Heavily tattooed and highly opinionated, Berlin Reed was a self-described “militant vegan punk” before doing a 180 and getting—deep—into meat. In his new memoir, The Ethical Butcher, Reed recounts his journey from principled vegetarian to someone who cuts up animals for a living—and reveals how these two seemingly contradictory practices share many of the same ideals. Bookish spoke to Reed about what’s “rock and roll” about butchery, the time he accidentally dropped the most tender of animal bits onto chef’s plate of vegan treats, and what some vegetarians, the FDA, and certain celebrity chefs get wrong about ethical eating.
Bookish: In your memoir, The Ethical Butcher, you nod to the way that butchers have become the rock stars of the culinary world. What’s “rock and roll” about butchery?
Berlin Reed: With food, it’s just the attitude. Butchers in general are a no-nonsense, gruffer crowd. The younger butchers, who have gotten into it over the last five years, tend to fit the tattooed, punky aesthetic, too. A lot of us are lefty punks, or queer people, or ex-band members or whatever, so they literally are like rock stars. That’s the demographic that’s been getting into it.
And just what butchery is: It takes someone with a tougher skin. It’s one of those careers where there’s going to be a lot of razzing and making fun of each other and playing pranks on each other, which doesn’t really happen in the kitchen as much. The kitchen needs to stay a lot more serious, because you’ve got service to do, you’ve got plates to put out and all that stuff. Being myself both a butcher and a chef, there’s a lot more camaraderie between butchers.
Bookish: Were you the victim or the perpetrator of any particularly good pranks?
BR: [Laughs.] Well, I accidentally once let lamb’s balls fall into a vegan chef’s section, in a communal kitchen. That wasn’t really a prank. It was just an accident. When I lived in Portland, I was a member of a communal kitchen and there was a vegan chef who worked out of that space as well, and somehow over the weekend, one of the trays that had all my pieces of meat—somebody else must’ve moved it. But she found lamb’s balls on her tray of vegan treats, and she was not too happy.
We definitely used to fling blood on each other. We did some things like that. I can’t think of anything particularly violent that I’ve experienced.
Bookish: In your book you call yourself a militant vegan punk. Do you still have “vegan” tattooed on your neck, or did you get that removed?
BR: No, I definitely still have it tattooed on my neck.
Bookish: How does a militant vegan punk get into butchery in the first place?
BR: Basically, necessity: I was living in New York, and [paying] rent takes precedence over everything else. I had been working in food for a bit, as a chef and as a cheesemonger, and working in wine, bartending and such, and coming to a place where I needed a new job. I thought that I was going to become the cheese person at this space, but it turned out they needed a butcher, so I took the job anyway. I just totally fell head over heels for it. I loved it, and by the end of the summer, I was dreading them moving me over to cheese, and so happy when they told me they didn’t want me to move anymore. I just fell in love with it, and saw how everything that I had been doing up to this point led me to that moment: This is why I’ve been vegan for all this time; this is why I’ve been vegetarian for all this time.
I think if you have a real commitment to your ideals and to your politics, part of that has to be taking in new information and advancing those politics and moving forward. You can’t be stoic; you can’t be a fundamentalist. You have to able to like take in new information and make new decisions. It was like, if I’m presented with this knowledge of not only how to cut meat down for customers, but explain to them what the difference is between a good source and a bad source, or tell them how to cook a certain cut that they’ve never seen before, [I suddenly had] this power. If I had turned away from that, I would’ve lost an opportunity to actually affect the industry.
Bookish: Two-part question: Do you now proselytize vegans to eat meat? And is there anything that vegans get wrong about ethical eating that you’d like to correct?
BR: [Laughs.] Well, the answer to the first part is super-easy. I do not encourage anyone to eat meat. I don’t think that you are necessarily nutritionally deficient if you’re not eating meat. But I do like push for there to be space for people to eat meat guilt-free, and to engage in the change of the meat industry through eating and through supporting farms and through supporting small butcher shops. If we don’t have a sector for ethical meats or well-sourced meats and neighborhood butchers, they’re not going to be here.
Those vegetarians and vegans who guilt-trip and take the moral-superiority role really aren’t helping that at all. I have a lot of vegan friends who totally support what I do. On the other hand, if you have somebody who’s going to force you to eat soy all day, I don’t know if they’re necessarily helping anybody.
Bookish: Another two-part question: How does the food industry mislead people who think that they’re eating healthily? If you were the head of the FDA for a day, what would you change?
BR: Oh my God! These are great questions. I’m going to start with the second one. I am [truly] anti-capitalist, anti-government: If I was the head of the FDA for a day, I think I would dismantle it. I would fully legalize marijuana, I would fully fund all testing of alternative treatments for all sorts of illnesses, and I would immediately go after pharmaceutical companies. That’s the medical side.
