INTERVIEW : BERLIN REED // THE ETHICAL BUTCHER
Meat is the subject of much controversy, an object of affection, a creative platform and a culinary cornerstone in our one of our favorite cities in the world, Portland, OR, where it is served up in increasingly high/low concept, post-sensitivity forms that are as challenging as a dare. Berlin Reed — who, as The Ethical Butcher, runs an eloquent and inspiring blog, hosts an unspeakably delicious Friday night dinner at Salt, Fire & Time kitchen, and tours around the continent — just moved to Portland from New York City. On Thursday night, he’ll host a party at The Cleaners at Ace Hotel Portland to celebrate the release of Primal Cuts by Marissa Guggiana. We’ll be enjoying an incredible feast, rad local DJs, a film screening, local pastries and coffee, and a photobooth. See more about the event and how to buy (ridiculously inexpensive) tickets on our calendar — they’re ten dollars cheaper if you buy them before Thursday. But for now, kick back and read our interview with this local legend in the making.
Hi, Berlin. How was Brooklyn? Your bi-national tour got a little stuck…
My trip was was insanely fun and immensely transformative, especially on a personal level. I started out in SF, which was, as always, a blast. Two weeks of sun and planning with friends down there who are forming the Butcher’s Guild, which I am very excited to be a part of. The biggest wrench was getting turned away from the Canadian border. Toronto and Montreal were my main destinations, so being denied entry was a huge disappointment and actually got a little scary for a bit because I was nearly deported, like officially held in immigration detention center-style. Not cool. I was able to buy a ticket to NYC and I spent the month there hustling like everyone else. I did a few dinners, go-go danced, DJ’d some parties and pretty much any other gigs I could find. For a while, I didn’t even know how I was going to get back to Portland!
My commitment to sourcing directly from farms played out in New York. Here, in Portland, I drive out to farms and slaughterhouses and get the animals myself. New York City has pretty much the same proximity to farms that we enjoy, but the accessibility is nowhere near similar, unless you have a car. I ended up taking a 7-hour train ride to source the ducks I used in my dinner there last week. There I was, backpack full of ice packs, on a train to Poughkeepsie. I took a cab from the train station to the farm and back. With my backpack bursting with 6 Pekin ducks, weighing about 35 lbs total, I rode the train back to the city, looking out at the Hudson the whole way.
I had this hilarious realization a few nights ago as I wandered the Lower East Side: I am crazy. Seriously, the life I live just to cook and write about food. Living out of a backpack, sleeping on couches, odd jobs to avoid working for a paycheck and of course, lots of tattoos; that whole “rock star” butcher thing really resonates. Sex, Drugs and Meat n Knives, baby.
Portland is happy to have you back, especially because on Thursday you’re creating an amuse bouche for the book release of Primal Cuts at The Cleaners —- are you in the book and what do you think of it?
I am in the book and the author, Marissa Guggiana and I have become friends since she came to Portland to interview me. I love the book and am humbled to be included. Marissa is a wonderful asset to the butchering community. In all this media hype, it is refreshing for the writing to come from a fourth-generation meatcutter, and lady butcher at that. She knows our world and is a part of it. As another butcher who writes, she is also an inspiration to me.
Dario Cecchini, who wrote the forward for Primal Cuts says, “There are four things an animal must have: A good life, a good death, a good butcher and a good cook — someone who can dignify the animal and all those whose labors led it to the table.” What do you think about that?
I love it! It is the theme of my party and that quote, paraphrased, is the chapter in my book. It is absolutely true, and in my opinion, can be extended to our entire food system. Where does it come from? How was it made and by whom? How did it get to the restaurant/store/market? These are questions we need to ask ourselves about grapes, bananas and coffee just as much as we do about pork and salmon. We have to start looking at our system as whole, as well as our implication in it. The respect afforded these animal is a stream that flows all the way from farm to slaughterhouse to butcher’s counter to your table, you can taste the difference in these meats. Respect is nowhere in the equation of industrial meat, no respect for animals or land, no respect for those who labor in their diseased feedlots and no respect for us, the consumers who will ultimately ingest this food. The four keys open the door to responsible food production and consumption across the board. It is time to ask the questions, not just look for labels.
I used to be vegan, but I’ll eat just about anything now (except for veal), so every time I order a pork taco from the food carts I think about factory farms and get depressed. Do you think there is hope for US meat-eating culture —- can we evolve to the point that all meat is raised and butchered sustainably?
