Who do you picture when you hear the word "butcher?" For many, a grizzled older man with strong biceps comes to mind. Butchery is undeniably male-dominated, with only 27% women, only slightly higher than the 25% of women farmers and ranchers. But times are changing, and the rise of craft butchery has meant more opportunities for women. For International Women's Day (Mar. 8), Fleisher’s Craft Butchery (locations in Westport, Greenwich & Brooklyn) interviewed some of the many women in the Fleishers family. Meet Heather Sandford (Butcher, Farmer, and Co-Founder at The Piggery), Brittany Carpenter (Head Butcher at Fleishers Brooklyn) and Amy Duley (Butcher at Fleishers Brooklyn):
How did you get interested in butchery and farming?
Duley: My grandfather was a beef farmer who used to send cattle regularly to slaughter in MD, and we'd get a side of beef to last us for the year. So I have early memories of being in butcher shops. When I got out of high school, I started as a meat cutter. It took a lot to get into the industry, and I had to fight a lot of sexism. While in MD, I spent 4.5 years working at Costco and one year at mom and pop butcher shops, and I only met one other female meat cutter. When I finished my bachelor's degree in animal products, I wanted to get back into butchery but knew it wasn't viable in MD, so I moved to New York.
Brittany: I come from a restaurant and line cooking background, but always thought the butchery aspect was super interesting. I started working for a butcher shop in Wooster, OH, making sausage and learning the basics. It was a small shop but as part of a two-person team, I learned a lot. When I moved to NYC, I worked in a Midtown restaurant for 2.5 years but didn't love it. Then one day I walked past Fleishers in Brooklyn, thought "I miss doing that!" and went in to ask if they were hiring. Coming from a restaurant background, I had limited butchery knowledge, since restaurants mostly focus on cuts like rib-eyes, filets and strips. Seeing a ranch steak for the first time was really humbling and mind-blowing, when you realize how many cuts are actually on an animal! It's a huge amount of knowledge to learn.
Heather: My husband Brad and I were studying the land when we moved here. We were interested in raising our own food, and we read every book on growing vegetables, butchery, and fermentation we could find. We started with a Noah's ark of animals: cows, guinea fowl, three Berkshire pigs, and eventually fell madly in love with the pigs. We started teaching people how to cut meat in our basement, and just last week, I even taught a Women in Butchery class!
Women in Butchery class at Groundswell, led by Heather Sandford
Wow, how did the Women in Butchery Class go?
Heather: It was really fun! We're engaged with a number of farming non-profits here, including Groundswell, which has programs for beginning farmers and workshops in skills like welding, carpentry and butchery. It was different from other workshops I've taught, with a great sense of support and camaraderie among everyone attending. We all knew we were doing something unique for our gender, and it was a really unifying force as we cheered each other on.
Not to take a turn for the darker side, but do you think there are any disadvantages to being a woman in butchery?
Brittany: I feel really lucky to be at Fleishers, and have never felt discriminated against here. When I first started, we had a lot more men as butchers and mongers, and now it's much more even. I'd even say women are dominating in Park Slope now. When I worked as a cook, I was often the only female in the kitchen, and there was a lot of machismo attitude around. Even if the guys don't mean anything by it, sometimes it feels like a boys club. Balance is great and ideal in any kind of work environment, so I'm glad to have that here.
Duley: It really depends on the people you work with. Brit's the BEST, and it's great to have her on the team. In MD, I didn't have issues with my direct coworkers, and had opportunities to work with people who had been in the industry for 10-20 years. I was fortunate that they took me under their wing because they knew I was serious. But I had issues with sexism from management, and it kept me from promotions and was really frustrating. As far as butchers go, when a butcher recognizes another butcher, they don't see any of the other stuff, they only care about whether you want to learn. I do think that women being in butchery comes back to our dedication to learning. We have to work harder to get the experience, so we take it more seriously when we get the opportunity.
Heather: As strong as I am, sometimes I do need to ask for help carrying things. As for attitudes, sometimes older gentlemen think having a woman butcher is funny and they're not used to it, but in general, being a woman hasn't really affected me.
What do you recommend to people who'd like to become butchers?
Heather: You can start by working in a variety of foodservice places: a restaurant, a bagel/coffee shop, a grocery meat counter. Any way to find out what it's like to be around food. Then you can move into full scale butchering, and hone in on butchery books and YouTube videos. When we hire butchers, we like to find people who have some food world experience, but more importantly, people who are engaged with learning about food.
Duley: It depends on your end goal. I started off as a butcher, but my goal was to have a comprehensive understanding of the meat industry. So I not only did meat cutting, but I also worked at the USDA, where I was dealing with regulatory noncompliance data at slaughterhouses. I wanted a full understanding of how everything operates. If you're just looking to get into the trade of butchery, then find someone willing to hire and teach you, where you can develop those skills. Of course, it's hard to tell where you want to be until you're in it.
Brittany: Find a good chef or local butcher and ask questions! If you want to pursue this, it's a slow process. You won't get to break down animals on your first day, you'll be trimming things out, which is not exciting but it's beneficial. It takes patience, time, and energy, but if you're passionate about it, it's worth it.
Last and possibly most difficult question, what's your favorite cut and how do you cook it?
Duley: For beef, I don't typically go for the fattier cuts. I love hanger, flank, and skirt steaks, and use my dry rub of fine coffee grounds, cocoa powder, brown sugar and cayenne, then pan fry or grill the meat. For pork, bacon is obviously the most important. But I just made a shredded pork adobo with eye round that was amazing.
Brittany: I love pork sirloin, it's great! It's really versatile as a roast, or as a chop. Typically, I do a roast and season it with the Fleishers Pork Rub, roast at 350 F for 20 or so minutes until it hits an internal temperature of 145. Then you can slice it up, and the leftovers are great for sandwiches.
Heather: Oh boy, that's like choosing my favorite kid! I will take liver over rib-eye every day. I'm particularly in love with poultry liver, which I'll quick fry in lard, rosemary and thyme. It's the best convenience food! I also love heart; it's the gateway offal. It has a similar mouthfeel to a steak stir fry. I worked with a chef at a sorority house and sold him beef heart to put in his grind for taco nights. It was a hit! Roasted beef marrow bones are another favorite of mine. And then I have to give a shout-out to our sausage. When you take it out of the casing and pair it with vegetables or lettuce cups, it's ready to go in minutes.