As far as additives in food goes, I would take a lot of them off the market. Over the past year, I’ve been in Canada quite a bit, [and] the amount of junk food that’s available there is so much less [than in the U.S.] because there are so many chemicals that are not allowed in foods. Even sugar cereals from American brands that exist in Canada taste different because they have to change their formulas, because there are chemicals that are not allowed in food outside of the U.S.
Same thing with GMO and genetically modified foods: I would turn the spotlight on all the false synthetic harmful chemicals that we have going into our food. I don’t know if I could do that in one day, but I would make it a very busy day.
And now, the first part of the question: How does the food industry mislead people to think that they’re eating healthily? Through marketing, whether it’s misleading labeling, saying things like “all natural,” which doesn’t actually mean anything. Or, the hype around so-called “miracle foods,” whether it’s, “blueberries cure cancer,” so now everybody has “blueberry extract” in their cereal and in their protein bars and things like that. Or, “soy protein is great for women,” so now all the cereals have soy protein in them. This drive toward one ingredient, rather than actual education around food; rather than saying, “hey, let’s eat fruits and vegetables,” it’s “let’s buy this supplement that has this extract of blueberry in it.”
Even with the move towards green food, the food industry has to stay in control, and they want you to come to them for your green foods just the way you did for your processed foods. And so, all the advertising that goes into earning that trust, whether it’s buying out natural food brands and continuing to use their labeling to mislead customers into thinking they’re still buying Nature’s Path granola, even though it’s made by Kellogg’s, or that they’re buying Odwalla juice, but it’s actually Coca-Cola.
And then just the terminology, since folks aren’t super-educated [about it] and there’s not a lot of transparency. Saying things like “all-natural,” “hormone-free” or “antibiotic-free,” or using these sorts of labels that are buzzwords for people, like “artisanal,” which means nothing, or “traditional”—all of these words are loaded for people, but actually aren’t specific.
Just one more: The vegetarian or meat-free angle is also one of the ways that folks are misled. I hear people all the time who think they’re not making good food choices simply because they eat meat. They think that they’re out of the game. And so, with the huge market for meat-free products made from artificial ingredients, folks are misled into thinking that it’s somehow better for them, that it’s better to eat soy yogurt than cow’s milk yogurt from the farm down the street.
Bookish: So much food culture right now is based on food personalities, the “celebrity chefs.” Among those food personalities who are “pro-meat,” who do you think is doing ethical eating right, and who is doing it wrong?
BR: Well, there are definitely butchers [doing it right]. Over the last year, books that have been coming out by peers of mine in the butcher scene, and those guys are all great. Josh Applestone is awesome, Kari Underly is awesome. Obviously they’re doing great stuff by meat, because they are speaking from knowledge and they are trying to get folks to understand how to find better meat. They aren’t always as charismatic; they’re not celebrity chefs. They have a very different aesthetic, a very different temperament. They’re not necessarily personalities that are going to be out there, like Alex Guarnaschelli or Bobby Flay, so they don’t have that same following.
The only celebrity chef who I really think is like rad: I love Anthony Bourdain. He’s literally the only guy who I really respect in the game. I like the Top Chefs. Marcus Samuelsson is really, really awesome. I like the fact that he’s one of very few black chefs out there in the world, as far as celebrity chefs—or out in the media—which makes me feel like there can be space for me. If he didn’t exist, I would probably be a lot more nervous about being the first brown face out there. But as far as sustainability goes, right now I just don’t see it. It’s unfortunate. I see a lot of the opposite. You know, celebrity chefs get a show on Food Network, and now they’re sponsored by Kraft Foods and Lay’s potato chips, and it’s like, wait a second, you’re a chef. Like Michael Symon: He’s on these Lay’s commercials, and it’s like, dude, you’re an “Iron Chef.”
It’s unfortunate. All the heroes right now are unsung. There are the folks that people know in their own communities, but they’re not necessarily on TV or getting mass exposure, because they’re working underground. I met somebody who’s an urban forager and sells urban forage, like wild herbs, to restaurants. That person’s a food hero to me. Is she going to be on TV tomorrow? Probably not.
Berlin Reed launched The Ethical Butcher blog in 2009 and now travels the country hosting informative farm-to-table dinners that seek to educate the public about how to be sure their choices as consumers match their intentions. He was profiled as one of the country’s top 50 butchers in the book Primal Cuts, and is a charter member, and the voice of, the newly formed Butcher’s Guild. He’s been featured in O Magazine, on Today.com and has appeared several times on NPR. He is currently at work on a pilot episode for a TV series that documents his farm to table dinners across the country.
This piece was updated on September 22, 2014.