They had me at the blackboard.
Beef ribs, Delmonico, vacio, eye round, mock tender, pork jowls and shoulder. Rack of lamb, whole chickens and all the chickie parts, charcuterie, offal and bones. Was this the renaissance in butchering? The head-to-tail butcher showing off tattoos of hatchets on his arms? Had I hit the motherlode of a trend? Unlike the butcher shops of my youth, there would be no question where my meat came from because the farm’s name was listed on the huge blackboard listing the vast selection.
Sometime during my childhood the small-town butchers with the white aprons disappeared and were replaced by meat vendors in large grocery stores whose products were plastic-wrapped on Styrofoam trays. From then on, we never knew where our meat came from.
Clearly the pendulum has swung the other way, the indie butcher is back—and in fact, has made a comeback all over the country from Berkeley to Brooklyn—yet with goals gleaned from the locavore movement: a commitment to ethically sourced meats; pasture-raised, antibiotic and hormone-free animals, grazing in pastures without chemical fertilizer, and raised on small farms. If they must endure harsh winters, they are offered a roof over their heads and bales of hay.
Wanting to stock my freezer for summer is what led me to Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood and to The Butcher & Larder, a hugely popular butcher shop with a modern-day twist: a BYOB café. Five days a week they offer one hot and one cold sandwich. While they trimmed and pounded and ground out customers’ orders, a fanatical following came in for pastrami sandwiches, paté, anything pig to put in a bun before they scored some standing room at the lunch counter.
This shop purchased the animal whole and dismantled it in the backroom out of sight. There was enough iron in their meat case to turn every customer into an I-beam.
As I waited my turn in line I realized that my favorite animal was steak. I wish that idea was mine but Fran Lebovitz said it first.
By midday that Saturday, most selections on the blackboard were marked with a red “X.” Sold out. They were the big-ticket items, with luxurious marbling. The rib-eye, the Porterhouse, the tenderloin.
Yes, I admitted to myself, I am a flesh-eater too (probably because my dad ate meat all his 79 years and my mom did not act as nutrition enforcer) and so, as it happened, I could nod in sympathy to others who had the craving and who, hopefully like me, stopped short of how much devastation an uncontrolled, year-round steady animal diet could wreak on the human body—or the planet.
I mentally ran through some fabulous meals of chicken, pork, bison, beef, lamb, or large game like venison and elk. And more recently remembered the time I spent in Barcelona’s La Bouqueria market watching a Catalan butcher carve delicately paper-thin slices off a gran riserva Jamon Iberico. Considered Spain’s gift to the world, well, that and Rioja, it’s a top quality hunk of the noble black-footed Iberico pig that had, before years of careful curing, spent its life in the oak-forested Spanish countryside fattening up on yummy fall acorns. This produced an exquisite, buttery, nutty and salty taste, thus the moniker Ham of the Lords. My dreams of the Spanish ham trail were interrupted.
“What can I get for you?” asked the tattoo-covered guy. I opted for the beef ribs, and since they cut everything to order, asked them to trim the fat and put that in a separate container so I could render it. I want vegetarians to explain to me why that isn’t delicious. With an unerring pass of his knife, he separated a thick layer of fat from the ribs as easily as if he was cutting a deck of cards.
“Understand,” tweeted Anthony Bourdain, “when you eat meat, that something did die. You have an obligation to value it—not just the sirloin but also all those wonderful tough little bits.” Read down the selection of their house-made sausages that spanned the globe—Hungarian, Spanish chorizo, Toulouse, spicy Italian, African Boerwors, and classic Sheboygan brats—and you can be certain they’re fixed on selling customers every single inch.
I ordered the leg of lamb, asked for a few whole chickens, then added a baseball steak, a marketing triumph that puts great meat within reach of almost everybody. To take the guesswork out of the name, baseball steak is a small but thick cut from the Ball Tip, which is found within the Sirloin Tip on the leg of the cow. When it’s cooked, it's supposed to puff up in the middle, giving it a round shape, like a baseball. Although that bit of magic has not yet worked for me, I still like the name.
I took it home, patted it down on top and bottom with my homemade ginger-garlic seasoning blend and the following day threw it on the grill. Dribbles of sizzle filled the air. And the taste? Not to mince words, but the flavor was full-blooded, ravishing, turning out moans from my family between swallows. Cut across the grain to keep the tenderness in, and you’ll realize why we have been eating meat since we first discovered we could.
I will probably get hate mail from vegetarians and I could make some lame excuse that in a city with two baseball teams, my purchase was a nod to America’s pastime. But for someone who keeps veal demi-glace in the freezer; who wears leather belts and shoes; and who has found raw conch in the Mexican Yucatan waters appetizing when immediately cut into salad-bites and stirred into peas and chili, I find that being an omnivore and choosing—carefully selecting—unparalleled delicacies is a guilt I have chosen to live with.
Spice-rubbed grilled Baseball Steak
If you cannot find meat labeled baseball steak, ask for a top sirloin steak two inches thick.
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated, peeled fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1-1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 lbs. baseball steak, or top sirloin two-inches thick. After trimming it will be about 2 lbs.
- Mash garlic and ginger to a paste with salt and spices using a mortar and pestle (or mince and mash with a large knife). Pat steak dry, then rub paste all over, and marinate, covered and chilled, at least 8 hours, or up to 2 days.
- Bring steak to room temperature (do not leave out for more than 1 hour.)
- Prepare the coals for grilling or turn all the burners on your gas grill to high. Lightly oil the grill rack. When the fire is hot (hold your hand five inches above the rack for a couple seconds), sear the steak. If you’re using a gas grill turn the burners to medium ( if there is a center burner turn it off), and with tongs move the food to the center of the cooking grid, close the cover, and cook over indirect heat for 8 minutes on each side.
- Transfer steak to a cutting board with grooves that catch juices and let it stand for 10 minutes. Cut steak into ¼-inch thick slices (or thinner) across the grain.
Peggy Wolff’s stories on what, where, and with whom people eat have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Tribune's SUNDAY Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, and more. Her new book, Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie, a compilation of food writers on Midwestern Food, comes out in November 2013.