For the Love of Beef

My Dear “Kindred Spirit,”

I have a 6 pound rump roast staring me in the face every time I open my freezer, reminding me that I need to cook it and invite some people over to help me eat it. Or, better yet, I need to invite it and myself over to someone’s house and let them cook it…

Anyway, this lovely hunk of grass fed beef flesh sitting in my freezer has me thinking about butchering time. You see, that lovely hunk of grass fed beef flesh came from a not so lovely hunk of a grass fed cow that grew up on the homestead back in NY. I didn’t help cut up the particular cow that my current roast came from, but I have helped cut up some other cows, and those experiences are a great story just waiting to be told.

So I’m telling it.

For the first few years that we raised our own beef cows, we had someone else do the work of turning a live cow into a few hundred pounds of ground beef and steaks. There was a guy locally who called his business “Butcher Block” and he’d arrive in his decked out box truck, shoot the cow, winch it up, skin it and gut it, at our house doing this all with a mostly silent, rapt audience of several school aged children who were not only allowed to watch, but in some cases told to go watch because it totally counted as schoolwork. (No, seriously. You’d better believe my mom wrote that down as science!)

I remember once the Butcher Block guy trying to make conversation with us all. We didn’t think anything of silently standing around watching, but I guess for him it felt a little awkward to have half a dozen children just standing there watching him work without saying a word. Of course, this was in the middle of winter, and one time he asked us what we’d do to keep warm if we ever got lost out in the cold. We all kinda shrugged (such big talkers, I know…) and he said “I know what I’d do! I’d kill a cow or a deer and cut it open and climb into it! Lots of heat in there!!”

He was right. You could see all the steam coming out of the cow’s innards when he cut it open in the cold air.

After he had it skinned and gutted, he pushed the carcass back into the box of his truck, then took it back to his shop to age and then be cut up. A few weeks later we’d get a phone call that it was done, and we’d go pick up all the meat and refill the freezers for the next year.

Of course, it cost a good deal to have someone do the butchering for us, and Butcher Block did a lot of deer as well as cows. Letting venison and beef hang to age in the same cooler gave the beef an “off” flavor which we didn’t care for. So one year, my parents decided that we’d do our own butchering.

My dad used to do some hunting, so he knew how to skin and gut and all that. Mom pulled out her butchering books (yes, my mom has butchering books. She’s a homesteader through and through) and spent a few evenings studying the charts of how to cut up halves and quarters of beef.

I didn’t witness the actual killing of the cow that year for some reason, but as far as I know the killing and skinning and gutting process was accomplished with no major issues. At the time my dad ran a repair shop out of the garage, so our huge garage was about the right temperature to age the beef, and that’s where it was hung for the next few weeks. I don’t know how many customers were in and out during that time period, but I’m sure (if nothing else) the cow carcass hanging in the back of the garage made a great conversation starter.

After it had aged the proper amount of time, the family prepared to do the rest of the butchering job – cutting this cow carcass up into freezer-sized pieces. We decided on a day to do it, and when that day came mom cleared off the kitchen table, covered it with a huge sheet of plastic, pulled out her newly sharpened knives, and set up a hand grinder that she had acquired (probably at an auction or a yard sale somewhere) on one of the counters.

Meanwhile, dad was out in the garage quartering the cow.

“Here he comes! Someone open the door!”

One of us yanked the front door open and dad, breathing heavily, stepped inside. He had a quarter of a cow slung over his shoulder. He heaved it onto the kitchen table, where it made the most tremendous noise and bounced a little as it landed. Then he stepped back and looked at mom.

“Now what?”

Now what, indeed.

Dad went back out to the garage for the sawzall, mom restudied a few of the charts in her book, and the cutting began.

Within an hour or so, the table and counters were strewn with hunks of beef, bones, meat and bone “dust” from the cuts made by the sawzall, and various knives, packaging materials, bowls, buckets, etc. We hacked our way through the first quarter and dad brought in the next one.

At this time, my sister and I were both taking violin lessons from a music teacher who lived in the next town over. He came to our house one day a week, and taught us right there. He was a Russian who had emigrated to the states several years back, a very talented violinist who perfectly fit the sterotype of a classical musician. He had soft, uncalloused hands, an accent, black hair that often looked very Beethoven-ish, and the air of someone who invested much of their time and effort into music, the arts, and other “finer things” in life.

Well, you guessed it. Or cow cutting up day also happened to be our violin lesson day.

Mr. M walked in to pieces of beef strewn all over the kitchen, my dad with a sawzall in his hands, cutting up the remains of a cow, and the rest of us hacking with various sized knives at various sized hunks of meat.

My mom, rarely daunted by anything, just looked at him, smiled, and said “lessons are upstairs today.”

My sister and I gathered our instruments and the music stand and led our gaping violin teacher upstairs.

By the time lessons were over, the butchering was nearly finished. At the beginning of the process, mom tried to figure out which parts were supposed to be certain roasts or steaks. By the end it was more and more “here’s another hunk of meat!” that got tossed into the bucket to be ground up for hamburg.

The meat was finally all in the freezer, the kitchen cleaned up, and we were all exhausted, hungry, tired, and sure of only one thing: we did NOT want beef for supper.

Years have passed since the home butchering experiences, and these days we are fortunate enough to have a butcher who lives just down the street from us. He kills and cuts up our cows when we need them butchered, and my dad works on his equipment when he needs help. It works out quite well.

I don’t think any of us miss cutting up cows on the kitchen table. As great a story as it makes, it’s still not an experience we’re keen to repeat anytime soon.

However, it’s also not an experience any of us will forget anytime soon.

(Those sawzall scars in the kitchen table wouldn’t let us forget, even if we wanted to!)

Love, N.

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