On Sunday, while naked people streaked down the streets of San Francisco for the annual running of the Bay to Breakers, Andrea spent the day inside a refrigerated room learning to disassemble a cow. This was her third butchering class with Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats. She started with Poultry and then moved on to Hog Butchery. She has now graduated from Whole Beef. At this point, she can reduce pretty much any farm animal into small, edible portions.
We have friends in Arizona who are serious survivalists. They have also taken butchering classes, but in their case they wanted those skills as part of their “bug out” plan. They fully expect, during their lifetimes, that major cities will consume themselves in violent revolution. Rather than hide in their basement like rest of us, they plan to fight their way to the countryside through the Mad Max-style gangs. Once there, they’ll survive off the grid, growing, raising and butchering all of their own food. They’ve spent the bulk of their lives amassing the necessary guns, tools and skills. One thing is certain; if peace ever breaks out they’re going to have the best garage sale ever.
Andrea took butchering classes for far less lofty reasons. We consume a lot of meat. She wanted to know more about where our meat comes from. She also wanted the skills necessary to bypass the local supermarket and buy meat in bulk directly from a farm. Of course, now that she has taken Whole Beef she won’t need those skills any time soon. The class included a take-home bag of 100 pounds of meat. This is on top of the chicken and pork she brought home from her previous classes. In one way we may actually be ahead of our friends the survivalists, it’s very likely that we have more meat in our freezer.
The first time we tasted 4505 Meats was over two years ago. We found their farmer’s market sausage stand listed in the Zagat Restaurant Guide. We are not huge followers of Zagat. We find that their reviewers tend to prefer fussy to fresh. They gush over rich sauce reductions and hyper-formal service incorporating an employee whose sole job it is to refold napkins when patrons sneak off to the bathroom. Zagat tends to punish simplicity, which is exactly how we prefer to eat. We’ve also been burned more than once by their slavish devotion to celebrity chefs. On Zagat’s recommendation, we spent $125 each for some of the worst sushi we’ve ever eaten at Nobu Las Vegas. Zagat portrays Chef Nobu Matsuhisa as an unsurpassed genius; our experience would indicate he’s more of an absentee landlord.
In defense of Zagat, they’re still better than Yelp, Urban Spoon and the other online restaurant guides. The problem with the online guides is that the reviews are user submitted. As a result, they’re completely unreliable. The reviews typically read as though they came from either the restaurant owner or a nearby competitor. “The best food in San Francisco” is often followed by a second review warning “They serve live cockroaches.”
Every now and then, Zagat contains an outlier too unusual to ignore. In the case of 4505 Meats, we were flipping through the guide and came across what appeared to be a hotdog stand rated 27 out of 30 for food. To put this in perspective, this is a higher rating than Benu or Coi, two of the best restaurants in San Francisco where the prefix menu costs around $200 before you order wine. We made a special trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market and 4505 did not disappoint. We ordered the lamb sausage, and even without the bun it was easily the best sausage either of us has ever tasted. It was served on a bed of micro-greens tossed in a light vinaigrette. It was a perfect DYC lunch. The 4505 stand also peddles burgers and bacon-studded hotdogs that are easily among the best we’ve ever tasted. But it’s the sausage that draws us back.
For the past three years, Ryan Farr, the founder of 4505 Meats has been giving classes in butchering. We have no idea why he spends his time giving these classes when he could easily build an empire off his sausages. But we’re glad he does. Last year, Ryan published a book called Whole Beast Butchery. It’s a step-by-step guide for turning most common farm animals into steaks and chops. It contains more pictures than most children’s books, although the pictures are largely close-ups of Ryan cutting and sawing through massive slabs of meat. Perhaps, one of these days, we’ll try reading it aloud to our nieces and nephews in place of Goodnight Moon. Our prediction is they will love it. Meat squeamishness is a learned trait. These kids have no fear of food.
