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What Is a Vegetable Butcher Really?

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How vegans and vegetarians are redefining butcher culture

NYgraphic, Kalin Eftimov/Shutterstock. Photo illustration: DeJesus/Eater

In the back room of the Herbivorous Butcher, Kale Walch garbs himself in a bright white apron and cocked black hat, ready to literally make some bacon. Using an oversized rolling pin to flatten a hunk of red, ethically slaughtered protein, the young butcher proceeds to slice and portion out the hulking mess with a pizza cutter.

Wrapping each slab with butcher paper, the bacon is ready to sell later that week at the local farmer's market to eco-conscious consumers. But unlike the other butchers you might find at the market, the Herbivorous Butcher takes humane and sustainable butchering to an extreme: Rather than killing animals, it uses ground up corpses of various local, non-GMO flora to make vegan-friendly products consumed by meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike.

"We had a big booth at Minnesota State Fair this year, and we were handing out samples of some of our most popular products," Walch said. "Some of the most hardcore, deep fried-looking people came up and were pleasantly surprised, and they said, 'I can actually do this.'"

Over the past decade, the vegan and vegetarian cultures have gradually begun to undermine the narrow-minded, derogatory labels slapped onto any meatless diet practitioners. According to an article by Food Navigator USA, Eric Pierce, the director of strategy and insights at New Hope Natural Media, says six percent of the U.S. population claims to be vegan. But a larger number of consumers known as "flexitarians" are adopting some of the meatless dietary restrictions to reduce their consumption of meat. Pierce noted that 26 percent of consumers surveyed said they had reduced the amount of meat they consumed in the past month, many citing both health and animal welfare as reasons for their decisions. Former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson has even hopped onboard the vegan gravy train, taking a position on the Board of Directors of the plant-based food company Beyond Meat, whose sales increased over the course of this past year.

Having already made eating tofu "cool," the meatless counterculture is taking its trend-game one step further by influencing and appropriating the most hardcore facet of the meat market right now: butcher culture. In the realm of Platonic culinary ideals, butcheries are the neighborhood institutions where you go to buy your weekly meat, said Walch. They're where an old, wrinkled butcher named Joe knows everyone's names and their routine weekly orders: half a pound of ham for little Susie and John's lunch sandwiches, a pound of ground beef for Wednesday night's meatloaf. But, on the other side of this nostalgia trip, a number of butcheries are still frozen in the same mindset as they were 1950s. According to Liz Cherry, a Manhattanville College professor of sociology with an emphasis on food culture, meat during those days was a sign of wealth and prosperity; and in those days, we didn't seem too bothered about how cows were treated before being slaughtered and sold as beef at butchers; how the shops are selling us, if purchased in large quantities, carcinogenic protein; how they're the root of environmental decay.

The Herbivorous Butcher/Facebook; YamChops/Facebook

In their own small way, the meatless are utilizing this familiar protein hub to lead consumers into the brand new world of meatless meat. Cleaver-wielders, who at some point in time have considered themselves card-carrying vegetarian and vegans, are helping in their own small way by pushing for shops to stock ethically raised meat. Others who are not trained in the art of slaughtering animals are taking a hyper-literal stance on the phrase "vegan butcher." Over the past two years, butcher shops like the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis and YamChops in Toronto have opened up to sell products like (plant-based) "Szechuan Chicken" to clientele with various dietary preferences, appropriating this animal-based culinary iconic institution to expand the definition to include their vegan-based counterparts.

And, so far, there hasn't been that much beef.

Animal rights' organizations such as PETA have dogmatically protested over the years for regulations that would improve animal welfare, but vegetarian and ex-vegetarian butchers such as Mary Lake — previously a slaughterer and butcher at the Royal Butcher in Vermont — are in their own way pushing us towards the ethical treatment and slaughter of livestock that we see across the meat and butcher industry today.

Lake began to follow a vegetarian diet during her high school and college years, and was still practicing when she was first hired as a butcher. This ideological position might seem contradictory at first, but Lake explained that she became a vegetarian after realizing how the industrialized meat industry abused its livestock. While studying abroad in Ghana and Senegal, however, the future butcher saw how the locals took a completely humane approach to raising livestock in healthy, free-range conditions. And when it came time to slaughtering a goat for a sacrifice, she said the locals ensured it was quick and painless for the animal.

Seeing that there existed an ethical middle ground between the PETA-esque stance against eating any animal meat and eating solely industrial meat, Lake became interested in the profession, and more importantly, wanted to ensure the animals lived and died happily. "I really wanted to be the one killing them because I really cared about them," Lake said, noting that she does now consume meat when she's absolutely certain where it comes from (typically, that means meat she's slaughtered herself). "Every animal that came into the barn, I was like, 'I'm going to take care of you. You're going to be really calm and comfortable in the barn, and I'm going to kill you very quickly.'"

