Story by Lucy Burningham
Photography by Erin Berzel
Camas Davis is a willowy thin 35-year-old with a short haircut that reveals her long neck. She holds her jaw with a hard defiance and maintains eye contact during tough questions—things she must have done before strangers started saying they wanted to kill her.
In 2010, Davis founded the Portland Meat Collective (PMC), a traveling butchery school that teaches students how to break down everything from cows and pigs to roosters and rabbits. Some classes offer the chance to slaughter animals before the butchery process. Others teach meat curing. The PMC also functions as an informal community-supported agriculture (CSA) for meat, a source of information about purchasing whole animals and meat from small farmers and ranchers in Oregon. Since Davis launched the PMC, the organization has taught about 200 classes to more than 1,000 students.
The idea of learning about meat through hands-on experience—by pushing knives through the joints, seams, and bones of an animal’s carcass—doesn’t seem particularly incendiary. After all, these are the days of “nose-to-tail” dining and restaurants that cure meat in-house. But something about the PMC incites public rage, especially after an incident in January 2012, when 18 live rabbits designated for slaughter at a PMC class were stolen.
“The amount of death threats and violent comments I received was astounding,” Davis says. “It was a hard period of time, but I knew these kinds of reactions were inevitable. I was surprised it didn’t happen sooner than it did.” Eventually all the rabbits were returned. “It’s a long story,” Davis says, sighing. “One day I’ll tell it in its entirety.”
Davis took a circuitous path to butchery. She grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and moved to New York City after college. There she worked as a writer and editor for a decade, at publications including Saveur and National Geographic Adventure. When she moved back to Oregon, she became an editor at Portland Monthly, where she wrote about food.
In 2009, she lost her job at the magazine and decided to pursue a long-time dream of becoming a butcher. But she discovered a dearth of local mentors—mostly butchers—had never heard of certain cuts of meat she requested. “It was obvious they’d never worked with whole animals,” Davis says.
So she signed up for an internship in the Gascony region of France, where she lived with an extended family that raised, slaughtered, and butchered animals—including about 500 pigs that year—before selling the meat at local markets. She says the experience taught her “trust, artistry, and a true understanding of the cycle of life and death.”
She returned to Portland in 2010 and, in part to advance her own education as a butcher-in-training, created the PMC, which brings in experienced chefs, butchers, farmers, and authors to teach classes. Davis began teaching classes herself in early 2011.
Using whole carcasses and live animals in classes is possible because of a loophole in USDA law, which states the owner of a live animal who uses it for personal consumption can “pretty much do whatever they want with it,” Davis told students at a PMC beef butchering class this summer.
At that particular beef class, 12 students, including a former chef and two food publicists, watched Kevin Silveira, owner of Valley Meats in Wallowa, Oregon, break down a forequarter of a steer. With swift cuts, he disentangled the brisket and sliced around the shoulder blade. Eventually students picked up their own knives and broke the beef down further, into pot roasts and chuck for ground beef.
While the gleaming white ball of a shoulder joint and the platter-sized shoulder blade provided vague reminders that a large mammal died for this moment, other PMC classes offer stark prompts that meat is the result of killing live creatures. “After almost every class I go through several hours of a melancholy quiet, in which I process what happened and how it went,” Davis says. “Being responsible for all these people’s experiences is a lot. It’s intense and why a lot of people get mad about what we do.”
As someone who’s visited multiple large-scale slaughterhouses, Davis says the anger is misplaced. “When our organization is totally honest and open about how food gets to the table, we’re the ones who get villainized,” she says. “What slaughterhouses and processors do behind closed doors gets villainized, too, but they don’t get [personally] attacked because they’re so much bigger than we are.”
Humanizing meat processing, even on this small scale, could drastically change how we get our meat, says Ben Meyer, chef at Grain & Gristle in Portland, who’s taught more than a dozen PMC classes, ranging from lamb butchery to sausage making. (See his tips for meat and beer pairings on the previous page and his beer brat recipe to the right). “Camas is connecting people with where their food comes from by removing obstacles between consumers and ranches,” he says. “It’s one real step toward changing the state of animal processing in Oregon.”
While Davis admits to having lofty goals about changing food systems and human consciousness, she acknowledges the smaller changes PMC classes inspire. “Your appreciation for exactly how much work it takes to get a pork chop to your table totally changes,” she explains. “You know in your head there was a farmer, someone who killed a pig, and someone who cut out the bones. But when you do the butchery yourself, the meat becomes less of a simple commodity and more of a special privilege.”
For Davis, that’s meant eating fewer meat-centric meals in lieu of dishes that incorporate meat as a flavoring or leave meat out all together. “On a spectrum of eating meat and not giving a shit about where it came from and puritan veganism, I’m way closer to the vegan end of the spectrum than the evil meat-eating people,” she muses. “To pretend there’s no middle ground is insane.”
Sidebar 1 /
Ben Meyer’s Primer to Pairing Meat + Beer
Any type of braised meat/ Bigger sugary, dark maltier beers stand up to the rich fattiness of the meat. For braised beef, try a malt dunkelweizen, for doing the actual braising. The sugars will slowly caramelize and will make a great reduction sauce after the beef is done cooking.
Anything from the grill/ Char creates bitterness, and that bitterness will be pleasantly enhanced by a beer with bitterness or sourness. (That’s why lemon juice on grilled broccoli creates sweetness.)
Grilled sausage/ A crisp, yellow, slightly bitter beer, like a kölsch or pilsner.
Grilled rib eye/ This fatty cut should be served rare. This works well with a rye beer, which is lighter in body but still has heft. The bitterness of a rye will bring out the strong flavors of grass-fed beef.
Cured meat/ Try cured meat with a beer that has sour notes and herbal qualities, like anise, which will bring out the nuances of the meat. A highly carbonated beer will lift the heat from black peppercorns and cut through fat.
Roasted duck/ A fruit lambic, especially kriek (cherry), has the bubbles and tartness to stand up to the richness of the duck.
Sidebar 2 /
This year Camas Davis was featured in a Wüsthof knife ad campaign along with other young chefs including Richie Nakano, owner of a pop-up food stand in San Francisco. Check out the campaign’s video featuring Davis, who’s billed “The Poet,” at wusthofedge.com.
Sidebar 3 /
Recipe by chef Ben Meyer for Portland Meat Collective
Note: Ask your local butcher to give you enough regular-size sausage casings to make 10–12 pounds of sausages, which should be about 1–2 pounds of casings. If there are leftover casings, drain then heavily salt them before vacuum sealing and storing in the fridge indefinitely.
10 lbs. pork shoulder
3 Tbsp. salt
1 onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. pork lard
1½ Tbsp. white pepper
1½ Tbsp. parsley
1½ Tbsp. marjoram
2½ tsp. nutmeg
2½ tsp. celery seed
1¼ tsp. ground ginger
1¼ tsp. mace
1¼ tsp. cardamom
20 oz. yellow beer (pilsner or light lager. Meyer recommends the Engelberg Pilsener from Upright Brewing.)
Grind pork shoulder on a 3⁄8-inch dye and set aside. In a medium skillet on medium heat, sweat onion in lard until translucent, add spices, and cook for 1-2 minutes, until the spices are fragrant. Chill. Combine onion and spice mixture with ground pork shoulder. Regrind on a fine 3⁄16-inch dye. Add beer. Keep sausage loose, form patties or stuff them in casings.*
To cook cased sausages, poach until internal temperature reaches 135°F.
*Note: To learn more about making sausage, read Hank Shaw’s primer on Simply Recipes: simplyrecipes.com
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