I worte this for Food arts and hope you like it.
There Will Be Blood: Butchering as Performance Art
The scene was quite surreal. A 650 pound spit roasted steer was on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Members of the OPEN restaurant collective, among them some chefs from Chez Panisse, organized this happening. They paraded the giant beast through the city streets on a trailer truck, a long journey from Alemany Farm where the fennel stuffed steer had been roasting for 20 hours over an elaborate fire pit. Once they arrived at SFMOMA, they removed the specially woven tapestry that covered the animal, which was later hung in the room. Then they extricated the two giant spits that held the animal over the fire. One had to be tapped out with a sledgehammer! Talk about virility and power! Next they un-wrapped the foil that had encased the animal. (Like Woody Allen in Sleeper but on a much larger scale.) After dumping the beast on a giant butcher block, a group of white jacketed female chefs and butchers proceeded to carve up the animal, accompanied by a live overhead video projection in order to bring the action even closer to the audience of carnivores who had paid to attend. After the women had made the initial foray into the giant beast, the large slabs of meat were sent back to male chefs who cut them into smaller pieces and covered them with fanciful sauces and foams, and, as it was San Francisco, the beef was served with local artisan bread and wild arugula. Even a grappa was made from the roasted heart and tongue of the steer. All this was accompanied by video projections, cacaphonic music and sounds and dramatic lighting effects, sort of a flashback to the heady days of the Fillmore Auditorium. When the event was over, only the picked-over carcass remained, smelling faintly of fennel and blood.
But it wasn’t Surrealism the Museum was commemorating; it was the Italian Futurist movement. This dramatic carnal display was part of series of events at the museum entitled “ Metal+ Machine+ Manifesto = Futurism’s First 100 Years “ The chefs used Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1932 bizarre Futurist Cookbook for inspiration for this orgy of meat cooking and butchery. Marinetti had advised the Italians to give up on its classical past and its iconic pasta which makes people “heavy, brutish…slow, pessimistic”, and is “a debased and suburban form of pleasure.” He invited them to plunge into the active future by eating meat. To eat meat is to ingest energy in its most immediate form and increases virility. Oh, those Italians!
All of this was proudly reported in Meatpaper, a new publication in the Bay area that focuses on all meat centric events here in the City by the Bay. Meatpaper’s role as they describe it, “is an investigation into the growing cultural trend of meat consciousness.…about meat as a provocative cultural symbol and phenomenon.”
Hey! What’s going on? It seems like only yesterday that foodies and the media were obsessed with celebrity chefs, aspiring top chefs, and famous restaurateurs. Now the focus has shifted to the more humble and earthy artisans, giving them their turn at 15 minutes of fame. This transition of attention has its roots in the Locavore and Slow Food movements with their veneration of the artisan and farm-to-table eating. The spotlight alternately moves from the farmer, the cheese maker, the baker, and now it shines on the butcher and salumi maker. And when you get a celebrity chef who can butcher and also make salumi, you have hit the trifecta!
The cutting up of animals is now public performance art. Events are widely held, not just in San Francisco. In Atlanta, Brooklyn, the Hudson Valley, Virginia there are similar carnal knowledge opportunities. People can enroll in a hog butchering class, with wine. (Wear your raincoat and rain boots, it gets messy!) Or taste salumi and charcuterie made from responsibly raised animals. Or attend an event called Primal, held both in San Francisco and Atlanta, described as “a celebration of the culinary arts’ appreciation of wood fired cooking methods, and to honor the art of the butcher while promoting heritage breeds and whole animal utilization within the foodie community.” Enlightened carnivores, also known as paying guests, watch butchers and chefs cook a whole pig, a goat and a cow over open fires and then demonstrate cutting them up. Naturally, boutique wines and craft beers are served.
Surrealism and Futurism are giving way to enterprising Capitalism. It is no longer surprising to find a crowd of foodies who’ll gladly shell out $175 per person to watch a now famous Florentine butcher, Dario Cecchini, cut up half a pig and half a cow and get to taste a sliver of bistecca alla fiorentina cooked by the hosting restaurant. The butcher is now a celebrity by osmosis because he is mentioned in a book about a celebrity chef. That’s real show business!
I am not an animal rights activist, and I do eat meat judiciously, but I do think butchering as performance art smacks of press fodder. Trendy photo ops of brawny chefs hefting giant carcasses and wielding sharp knives, surrounded by people who never cook but, like Peter Sellers in Being There, they just want to watch. Those macho tattooed dudes, cutting up meat really turn some folk on in a big way.
Now I do understand that this comes from a place of well meaning and education: to demonstrate that meat does not originate in plastic wrap covered packages but comes from an animal. And that avoiding factory raised animals in favor of those from small farms, raised responsibly and locally is a good thing. But maybe we can carry this a bit too far, when to feel righteous about eating meat, you have to kill the animal yourself. (Thank you, Michael Pollan, for glamorizing our inner hunter.) Or you have to raise the animal yourself. Or failing that you have no room for livestock at home, you need to learn to butcher meat and connect primally with your food before you have the right to enjoy it. Even celebrity bloggers now turned authors have embraced ( temporarily ) their inner butcher.
Seriously, folks. What’s next? Stomping grapes in the dining room? Keeping chickens in the restaurant’s garden or on the green roof and wringing their necks to order? Who will be next on the road to culinary stardom? Watch out. It could be the guys who make the knives.