Longform

The Butcher, the Baker: A Pastry Chef Picks Up a Cleaver in Learning the True Meaning of Farm-to-Table

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While we can assume that the first form of butchery came when man began consuming animals, there are archeologists studying the beginnings of butchery. Charlotte Leduc, an archeologist with the University of Paris, has been studying a prehistoric Danish site, called Lundby Mose, where it is believed butchering occurred 12,000 years ago.

By studying the animal remains at 
Lundby Mose, Leduc proposes that animal heads were cut first to remove the skin, which then was utilized as a "perishable container" to dispose of unusable scraps and to protect meat from the dirt. She also surmises that some meat from the limbs would have been consumed raw on the spot by the hunters. Skeletal parts containing marrow were found fractured, indicating that the marrow had been extracted, a possible reward for the hunters.

From skillful cut marks on the bones, Leduc believes that remaining meat was cut down for ease of transport and later use, then moved to a settlement nearby. Bones were used for weapons or tools. Every scrap was utilized, very little was wasted.

The butcher shop, as a place to purchase meat, came about in the Middle Ages. As cities grew, people became unable to raise their own meat. London's earliest record of a butcher shop comes in 975 A.D. Guilds formed, offering support to butchers able to share techniques and problems while also issuing rules and regulations on proper ways to slaughter animals.

The history of butchery in Phoenix is linked to a man named Edward Ambrose Tovrea. Originally from Illinois, Tovrea started to work on a cattle ranch in the Midwest at age 10. Moving west at 19, he began a freight company that moved goods between Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

When he finally settled in Arizona, he opened a number of butcher shops around the state, eventually founding the Arizona Packing Company in 1919, which soon became known as the largest cattle feedlot in the world, with over 300,000 cattle each year. The Stockyards Restaurant, which was opened in 1947 as a gathering place for all the cattlemen, still operates today as the original Arizona steakhouse.

Our parents and grandparents probably can remember a time when families raised their own meat animals, knew someone who had a farm where they purchased animals, or went to the butcher who worked with local farmers to procure and cut meat to order.

In recent years, we have seen our way through mad cow disease, when everyone was scared to eat beef. Then there was salmonella, E.coli, or listeria contamination, and then the ensuing recalls were issued, causing us to run to our freezers to check to make sure we hadn't purcashed tainted meat. Our food system is so large that our meat more than likely has logged more miles on the road than we do after a summer road trip. Meat is traveling from farm to slaughterhouse to processing facility to truck to grocery store.

Do we know where the meat we get at the store comes from, who touched it through this process, and how it was raised?

The meat industry has changed dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years. Bob Thrush, a custom processor and butcher in Wickenburg, will tell you that when he worked for the grocery chain Bashas, it brought in halves of animals and broke down the meat right there in the store.

"Now," he says, shaking his head, "all the meat goes into the slaughterhouse. The guys on the line each know one cut. The animals come out the other side boxed and ready to be delivered to the store."

Thrush has a cowboy's demeanor (or what I imagine to be a cowboy's demeanor). He is gruff but kind and a straight talker. He has been a butcher since his early 20s, needing a profession and finding himself as a butcher's apprentice.

Currently, he and his wife, Lisa, own and operate Thrush's Processing. They have two grown children who have helped out over the years, allowing the Thrush family to keep several eyes on the quality of the work, which is their main concern.

As a mobile butcher, Thrush will come to your farm, kill your animal, break it down into halves or quarters, then take them back to his processing facility, where the meat must hang for a certain amount of time. Bob cuts the meat while Lisa packages. They employ one full-time apprentice and one part-time apprentice.

We met at my friend Nichole Davis' home. Davis is the sunshine for me in this storm of chaos and lies surrounding the meat industry. She operates Davis Family Organic Farm with her husband and kids and is Queen Creek chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that educates about nutrition through food and farming.

The Davises raise pastured, organic soy- and canola-free chickens and pigs for people who don't have the space to be able to do so themselves. While the farm requires the purchasers to help butcher chickens, the pigs are butchered and processed by Bob Thrush on site, then delivered to Nichole cut down, wrapped, and portioned for each purchaser.

Davis began her farming journey five years ago after almost dying of an infection discovered after the birth of her fourth child.

Ultimately, it took 13 doctors four days to determine the problem. She had strep A, not the more common strep B, and landed in the ICU for nine days, in the hospital a total of 15 days.

At one point, her organs started to shut down. Doctors told her that they would attempt surgery but that the prognosis was not good. Davis' family began to arrive to say their goodbyes. She was 27 and spent the next two years in bed, too weak for everyday life.

"It put me on a new course. I had so many questions inside of me trying to figure out how I got so bad, so bad that I literally almost died! I was in my 20s -- what should have been the prime of my life -- so what wasn't working and how was I going to fix it?" she says.

Davis decided that she needed to make sure her health was the top priority, and that meant eating better food. After a less-than-fruitful search for local sources of quality meats, dairy, and eggs, she started raising her own.

On butchering day, Davis, tall and lean, wears rubber boots, jeans, and a T-shirt, her dark hair in a ponytail. She pushes up her glasses and gets comfortable in one of the two lawn chairs she has pulled up alongside a trampoline, near where Thrush will butcher the animals. She acknowledges that it's hard for her to butcher animals that she has spent time raising and loving.

"None of us like the killing part, but we do like that our animals were given a good life -- treated and fed right. And in turn, we end up feeling gratitude for them and the experience. Food is the basis for everything. It is an honor to have the chance to be a part of something so important."

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Rachel Miller
Contact: Rachel Miller