Head to Hoof: Inside the New Carnivore Movement

Tom Mylan is looking for the perfect spot to plunge his knife. With half of a pig in front of him, he's prodding the carcass, looking for the right place to separate the rump from the rest of the animal with just one stroke. He leans his body in, the knife squeaks and off comes a ham the size of a barbarian's drumstick. Holding court at a kitchen store in Brooklyn, Mylan tells the audience gathered this evening that this is the kind of cut you would see in Italy, where the hindquarters are hung and sliced for prosciutto. Welcome to Pig Butchering 101, where for the next two hours Mylan will work his way through the meat map: trotters first, then a loin off the backbone, followed by the Boston butt and picnic butt (two ill-named cuts that come from the other end of the sow). At last he reaches the belly of the pig, and for the first time all night he uses the word "bacon." The demonstration ends with a table piled high with a pyramid of pork. 

From the start, the head of the large sow has been kept separate, with its two vacant eyes staring out at an audience of hipsters who are here to find out how to break down the beast. The Brooklyn Kitchen began holding classes like this last year. These days the waitlist tops more than 60 people; the outfit is planning to hold classes in secret, on Monday nights, to meet the demand. Twelve people—eight men and four women—have crammed into the small space this winter evening, each having paid $75 to learn at the feet of the master. In fact, many received the course as a gift from their girlfriends; others ponied up the fee just to receive the six pounds of farm meat offered to attendees. And one came because he wanted very much to meet Mr. Mylan, who's something of a celebrity in foodie circles.

Over the past year, Mylan has become an unlikely herald of a new kind of meat morality. About eight years ago, the Slow Food movement migrated from Europe to America. As the organic-food sector grew in supermarkets at a clip of 8 to 9 percent each quarter, restaurants began focusing on farm-to-table freshness by planting off-site gardens and getting friendly with farmers. When it came time to buy meat, they learned, they'd save money if they bought the whole cow. And so the New Carnivore movement was born. The idea was hardly brand-new; Upton Sinclair wrote, in his 1906 classic "The Jungle," that the meatpacking industry should sell "everything but the squeal." But it soon began catching on at expensive restaurants like Brasa in Seattle, Cowbell in Toronto and Per Se in New York, where superb chefs have spent the past five years ordering entire animals from local farms to experiment with for their overindulged patrons. In London, Fergus Henderson has been running a veritable offal palace, St. John, since 1995; last month he was finally awarded his first Michelin star. "The Crispy Pig Tails at St. John are some of the most delicious things you will ever put in your mouth," writes TV chef Anthony Bourdain in the introduction to Henderson's "The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating," a cult cookbook that has made its way stateside, featuring recipes for Warm Pig's Head, Duck Hearts on Toast, and Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. Mylan himself abides by the philosophy that's best summed up in Henderson's book: "If you're going to kill an animal, then it seems only polite to use the whole thing." And that's how Mylan runs his new butcher shop, Marlow & Daughters, which itself opened last month to serve the needs of four Brooklyn restaurants.

Mylan, 32, spent most of his working years selling cheese before climbing aboard the New Carnivore bandwagon. He got a job helping a group of chefs in Brooklyn as they began delving into the Slow Food philosophy. They started with produce, but soon the restaurants were buying ground beef from a butcher shop in upstate New York. One day the owners got word that their distributors were opening a new location and didn't have the labor needed to break down the animals. "We got this friendly ultimatum," Mylan says. "And I happened to be walking by when they said, 'We need a butcher'."

The timing was fortuitous. Shops and farms were becoming burdened by individual requests from consumers and restaurants, all with different preferences. Before Mylan opened his store, there were only three shops in North America that butchered whole animals, which was a problem for the growing number of carnivores seeking farm-fresh local meat. Marlow & Daughters soon became the buzziest of butcher shops, spreading the gospel of head-to-tail eating. "We all need to be reminded of what meat eating entails," says Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." As a carnivore himself, he believes head-to-hoof meat is the ideal way to respect both human and animal life. And to justify this, he cites the disconnect between the unhealthy cuts we buy in supermarkets—anonymous plastic packages—and the animals we kill for that meat. In recent years, Americans have increasingly been given the option of knowing exactly where their food is coming from—and they're taking advantage of it. "If you're shopping at a butcher shop," Pollan tells NEWSWEEK, "you're forcibly reminded of what this transaction is about."

Nothing makes that clearer than seeing a butcher in front of a pig. As Mylan works his way through the flesh using a five-inch knife and a small bone saw, there is neither blood nor guts (that's all been removed during the slaughtering process). Surprisingly, none of the 12 people watching gag or guffaw; the demonstration is closer to watching someone create an ice sculpture than it is to sitting through a slasher flick. Any blood the crowd will see, Mylan says, would likely be his own, though he doesn't cut himself as much these days as he did at the outset of his new vocation.

He began butchering last August, taking a bus to upstate New York to spend a month at a butcher shop called Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats to earn the craft. He woke at 6 a.m. for nearly two months, and spent about 12 hours daily cutting meat before tucking into some whisky and falling asleep. His trainers had the "wax on, wax off" élan of the Karate Kid, he says, mentioning that it was the most physically and mentally grueling experience he's ever been through. At the end of it, he could break down animals the way farmhands learn to do as children. Along the way, he built muscles his soft body had never seen before. "Now I look like I strangle kittens," he says of his hands, which have doubled in size and become covered in calluses, scarred from the times he accidentally stabbed himself, early on, down to the bone—four times in one day.

