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Growing Organically Since 1982

An Interview with Roving Butcher, Jake Levin

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 November Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

Jake Levin has found art in an arena that most artists wouldn’t dare to go: the process of taking an animal’s life and turning it into a myriad of delicacies that many know and love: bacon, ham, steaks, head cheese, salami. Through his educational workshops, Jake is attempting to revive a craft long-forgotten, and he’s trying to remind us that aside from the culinary experience, meat requires the taking of a life, and is therefore, necessarily a spiritual act.

I recently had a chance to talk to him about his idiosyncratic life as a roving butcher ahead of his hands-on Pig To Prosciutto Intensive, offered on December 10 and 11 in the Berkshires.

Dan Bensonoff: Can you tell me about your background?

Jake Levin: I grew up in the Berkshires with a family that was always very focused on food. Whenever we traveled somewhere together what we remembered afterward were the meals we ate, more so than the places we’d visited. From the Berkshires I ended up in New York City in a Master of Fine Arts program at Bard University. But I wasn’t really at home in the art world. I then somewhat accidently came to apprentice at Fleischer’s Butcher Shop in Brooklyn one summer. The craftsmanship and physical nature of the work really spoke to me. I realized that I was more at home as a butcher than a professional artist. I then moved back to home to Berkshires where there’s a thriving local food economy to continue my work as a butcher.

DB: Nowadays you do a lot of on-farm slaughters. Can you talk about why you’re interested in this approach?

JL: I never thought I’d be interested in slaughtering animals at first. Really, I saw myself as a butcher. But when I started to be a traveling butcher, I realized I’d have to be involved in dispatching in order to really oversee the whole process. And I quickly became fascinated by the experience. Maybe fascinated isn’t quite the right word... it’s not that I enjoy the slaughter process, but it’s a very deep, almost spiritual experience. I always take time before a slaughter to make sure the animal is comfortable, and to thank both the farmer and the animal for the work they’ve done. When it comes time to actually dispatch the animal it’s almost like an out-of-body experience.

DB: What do you think makes for on-farm slaughters different from a slaughterhouse?

JL: It’s very important to me that an animal can be slaughtered on the farm where it was raised. I believe that way it will be most comfortable, which translates into a more humane dispatch and higher meat quality.

DB: What charcuterie traditions have inspired you over the years?

JL: Of course Italian traditions have been hugely influential. All the variety – prosciutto, coppa, salumi – and each region has its own variation and claim to fame. I’m actually going to the Parma region of northern Italy soon, which for me is like visiting Mecca. But I’m also incredibly interested in other charcuterie traditions; most recently, I’ve been studying some southeast Asian charcuterie, which is very hard to find around here, but is incredibly unique and interesting.

DB: Why do you think people choose to come to your workshops? Are they planning to then do a slaughter themselves?

JL: Not necessarily. I get a lot of homesteaders looking to take more control of the process, whether it be the dispatch or the way in which they take apart and use the various parts of the animal. But I also get a lot of people coming to my workshops with no intention of ever slaughtering or butchering an animal themselves. Many people just want to know more about the process. I’ve even had vegetarians come to my events just to learn and decide whether eating meat is right for them.

DB: What do you want participants at your workshops to walk away with?

JL: Ironically, I’d want them to come away valuing meat more highly, maybe even eating less of it, or at least, thinking more deeply about the process and implications of getting meat onto your plate. This work has taught me just how energy-intensive meat really is to raise and process. I’d really like for people to come away ultimately more conscious of the work and sacrifice inherent in the process.

Want to get your hands dirty with Jake? Join us for his December 10 & 11 class “From Pig To Proscuitto” where he will guide you step-by-step from a live pig that was raised organically by Red Shirt Farm all the way to the delicious brined, smoked, cured, and stuffed end products that many know and love.

Click here for more information and to register.

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