Melissa Cortina is a Los Angeles butcher based in Los Angeles and has been behind the chopping board at Lindy & Grundy and the Cook Family Butcher Shop. Check out her other stories on her column, The Butcher’s Table.
When I was asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never once said I wanted to be a butcher. I believe I wanted to be an artist, a teacher, a writer and, for a short period in my teens, a Disney Imagineer (true child of Southern California). These days, when I am asked how I got into my current occupation, I struggle to come up with an adequate response. The thing is, it’s kind of a long story and, while I’m proud of my accomplishments, I wonder sometimes if people understand the value of my work, as I see it. I’m always afraid that when I say I’m a butcher, they’re thinking, “You’re just a butcher.”
And then there’s the whole gender issue. A female butcher? Whaaat? There are no words for me to describe how surprised some people are when I tell them what I do; it’s unnerving. Very often, the gender thing becomes the focus of the conversation before I ever have a chance to say anything else.
The National Women’s Law Center estimates that in 2010, only 24.6% of those individuals working full-time as butchers or meat-cutters were women. The category “butchers and meat-cutters” is one of eleven jobs the NWLC calls Nontraditional Occupations for women. Only the percentages of women who were firefighters, construction workers, engineers, law enforcement, and heavy equipment mechanics were smaller. The prime reason the gender issue takes precedence when I talk about my career isn’t because most people think a woman can’t be a butcher; it’s because most butchers aren’t women and so it’s surprising to see one.
For a long time, the meat industry assumed that women would not want to do or were not capable of doing the heavy work associated with meat cutting. Butchering can indeed be a physical and difficult job. However, the assumption that women aren’t capable of becoming butchers is, of course, baseless.
Meat cutting is an art built on a skill set. The repetitive motions of butchery build muscle memory, agility, and precision. Anyone can do it if they really want to, though some will naturally do it better than others. Technique is the key, and many master butchers have told me that brawn is often the enemy. In this sense, because they are often not as forceful as men, women make excellent butchers.
I’ve encountered my fair share of resistance from men who were sure that I “didn’t know what it meant to be a butcher,” that I “thought butchery was glamorous,” and finally that I “wouldn’t like it once I found out how it really was.”
At Whole Foods, where I begged to be transferred to the butcher department so that I could learn basic cuts, I was told more than once that I “wouldn’t like that kind of work.” Once, when I asked the man behind the Huntington Meats counter if he would let me come and work for free, he finally relented, adding, “but you know that if you mess something up, I’m going to yell at you, right? Will you be okay with that?”
Note: these are all real things men said to me.
But the face of the meat industry is changing; the old boys club is dissolving as more and more women find careers as ranchers and processors. In my experience, the great majority of male butchers welcome their female counterparts to the industry, so long as women show a true desire to do the work. The greatest obstacle was really my own self-consciousness about frequently being the only woman in the room. I had to be completely sure that I wanted to follow this path because everyone else seemed to question my motives for doing so.
This issue of motivation is the real explanation for the lack of female butchers and it’s what I think most people mean to ask when they say, “How did you become a butcher?” It’s not really a how question at all; it’s why. “Why would you, with your graduate degrees, and being a woman, and all your advantages in life, why would you choose to be a butcher?”
When I was 23 years old, I left graduate school to become a line cook because I hated how privileged and detached academia made me feel. On the line, I found an entirely different life; every task had immediate visible and tactile rewards. Even better, the food we made delighted and satisfied other people. I was fortunate enough to work in a farm-to-table kitchen, where a great deal of butchery was done in-house. This piqued my curiosity about meat cutting, but more importantly it started me on a path of inquiry about how food is grown and processed in the United States.
In pursuit of more knowledge about the food system, I went to live and work on a farm under the tutelage of Bob Cannard — sustainability expert, farmer, mad genius, and philosopher. Long mornings spent working on the farm were followed by sleepy afternoons on the patio of the farm house, where Bob gave lectures on any and all topics related to food and farming, ranging from the microbiology of soil to the meaninglessness of the organic label in the present day. Because of Bob, I began to look more holistically at the way we produce and consume food in this country. These were not things I contemplated as a graduate student, or even as a line cook.
For the first time, I began to understand the scope of the damage caused by our patterns of consumption and I was horrified. At the same time, I found continued joy in working with my hands and providing food for the community. So I set out to be a butcher, not because it was becoming cool and not because I wanted to break down gender barriers. Articles gave the impression that meat cutting is a glamorous occupation in which young butchers have the opportunity to become celebrities, the next Emeril or Mario Batali. For me, it wasn’t about that at all. I simply realized, after my time on the farm, that the meat industry was the area in which drastic change could have the greatest impact on the health of the planet, on our health as a nation, and on animal welfare. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization claimed that the industrialized meat complex contributed to the production of more greenhouse gases than either transportation or industry. In 2009, World Watch writers Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimated that domesticated animals raised for food could account for at least half of all human-caused greenhouse gases. Do I need to repeat those statistics?
That’s the answer to the questions: How did you become a butcher? Why did you become a butcher? If you asked a lawyer, a law enforcement officer, or a teacher why they chose their vocation, no one would be surprised to hear that they wanted to help people, to have a positive impact on their community, or to change the world. So why do I have the feeling that I wouldn’t get the same understanding if I told someone that those are the very reasons that I became a butcher? In this respect, it shouldn’t be surprising that a woman sought a career in the meat industry; women have been working to change the world for a long time now.