In spite of Ryan packing all of his secrets into his book, butchery is, at least for us, not easily learned from pictures. Butchery is a tactile art. Feeling a steak separate from the bone is very different than studying photographs of the same. We are people who learn by doing. And we are hugely appreciative that Ryan has continued teaching these classes. Most people who’ve had Ryan’s success would instead spend their time pitching the Food Network on a Reality TV Show called The Sausage King.
Ryan’s classes are a extremely small. Whole Beef was limited to six people. Everything was hands-on. At the beginning of the class, Ryan introduced four quarters of cow hanging in the walk-in refrigerator. He then pulled the first quarter and hung it from a hook in the middle of the room. This sounds easier than it looked. A quarter of a cow weights between 160 and 200 pounds. The best analogy we can come up with is the buddy carry, an exercise we’re occasionally assigned at our Crossfit gym. The move is essentially to grab another human being, throw them over your shoulder and take off down the street as fast as basic safety allows. Ryan had one advantage: his buddy wasn’t wiggling or making panicky asides about not wanting to be dropped. Ryan’s big disadvantage was that his buddy is as slick as ice. We knew beef has a lot of subcutaneous fat. What we didn’t know is that this fat makes it very slick to work with. When it came time to wield the knife, it was often difficult to get a steadying hold.
Each quarter was broken into two or three large piece. Ryan then assigned each student a hunk of cow. With guidance, everyone in the class slowly reduced his or her slab into steaks, chops, roasts and ribs. Leftover scraps were fed through an enormous grinder and transformed into a combination of ground beef and beef chorizo. This process was repeated until, nearly eight hours later, the entire cow was packaged in small bundles. This was not a class of long lectures and Power Point presentations. This class was all about grabbing a knife or saw and channeling your inner carnivore.
Over the past 50 years, Americans have come to prefer their meat completely unrecognizable as the animal it came from. By the time a typical grocery store has finished trimming a chicken breast, it’s so benign it could be tofu. The same is true of other meats. We’ve become so good at removing the “spooky bits” that it’s often impossible to figure out what animal you’re looking at without reading the label on the package. Having just returned from Asia, we are now hyper aware of America’s faint-heartedness. In Hong Kong and Japan, there is no attempt to disguise meat in any way. In the case of seafood and poultry, the animals are often kept alive in tanks and cages right up until the moment you’re ready to take them home for dinner.
Drink Your Carbs recommends eating a lot of meat. We try to steer people towards grass-fed and hormone-free meats. We have no fear of fat. We even encourage the eating of internal organs and other less-popular parts. This is not to say that we believe all meats are equal. A Slim Jim is not equivalent to piece of chicken or steak. Real ground meat is always preferable to highly processed pink slime even though they both carry the same nutritional label. We recommend keeping highly processed meats to a minimum. (The term we use in the Food List is Limited.)
We’re actively trying to unlearn our childhood indoctrination that meats should look sterile and uniform. We’ve spent our lives peering at identical steaks cellophane-wrapped to a Styrofoam plate or stacked neatly in a refrigerated case. We have a long way to go, but helping Ryan carve through three inches of cow femur with a bandsaw was an excellent start.
Ryan is still teaching classes. They are sold out months in advance. If you’re considering taking one, you’ll have to plan well ahead. But we cannot recommend it highly enough. It doesn’t matter if you are preparing for an apocalypse—zombie, Mayan or Messianic—or you just want to learn more about your food supply. You will leave at the end of the day with mountains of tasty grass-fed meat and a far greater appreciation of the food you eat.
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Hit 4505 on Saturday. They did not disappoint.
And you’re wrong on Nobu. BEst in Vegas
Huge respect to you and Andrea for doing this. I always had the attitude toward meat that I love eating it, but wanted to remain as far removed as possible from the actual process of killing and carving up the animals it comes from. But as I’ve become more interested in paleo eating, the hypocrisy of that stance isn’t sitting so well with me anymore.
Also, if the end of the world truly hits, I would think the middle of an arid desert would be one of the worst places to try and hole up.