When he returned from upstate, Mylan honed his skills by ordering and breaking down all the meat for the four Brooklyn restaurants. He worked from a small table in a vegetable shed—an inspector's nightmare. And Marlow & Daughters was opened in part so that Mylan could comply with the law. Now, each week, he orders four pigs and two steers, which are first divided among the restaurants (Marlow & Sons, Diner and two branches of a Mexican-themed joint called Bonita), with the rest filling the cases of his shop. Every cut but beef liver, which is very pungent, has been selling out. "Ours is like a butcher shop in France," Mylan says. "In 1860."

Back in class, Mylan brags with the bravado of a drug dealer, telling his new pupils that he "can get anything you need in a week." If a customer wants a pork chop, he'll go to the back room and cut it with the thwack of a cleaver. So far, the shop pulls a neighborhood crowd, and Mylan hopes to break even within six months. The class is a way to draw attention to the store. And he's become a cult hero with women like Kylie Spooner and Leah Mayor, two self-proclaimed city girls who have considered taking over Spooner's parents' farm in upstate New York to live sustainably. "Tom's selling ears and tails and things you can't get unless you buy whole animals," Mayor says.

Butchers can broker that sale, but buying your own animal is an option. About 15 years ago, Peter McDonald moved his family to a farm in New York because he wanted to live off the land, relax and reproduce. Nine kids later—"you spend a lot of time with your wife on a farm," he says, "and clean food makes you fertile"—his strategy for easy living is making money. His once humble family farm now sells chicken, beef, lamb, turkey, pork and eggs to more than 400 customers, mostly through his Web site, pasturepride.com. He receives one to three new calls each week, and is especially eager to sell to the growing groups of people who are willing to buy a whole steer or pig and split up the bounty themselves. "We need food to be an event without going out to dinner," he says. "And if you buy a whole cow and split it among friends, that event can last three to four months."

Urbanites are eating this up. Last week McDonald sent a truck of meat to the offices of Best Life magazine, a men's publication that caters to the healthy and wealthy. Earlier this month, the staff of spry young omnivores pooled funds and bought a 529-pound steer, which McDonald cut up, froze and delivered to their midtown Manhattan offices. Down the street at Whole Foods, grass-fed meat like this might top $10 per pound, but the crew of 12 employees paid just $3.25 for each pound of whole beef. By the time they finished loading their coolers, trading livers and fighting over the cuts of meat stacked high in their conference room, each had chipped in $163 for a haul of nearly 30 pounds of meat. Best Life's editor, Stephen Perrine, had ordered local-steak gift baskets to send to family members before. "But as we've realized that the environment, health and humanity toward animals are all intertwined," he says, "we realized that this was a way to eat well economically." Given the experiment's success, Perrine and his staff are putting together a book for next fall that recommends this practice. Its title: "The New American Diet."

To the New Carnivores, supermarkets and the industrial meat they sell isn't even an option. Greenmarkets peddle quality products, but at costs that are often prohibitive. "Whole Foods is doing good things," says Mylan, who worked at that company for four years. "But they're the lesser evil: they're basically making a parallel industrial-organic food complex that is just slightly smaller than the big guys—and more profitable." As such stores proliferate, customers have stopped shopping for quality meat, he says, and started searching for buzzwords like "organic," "grass fed" or "local," which vary in definition from store to store. Even Pollan, whose books have helped fuel this food hysteria, agrees: "The challenge is to give these labels real teeth," he says. "The USDA needs to step up and really define them." Until then, Mylan wants us all to forget the vocabulary—and ask instead where the animal came from, how it was raised, what the slaughterhouse was like and whether the butcher knew what he was doing.

He demonstrates this point by telling his class about "white pigs," the term he uses for the runts from which supermarket pork comes. In the process of becoming a butcher, he visited an industrial farm where all the animals were the exact same breed. They were kept in tiny cages in airtight rooms to prevent the spread of illness. Mylan had to carefully close the doors behind him; if they slammed, the pigs could die of fright. "When they feed, the ground gets pig-sick, or full of bacteria, because it's not rotated," Mylan adds. "That's one of the reasons you have to thoroughly cook store-bought pork." It's the sort of story that sounds like a reason for becoming a vegetarian, but the butcher explains the solution is, ironically, pastured pork. In the audience, a woman nods. "When I came back to eating meat," says Rachel Auth, a former vegetarian of five years, "I wanted more awareness and I wanted to know where my meat was coming from. We're too far removed from our food."

The class ends, and the owner of the Brooklyn Kitchen explains how the audience will receive its bounty. Each audience member grabs a gallon-size Ziploc bag that has a number written on it. Lots are called, and one by one the scruffy and skinny-jeaned onlookers approach the table to determine which cut of meat they want. "What's easy to cook?" asks the first, before grabbing some pork belly. No. 2 grabs a roast, tied with twine, while No. 3 takes the right leg. The larger roast goes to the next guy ("This will be your lucky day," Mylan says), as others rotate through chops, roasts, more belly, some ears, the tail and some skin, which Mylan tells them is hard to find, even at butcher shops. At last the 12 carnivores have maxed out, at six pounds apiece.

Then someone asks if he can have the head. "I can give you a recipe for head cheese," the owner answers. "I have one," the guy replies, adding that he has some sows upstate. Next to him a burly man perks up. After class, the guy approaches Mylan to ask how he can learn how to be a butcher. The answer is depressing: Marlow & Daughters doesn't have room for an extra apprentice, and farmers around the country who know the craft are reluctant to hire help, even unpaid assistants. There are few books, fewer DVDs, no Internet sites, let alone enough restaurant-owning chefs with the know-how to spread the head-to-tail teachings. "I was watching this TV show the other day," Mylan says. "And these people were just hacking the pig. They were terrifying that thing." He thought: " 'Why don't you just beat it with a stick and urinate on it?' " He looks down at his hands, his knife holster and the metal counter. "What I would like more than anything is for butchering to be done this way," he says, taking a deep breath. "It's the way it was done 100 years ago. It's the way it should be done."