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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Thrush, Davis, and I stand around talking for a few moments, before he starts butchering. Davis also is putting down her old dairy cow today and will use its meat to feed her family.

The farm comprises about an acre of land, with their house close to the road and an expansive backyard maze of fencing creating different areas for each group of animals. A small barn sits to one side. There are larger areas, where they allow the animals to graze.

The laying hens and ducks have a pen with space to roam and a coop. The roaster chickens and turkeys are kept in their own pen, pecking around the ground for bugs. Dairy goats play in the dirt, occasionally meandering up to the fence to investigate. Pigs are tucked in the back corner. A few large trees extend their canopy and offer shade. A fenced-in garden and raised planters are distributed throughout the property to provide vegetables for the Davis family.

Nichole Davis' four kids run around, playing and talking about what will happen on their farm today. Ranging in age from 5 to 12, her kids assist with butchering in different capacities, from chicken catcher to bagger to labeler. While still young, they realize that if they are going to eat meat, they have a responsibility to be a part of this process.

Thrush reassures Davis and me, explaining exactly what will occur and that once we get past the killing, it is a clinical procedure. I look over at the cute pigs in the pen and back at him. He just smiles and nods in a calming, it-will-be-okay way.

Thrush places the tip of a .22 shotgun at the cow's head. I aim my camera. But before I am able to remove the lens cap and Davis is able to slide back through the fencing after placing a bowl of molasses and feed in the pen for the cow, we hear a small pop. The cow crumples to the ground.

Davis looks at me, slightly shocked, a smudge of molasses on her cheek. For her, this is the hardest part, and Thrush is really good at making sure it happens quickly and as humanely as possible for the animal.

With speed that comes with almost 30 years of experience, Thrush quickly slits the throat, allowing the blood to drain. The fence is removed and a winch lifts the cow by the hind legs so that she is hanging.

Butchering cows costs $70 per head, with the processing (hanging, cutting, wrapping, and freezing) costing another 70 cents per pound on the hanging weight. The hanging weight is the weight after the meat has been hung for about two weeks, which allows some of the water to evaporate from the meat. Pigs cost $45 per head, with a processing fee of 55 cents per pound.

In order to be able to assist Thrush in butchering the cow and pigs, I would have to train as his apprentice for years; his own experience shows in his steady hand and precise, quick cuts.

He puts on his apron and begins to skin the cow, and he is right: It does become clinical. He points out all the primal cuts to Davis and me and how each one would be broken down and used. The kids gather around for their science lesson, seeing the four chambers of the cow's stomach and receiving a lecture on what each one does.

Thrush quarters the cow in 40 minutes and hangs each piece of meat in a custom-made refrigerated trailer. He then begins work on the pigs.

Back at their property and facility in Wickenburg, I chat with Thrush as he cuts apart pieces of meat.

"I think butchering is a dying art," he says.

Much as how kids go to culinary school today, never work in a restaurant yet call themselves a chef, most butchers in grocery stores or even small butcher shops rarely do much cutting. If they do, they receive the primal cuts in boxes and break down from there. A self-proclaimed butcher who lacks the ability to break down a whole or half animal isn't much of a butcher in the eyes of Bob Thrush.

"We could work seven days a week, 365 days of the year if we wanted," Lisa, Bob's wife, and co-owner of the processing facility, tells me. "We are turning people away and aren't taking on any new customers, because we just don't have the time."

They don't know whether it's just because they have been in business and they get recommendations from customers or because more people are raising animals, but business is booming.

The Thrushes work in an efficiently designed refrigerated commercial building on their land in Wickenburg. The building houses a custom-designed walk-in with a rail track to pull hanging meat from the entry side, through to the cutting room, and a freezer where they place the cut or ground packaged meat, awaiting pickup.

The pig and cow Thrush killed, skinned, and broke down at Nichole Davis' ranch come here to hang -- about seven days for the pork and 16 days for the cow. Evaporation helps concentrate flavor and provides an increasingly tender product.

Before cutting, Lisa and Bob go over the order sheet, which has all the cuts the customer wants from the animal. With the aid of a large saw and a few knives, Bob skillfully breaks down the quarters of beef, as they hang, into smaller cuts. He dons a chain-mail glove and begins making cuts. Lisa packages everything as soon as it leaves Bob's hand, and they are done with half of a cow in about an hour.

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Rachel Miller
Contact: Rachel Miller