most of the nation’s meat, and that has come under investigation and criticism for its waste, overuse of antibiotics, and inhumane, hazardous conditions for the animals. The outcry has been so strong that some meat producers say they are changing their practices. But these newer butchers contend that the industry is proceeding too slowly, with a lack of transparency that doesn’t inspire trust.


“I’m basically in this to turn the conventional meat industry on its head,” she said, as Darth Vader melted in her hot cast-iron pan.


Once the tallow was liquid, she added the steak, letting the meat sizzle as she hummed “The Imperial March.” She left it in the pan a lot longer than I was expecting; like many of her ex-vegetarian customers, Ms. Kavanaugh prefers her steaks cooked to medium.


It was one of the best steaks I’d ever had, which is saying a lot: I like my meat black-and-blue. Crisp-edged, velvety and still remarkably juicy, it had a mineral tang and funky brawniness that would make its blander, cornfed cousins taste like chicken in comparison.


The ethical butchery movement first gained traction about 15 years ago, in the wake of the journalist Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times Magazine article about the abuse of factory-farmed beef cattle, and his subsequent book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” published in 2006.


One of the central questions in the book is whether Mr. Pollan can bring himself to kill an animal — first some chickens, then a wild pig — for his own dinner.


“It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater, which I was then and still am,” he wrote, “that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat eating depends.”


This challenge struck a chord with many people, including vegans and vegetarians looking to change the factory-farming system.


For Janice Schindler, 28, who was a vegan for five years and is now the general manager of the Meat Hook butcher shop in Brooklyn, the animal in question was a turkey at a “Kill Your Own Thanksgiving Dinner” event at a local farm.


“It was really morbid. I was the only one who signed up,” she said. “I’d never killed anything before. Turkeys are such large animals. But when you put them in a poultry cone upside down, they completely relax. Then you can cut an artery. It stuns them and they bleed. I spent the rest of the day working the eviscerating station. It was super-gross, but I found it fascinating.”


That experience was the gateway to her training as a butcher, which she began immediately afterward.


Ms. Schindler’s transformation from vegan to ethical butcher was similar to that of several butchers I spoke with. Hers began in high school:


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