Who Gets to Be a Butcher?

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In 2020, at the height of global lockdowns due to the coronavirus, Dylan Carasco was scrolling through Instagram when he saw something that stopped him in his tracks. He came across the profile page of Norman Nesby Jr., a professional butcher two decades his senior, who is Black. In his relatively young butchery career, Carasco had never seen or worked with another Black butcher. “I reached out and said, ‘Listen, man, I see you,’” he says. “I don’t see a lot of other people that look like us in this industry so I just wanted to reach out and say what’s up.”

From there Carasco and Nesby started having phone conversations about their careers in butchery, where they had worked, what their dreams were for the future, and what they did at their day-to-day jobs. Beyond keeping in touch, it became a way to connect with someone else who could understand what it meant to be a Black butcher in America. “Norman and I decided that we were gonna start a group with anybody that we could find,” Carasco remembers. “And we called it BBU, Black Butchers United.”

They put the word out on social media to reach other Black butchers and began hosting monthly Zoom calls in early 2022 with butchers of color from all over the world: America, Ghana, Australia. “It’s really therapeutic because we can talk, share resources,” Nesby says of the meetings. “It’s been vital because being in the industry for so long, I haven’t seen other people that look like me.”

BBU’s two dozen members meet virtually to discuss all things butchery: which store hours are optimal for capturing pre-dinner sales, hiring challenges, sourcing issues, hazard analysis and critical control points (or HACCP plans, which outline steps to ensure safe food handling), and new skills they’ve learned or would like to learn. Occasionally members will visit one another and help out with busy shifts or store openings. But mostly the meetings are a way for Black butchers around the world to chat about their profession and their goals with people who look like them. “I had never seen another Black person working in this industry,” Nesby says. “The idea behind this was that the struggle is unique and so we want to make space for each other.”

It used to be that in many countries, butcher shops were an integrated part of weekly life, with butchers seen as local artisans and culinary experts. At the neighborhood butcher, shoppers could purchase cuts of meat for dinners, holidays, or special occasions, and ask questions about best preparations and cook times. But the number of artisanal butcher shops in America is declining. Increasingly, shoppers are getting their meat from grocery store meat counters, which sell meat that is butchered at large-scale plants. At these plants, “slaughterers and meat packers,” as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, are tasked with butchering one kind of meat in large quantities instead of learning the differing butchery techniques for breaking down various whole animals. Without skilled butchers who can break down whole animals, consumers must rely on big chains for cuts of meat, which can make it harder to support local farmers.

For Nesby, his local meat counter was his first exposure to butchery as a career. Growing up in Oakland, California, he saw his aunt work in the butchery department at a local grocery store and bring home cuts of meat for parties. “It was fascinating to me and I would ask her questions,” he remembers. He would ask how big the original cut of meat was, how she broke it down into smaller pieces, what her days were like, what kind of product she got to see at her job. “We spent a lot of time talking about butchery, and I really liked it but I didn’t think it was a viable option.”

Nesby still continued pursuing his passion for the profession, finding jobs at grocery stores and developing his craft. Today, at 47, he’s the dry-age and carcass room manager at Cream Co. Meats, a whole animal butchery in Oakland, focusing on dry-aged and natural meats from sustainable ranches in California. “To me it’s more than a job; it’s a skill set,” he says. And he wants to show other Black people that this can be a career for them too.

Beyond the declining number of shops, the lack of Black butchers in America is also due in part to the legacy of racism. After the Civil War, freed Black Americans were able to eke out a modest living butchering meats at markets across the South. But, as is the case with many occupations, freed Blacks faced discrimination in the form of legislation. For example, in Savannah, an 1854 city ordinance regarding rules for markets in the city stated: “And no slave shall act as butcher, cut up meat, or sell the same, unless in the presence of the owner, employer, or employers, or their agent, being a white person. And if such slave does act as a butcher, cut up meat, or sell, or offer the same for sale, contrary to the provisions of this section, his owner, employer, or employers, shall be fined in a sum not exceeding thirty dollars.”

Today, the largest barrier to entry into the field is twofold: One, it’s filled with minimum-wage jobs making it hard to make a living, says Nesby. “I worked for a meat counter at $12 an hour to build my skills,” he says. “I was 36 years old with three kids and two years of college. It was really hard.”

The other barrier is the tendency of many butchers, who are typically white and male, to hire and mentor people who look like them. “I think [butchery is] similar to lots of industries where it’s not what you know but who you know,” says Nesby. In butchery, where you’re mostly learning skills “on the block,” having access to places to practice your craft is paramount. In a meat department or butcher shop, an employee will work their way up from an apprenticeship-like position up to head butcher, not dissimilar from how formal kitchens are training grounds for chefs. “Generally speaking, you start as an apprentice for a year or two doing the jobs no one wants to do — like washing floors, breaking down poultry — until you’re good at that and get to move on to bigger cuts,” Carasco says. “There’s no formal training, so you jump around trying to fill in gaps at jobs.”

Filling in those gaps is one of BBU’s main priorities, in addition to holding space for other Black butchers to connect and share resources, job opportunities, and information about what they’re learning so they can ascend the ranks faster. Carasco, who is a butcher and entrepreneur working at Beast and Cleaver in Seattle, aims to get as many Black and brown butchers involved in BBU as possible. He and Nesby want to reach out to meat production plants, a field that is overwhelmingly staffed by people of color, and bring them into the fold. “You can learn this skill set and take it everywhere,” he says. It’s also about the reclamation of a field. “When you look at the history, generations of butchery were lost and we want to get that back.”

Korsha Wilson is a food writer and host of A Hungry Society, a podcast that takes a more inclusive look at the food world. Hélène Baum-Owoyele is a Berlin based graphic designer and illustrator.

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