This ethical treatment of animals has influenced contemporary local butcher shops in metropolitan areas such New York City's Marlow & Daughters, where the butchers trim, cut, and sell what they claim to be true 1800s-style free-range beef, pork, and fowl meat cuts. Michael Kale, the manager of Marlow & Daughters, said that while its customers are predominantly meat-eaters, a number of vegetarians who share Lake's rationale for following vegetarianism end up buying the shop's meat cuts.

"Vegetarians come and decide that because their initial reason [for choosing vegetarianism] was a lot to do with industrialization and animal welfare, they're comfortable eating our meat," Kale said, listing "the most muscular, bloody, meaty rib eye" or "something that's already cooked like bacon" as top choices.

While vegetarians (and ex-vegetarians) working as butchers is a concept most can somewhat stomach, putting the words "vegan" and "butchery" next to one another will have tentative customers perplexed. For the shop owners, the real puzzle is how they have experienced so much success with what began as a tongue-in-cheek business.

"We absolutely didn't expect it to be this big," said Aubry Walch, Kale Walch's sister and co-founder of the Herbivorous Butcher. The concept itself was born out of a joke at a vegan feast in their home, where her brother blurted at the table that they should start a vegan butchery. "Our first day at the farmer's market, we didn't expect to sell a single thing," Aubry continued. "We thought we would get blacked out, but we wanted to try it anyway. We thought it was an incredibly worthwhile cause, and the first day, we sold out." The Walches are currently constructing their brick-and-mortar butcher outpost in Minneapolis.

At both the Herbivorous Butcher and YamChops, the owners sell what appear to be meats and cheeses — products that you'd typically purchase at the butcher counter — but are made with ingredients like garbanzo beans and tapioca powder. Often times, it's hard to even tell the difference between an actual animal-based product and its vegan counterpart. Toni Ambramson, co-owner of YamChops, has even argued with customers over whether or not the stuff they had just consumed was actually solely plant-based.

"We wanted people to enjoy the flavors so much that they wouldn't think about it being vegan or vegetarian," Toni said. "They would just go, 'I want to eat that tonight for dinner. I want to bring that home to my family.'"

Both the Walches and Ambramson said that just as with the food, the word "butcher" itself captures the familiarity of the butchery that's instilled in people's memories. According to Ambramson, the term conjures images of partially sliced cow carcasses and racks on racks of lamb chops. By affiliating themselves with this idea, the vegan butcheries not only make it easy for customers to wrap their heads around the store's mission, but also pique customers' curiosity so that they actually come inside to taste the meatless alternatives.

"We watch people stand outside of our store and look at our sign and kind of shake their heads going ‘Huh?'" Ambramson said. "It definitely creates intrigue and curiosity, and as a result, has people wanting to investigate."

Some of the customers at these vegan butcheries are long-standing dietary veterans who want a tasty and easy-to-prepare meal, while others are new to the meatless community. At both of these vegan butcheries, the owners claimed that most of the consumers are in the latter category, looking for ways to cut back on their meat intake and not just eat tofu eight different ways. In the vegan butchers' eyes, their dishes like (meatless) cheese-and-bier brat and peppered steaks offer customers an easier way to transition from actual steak and pork to plant-based entrees.

"I'd say it's about 60-70 percent flexitarians that are just 'meat-free Monday' or a 'vegan after five' kind of thing," says the Walch brother. "And they're just trying to do their part. Going vegan is hard, and we're making it a lot easier to bridge the gap. [The meatless meat] is something they're familiar with."

Admittedly, calling their businesses "butcheries" and describing these products as "meat" has had some academics up in arms. Sara Franklin, a professor at New York University specializing in the relationship between food and culture, thinks that creating plant-based protein recipes that taste pretty close to bacon undermines the end-goal of making consumers appreciate and actually enjoy a vegan diet. In her eyes, we shouldn't mask the flavors in an attempt to emulate meat, but should show people how to make vegetables taste good in their own right.

"To me, it's about education — for meat and non-meat eaters: other satisfying protein sources rather than duping people into believing fake meat is 'just as good,'" Franklin said. "Legumes, beans, insects, etc. shouldn't have to taste like meat, they should taste like the best versions of themselves."

There's no doubt that the vegan ideologies driving the evolution of what we understand as the butcher culture will continue to prompt skepticism, both from the macho meatheads and purists in the vegan community. But with a meteoric rise of conscious consumers that are aware of their own level of meat consumption, as well as where their meat comes from, this new generation of butchers and butcheries — vegan and non-vegan — might just entrench their roots and hold out beyond trend status.

"If you see it as a business, it'll never work," the Walch brother said regarding this change in what defines butcheries. "If it's a movement, then that's something people will believe in."

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