The Calculated Cut
FOR MOST OF TODAY'S SHOPPERS, the process of buying meat has been reduced to wandering fluorescent-lit aisles filled with plastic-wrapped foam platters of factory-raised, hormone-pumped meats of unknown origin.
Luckily, Barb Fisher is in town. A mathematician by profession and (former) vegetarian by preference, Fisher opened Barb’s Butchery in a quiet residential neighborhood in Beacon’s east end just over a year ago. Consequently, the list of former vegetarians in Beacon is growing.
Originally from Detroit, Fisher worked her way through Kentucky and Pennsylvania before a Math for America fellowship brought her to New York City, where she taught math at a South Bronx high school. By 2006, she and her husband had relocated to Beacon and she was a mathematics professor at SUNY Orange.
On some level, mathematics is an advanced form of logic, and it comes as no surprise that Fisher’s seemingly drastic career change actually was a studied, investigated, calculated and logical move, not one of those exploding light bulb Ah Hah! insights. “When I knew I was done teaching,” she recalls, “I asked myself, ‘What does Beacon need? What do I want to do? What do I want to learn about?’ And then I started thinking we should have a butcher shop. So I started investigating and I asked around—‘How do I become a butcher?’”
I’m like, enough stocks! Let’s invest in Main Street, not Wall Street.
As a resident of Beacon for 10 years, Fisher had watched its growth and transformation. She sees the city as a connecting point between the upper and lower Hudson Valley—“A good central spot for lots of stuff,” she says. The building she and her husband bought (a former neighborhood deli) was a perfectly logical choice. “It’s about investing in Beacon. A lot of the 401K stuff is stocks. I’m like, enough stocks! Let’s invest in Main Street, not Wall Street.”
Coming from a family of hunters developed Fisher’s interest in where her food came from, especially meat. As a young girl, she’d helped her dad butcher deer and other animals. “Cutting meat wasn’t completely foreign, but I’d never had any formal training or anything. It’s part of what made it really fun for me because it was totally new and different.”
Through the 1990s, Fischer was inspired by popular nutritionist and fitness writer Susan Powter [author of Stop the Insanity (rpt. Gallery Books, 2010; $20.89 paperback), The Politics of Stupid: The Cure for Obesity (Atria Books, 2008; $14 paperback), and others] and avoided all meat and milk. “I was just done,” she says. “I did eat some cheese and some farm milk, but that was it.” But when she started running in 2000, she felt that her body needed extra sustenance. “Honest—I went out to dinner one night and was like, I need a steak! I got a huge prime rib and a bottle of wine,” she laughs. “It took me three hours to eat it.” (Eventually, she began eating other meats again, but it was a mindful transition that took a long time and some serious investigation of sources.)
Ever the mathematician, Fisher gets excited about the science of, say, a smoked beef brisket.
Fisher knew that Beacon needed a good butcher shop where customers could buy local, wholesome and traceable meats. She had a CSA membership at Obercreek Farm, so she asked the farmers there where she should start. They pointed to butcher Mark Elia, owner of Elia’s Catering and House of Sausages, in Highland. He taught Fisher basic knife skills, how to break down animals and even shared his recipes her. She studied with Elia for 18 months and he helped her build the store in the process. “He tutored me—he was crucial,” Fisher stresses. “I wouldn’t be here without that man.”
It didn’t take long for Fisher to realize that she liked cutting meat. “I hear people talk about knitting and how they can ‘zone out’ and do their thing. Running did that for me—I could just zone out. And doing math I could zone out. So now I make hotdogs and I do the same thing—when I cut meat I get very calm. It’s nice to work with my hands like that and do something totally different.” Fisher especially likes the nose-to-tail aspect of cutting meat. “I buy whole animals—and how much I spend on meat depends on how good of a butcher I am,” she notes. “The yield varies depending on how close to bone I can get and how much I can figure out how to use.”
Ever the mathematician, Fisher is constantly experimenting and testing. She gets excited about the science of, say, a smoked beef brisket. “I’m about to do the most ridiculous mathematician thing,” she admits, explaining the physics behind the “evaporative cooling” process. “The brisket will hit a temperature and level out for about three hours—people lose their minds trying to heat it up, [but] it’s at the point where the moisture in the meat has to evaporate before the meat’s temperature can go up. It’s the same [principle] as having ice in a pot that you’re trying to boil—the ice has to phase shift and melt before the pot will boil.” Fisher hopes to get special meat probes for her brisket so she can run experiments with her smoker. “They hook right up to the computer and measure everything!” she exclaims. “I can’t wait!”
Fisher is equally as passionate about the sources of the meat she offers; she wants to know the farmers personally and trust that they are using best practices. She gets the majority of her animals from Josef Meiller Farm and Slaughterhouse in Pine Plains, Dashing Star Farm in Millerton and Hudson Valley Harvest. “When I ask for grass-finished, I trust that my farmer is not feeding my steers corn and then grain finished,” she says. “I know that they’re handled right—I’ve talked to the farmers.” All of her sources use Temple Grandin’s teaching and practices. (Grandin, whose insights into the minds of cattle has revolutionized how animals are handled during the slaughtering process, is the author of the landmark book, Humane Livestock Handling: Understanding Livestock Behavior and Building Facilities for Healthier Animals (Storey Publishing, 2008; $24.95 paperback), which became an international bestseller and is considered the Bible of humane slaughtering. Fisher notes that meat quality declines if the animals haven’t been treated correctly. “There is bruising, color changes and lots of other things that physically change the meat when an animal has been stressed,” she says.
To say Fisher’s meat looks and tastes different from what’s generally available in a big-box grocery store is an understatement. Her shop not only offers local meats, but customers can have a knowledgeable conversation with staff who can help guide the buying process—and she’ll even share recipes. “People have told me that they started eating meat when we opened,” she says, “and that their digestive systems and bodies just feel better because it’s local and sourced clean and good for you.”
And don’t forget lunch. The shop offers a cheeseburger, pulled pork sandwich, pork cutlet sandwich and a different special every day. Kyle Briggs is the head cook and is responsible for creating all of the sandwiches. The portions are large and give people the opportunity to taste the meat “in action.”
“That’s one of the nice things about nose-to- tail,” Fisher says. “Everything we cook is from the stuff we cut. I don’t go out for steak anymore—whatever Kyle cooks, I eat.”