"Can" we? Yes. The question is will we evolve? To be honest, no, not until more people and more corporations really begin to curb their consumption. That is the biggest key, even bigger than raising and butchering in sustainable ways, we have to just stop demanding so much meat. As long as grocery stores fill their counters with meat 365 days a year and restaurants keep ordering from distributors and producers with questionable records, we will be in the same predicament. Evolving here really means going back, reaching back to a time where only whole animals are used and where meat is somewhat of a specialty. Throughout human history, meat has been a rare and hard-won prize, revered for its potent nutrition and strengthening properties. Industrial production changed all of that. We have created an illusion of plenty, and it is costing us the world, literally.
How is butchering and cooking in Portland different than New York? Are you raising animals for slaughter in your backyard, and is there any backlash here to what you do?
Well, butchering is butchering, the craft is the craft, you know? There are regional differences, and every butcher has their own style, but I don’t think there are drastic differences between butchers here in Portland or the butchers I have worked with in Covington, Kentucky or San Francisco, California. We all come to this with an unfathomable depth of gratitude and love for the animals we cut, I know that seems a paradox to many, but every single butcher knows exactly what I am talking about. We love our work.
I do raise chickens in my backyard, like many other Portlanders. For now, they are for egg-laying. They are still very young, we just got them back in April, so they have a few good years of laying ahead. When they are past their prime…ask me then. I actually wanted to start a business helping people harvest their own backyard chickens when I first moved here last year, but was told by the ODA that I couldn’t. A shame really, I mean, what’s more free-range than your own backyard? What sounds better for dinner? The chicken you’ve fed and cared all of its life or some water-logged packaged bird from who-knows-where that has been eating who-knows-what?
It seems like the world of butchering must be riddled with blood-smeared aprons, tattooed beefcakes (of the human sort), and a lot of machismo. What’s been your experience?
Thats pretty much it. Blood, tattoos, ego and knives…and whiskey. Funny you should say that thing about tattoos, it does seem to be a recurring theme in our set. I actually have plans to get “Pork Chop” on my neck soon! I worked in wine and cheese before becoming a butcher and the cultures couldn’t be more disparate. I also have a lot of friends in the coffee world, by far the most cutthroat and dramatic of all food scenes. Butchers may have attitude and machismo, but there is so much love. We are just a salty bunch, ya know? We do severe heads and break bones for a living and that comes with an odd sense of humor and usually a pretty upfront and in your face personality. We are sculptors, surgeons, chefs, and proselytizing zealots; in one instant we can go from these big, physically strenuous to the most finite, detailed of actions. I love this trade, this craft and its tradition. I am really proud to see several lady and queer butchers at the forefront of this movement, too. We’re all going to save the world, in case you didn’t know.
You are The Ethical Butcher. Does that have anything to do with The Ethical Slut?
Haha, maybe, I am one of those, too. Really though, I, personally, am not The Ethical Butcher. It is my business, blog title and umbrella under which I hold many projects. It is a hard distinction to make because I am a one-man show, but is very important. I am just Berlin Reed. ”The Ethical Butcher” doesn’t mean that what I do is more ethical than what other butchers do, it means that I discuss the ideas and moral philosophy around how I conduct business. It is more of a mission statement, a pragmatism. It means that I do things in a pretty specific way and my business model looks very different than most, I have found ways to work in this field that reflect the morals I hold most deeply. As my writing becomes more of my focus, it also denotes that I don’t just stop at cutting meat.
Your sweetheart Ally is gracing the book release party with the legendary Bloodhound Photobooth. Is the background going to be meat-themed?
It most certainly will be! I am so, so, so excited for this event! It is completely unlike any event ever! Ally will have prints from the last year and a half of farm visits displayed and up for sale, in addition to her super popular and, yes, legendary Bloodhound Photobooth. There will also be a film by Moira Morel showing all three farms the meat for the events was sourced through. I’ve got three super hot DJs that will be heating up the dance floor and so much food people think I am crazy for only charging $20 a person!! The menu is long, features 16 animals from 3 farms and is being prepared by Random Order Coffee and Salt, Fire & Time. There will be raffles and Marissa will be there to sign books. C’mon when have you ever been to a food event like this?
Should I wear a meat dress or is it more business casual?
Girl, this a party!!! Wear whatever you want!
All images by Alison Picard