Animal Products / Cattle

On the artisanal nature of butchery (or more than you ever wanted to know about the natural history of cuts of beef)

Our online travels today offer us juxtapositions as unexpected (and as oddly fruitful) as any physical safari to the heart of Africa or other continent. Today, for example, we can be reading software-mogul-turned philanthropist Bill Gates on the brave-new-world of laboratory grown meat (‘How food scientists are reinventing meat — and how it can benefit everyone’ / The Future of Food), and then — with a single click — find ourselves reviewing an ‘edible geography’ reviewing the natural history and cultural diversity of cuts of beef.

Elegant distinctions in historical excavations
If the author of the latter, Daniel Brownstein, a cultural historian of maps and early modern medicine at the California College of the Arts, gives us more than we ever wanted to know about the artisanal nature of butchery, he also gives us more ‘meat’ than we could have hoped for (and something perhaps for Gates to chew on . . .).

On carving, promiscuous and otherwise
“One of the most important acquisitions in the routine of daily life is the ability to carve well,” the 1852 Illustrated London Cookery Book advised its readers somewhat sanctimoniously; . . . ‘“Carving presents no difficulties; it requires simply knowledge,” Frederick Bishop continued. The lack of expertise is simply a question for Bishop of good decorum. . . .

‘But the decorum for separating cuts of meat has a far longer history, and reveals a cultural form of mapping, and the artifice of mapping accurately. . . . [M]apping the carcass is not only a process of unpacking, or of revealing, but a transcription as well as a form of translation. The transcription converts embodied form to table, dismembering the body by preparing of the cow’s carcass into pieces of prime cuts for the eyes of the chef. The process is one of excavating the cuts of meat from the body, and of renaming them, is the ultimate denaturalization, or repackaging for the market place.

'Butcher's Map', Daniel Brownstein's 'Musings on Maps' Blog

This and all butcher’s maps here via Daniel Brownstein’s Musings on Maps Blog.

The butcher’s map
‘How did this division come to be? As much as how we bring the meat to our table, it is a sort of map of how we ingest our meat, and deserves to be examined as such. . . .

‘In this butcher diagram – or butchery map – the cow becomes the territory, removed from its location and subject to division into brightly colored prime cuts with far less specific local knowledge of the neck, cheek, and tongue:

Butcher's map, Daniel Brownstein's Musings on Maps Blog

‘. . . The sectioning an animal in different local styles of butchery can be geographically mapped in meat diagrams, a rich subject for research, that reveal cultural division in the preparation of the animal. . . .

‘Of course, the greater simplicity of bisecting the cow’s body and dividing it into quarters is . . . a reflection of the rise of industrial butchery, which process multiple carcasses based on sawing the linear saw-lines to create a division and cross-sections – and a consequent decline in the taste for specialized cuts. . . .

‘Dividing the animal is the clear precursor to eating one. . . . The multiple images [Hylas de Puytorac, Chevalier du Mérite agricole] engraved of pigs, cows, and other animals . . . recall the deeply artisanal nature of butchery. The division of the body of cattle is far more refined in this 1852 engraving of the over forty available cuts on the bullock: . . . .

Butcher's map, Daniel Brownstein's Musings on Map Blog

‘Modern meat-portioning may lack so much of a map . . . . The generic division into sectors seems far more readily sawed for repackaging . . . in ways that, unhealthily to me, threaten to elide for perpetuity the distinction between cow and beef for customers, and ignoring as inedible a good amount of bones (and meat) that seem too reminiscent of their bovine origins . . . .’

Butcher's map via Daniel Brownstein's Musings on Maps Blog

Read the whole (wonderful and wonderfully illustrated) article by Daniel Brownstein at his Musings on Maps Blog: How do you map your meat?, 20 Mar 2013, and the feature on Bill Gates Notes: Meeting the demand for more meat, Mar 2013.

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