One memorable character on the classic television show The Brady Bunch was “Sam the Butcher,” the love interest of the Bradys’ maid, Alice. He was central to the pt of a number of episodes, so much so that many scenes were set inside Sam’s meat market.
The local butcher—nevermind a butcher shop—is a concept that seems quaint these days. Going to get a steak, seek out a custom cut of beef, or even get advice on how best to cook certain cuts from the local expert is an outdated concept. Mention you are going to a “meat market” to a member of a younger generation, and they may think you’re talking about going to a nightclub for the evening.
These days, butcher shops are nearly extinct.
You can still find some that cater to specific customers, like a halal butcher; but, the traditional butcher shop now seems like a relic of a bygone era. Here in the Boston area, there are only a handful of purveyors who offer not only the best meat available locally, but also the breadth of meat knowledge and expertise that only a trained butcher can supply.
There used to be a lot of local butcher shops; many were neighborhood staples in big cities; towns and suburbs often had multiple competing butchers. But for the most part, they’ve ceased to exist. There used to be a reputable butcher shop near me — where I could get a custom cut, where the man behind the counter could explain what the terms prime, Angus, and dry-age means, and where someone could not only suggest the best quality meats but explain the best way to cook certain cuts. I knew I could rely on this shop for great quality, and that’s where I sent friends looking for the best meats. But that closed down.
Now, the only place where you can get some shared butcher shop wisdom is Whole Foods, and only if you’re lucky enough to be talking with someone who actually plies the butcher trade. But Whole Foods stores are not very prevalent in most of the country.
Career Butchers are Disappearing
While there are still plenty of people who work with meat day in and day out, there are far fewer people who are now career butchers. Historically it was a profession that was passed down through families. As our ButcherBox in-house chef Yankel Polak explains, “Butchery is an art form. You need a deep knowledge of anatomy and which muscles work in each way, but you also need expert knife skills and a knowledge of how to cook the meat you are cutting.”
And this is the crux of it; the knowledge and customer service that were once necessities for the butcher trade don’t exist. While I may not be able to find a butcher near me, I could go to the local grocery to buy meat. But there, butchers have only a very specific set of expertise, because they only sell a narrow range of cuts.
After all, stores sell what is popular. Their meat selection is limited to one or two roasts and grilling steaks like NY strip, ribeye, and a bunch of cheap steaks that will taste terrible if the cook doesn’t know how to prepare them, and instead throws them on the grill without marinating.
Furthermore, the butchers at a chain grocery store usually cut meat like a factory worker on an assembly line. No need for butcher classes. To be a butcher today, one no longer needs to go to a butcher college and study the art of the profession.
And so, while you may be lucky enough to live somewhere where there is a butcher shop nearby and an old-school butcher continuing the trade, most people’s diets have been unknowingly affected by the disappearance of the local craft butcher. Not only are people less knowledgeable about meat — where specific cuts come from, their flavor, and how to cook them — but they also don’t get to experience the full range of cuts that you won’t find at a grocery store.
And that’s one of the great things about a ButcherBox subscription. Each month, you will receive harder-to-find cuts and steaks that may not be familiar. ButcherBox members also get access to recipes, suggestions for how best to cook certain meats, and how-to tutorials on everything from making a holiday roast to the best chicken and waffles recipe around.
At least, if you can’t walk to a butcher shop nearby, you can have the next best thing delivered to your door.