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Portland Meat Collective Founder Camas Davis on the Wild World of Butchery

[Avila/EPDX]

A little more than a year ago, Camas Davis was posing for a photograph for The New York Times. As eager youths gathered around a table admiring cuts of meat, she stood at the head as teacher and butcher, with a silver tray in her hands holding the prized pig face. Davis is not a stranger to the media world — having written for Saveur and previously acted as the food editor at Portland Monthly — so she knew exactly how that photo would be received around the country (in some places, not well).

But through controversy comes conversation, and that's really what the Portland Meat Collective, a network between consumers and ranchers founded in 2009, means to Davis. She and her organization wants people to become aware about the importance of how and where we buy our meat — even if that means becoming a vegetarian after taking one of her classes. Since the NYT piece, the PMC has expanded its class schedule (many are on a waiting list for enrollment), and Davis has also helped start collectives in Olympia, Seattle, and one in California, with many others to come. Eater recently sat down with Davis to hear about her initial introduction to old-world butchery, the success of the Meat Collective thus far, teaching teenagers, and what she has hiding out in her freezer.

Where did your initial interest in butchery begin?
I started to become interested in meats when I was a journalist. I was in New York and I was seeing a lot of old school, old world butchers retiring, but not really passing on their knowledge. At the same time, I saw these younger chefs at restaurants who were starting to do whole animal butchery, so while the butcher shops were dying, the restaurants were bringing it back. I wanted to know how these young people were getting the knowledge, because there clearly weren't schools, so how is it getting passed on? And then 2009, I lost my job at Portland Monthly and kind of went through a coming to Jesus moment, and was struggling with, "Well, I've written about food for a really long time, but I haven't been in food for a really long time." And I wanted to get my hands dirty. I really wanted to push myself, to put myself in an uncomfortable place in the food world, maybe learn something that is a rare and possibly dying skill set.

How did you then set out to learn this skill?
It proved to actually be very difficult to learn it — this was back in 2009. I was lucky enough to find this family of butchers and farmers in France who were willing to take me under their wing. I went there and was really immersed in an entirely new model of meat production and consumption that I hadn't really been counting on or really knew existed — which was using really truly the whole animal. And as producers [they were] a part of every part of the process, from growing the grain to feed the pig, to the slaughterhouse, doing the cutting, doing all the curing, doing everything. Here, all of those things are separated into a pretty strong division of labor. After I did that, I came back and really just wanted, at that point, to keep learning. I wasn't like, "Oh, I'm going to open a butcher shop or I want to do what the family in France was doing." I would need a farm and four brothers; I would need a consumer base who wanted to eat livers and pig heads. It was very clear immediately that I couldn't just open a full animal butchery shop.

What brought on the idea for the Meat Collective model?
I wanted to create a consumer base in my community that would actually get it and support it financially. That spurred me into talking with the USDA and the Oregon Department of Agriculture, to see if I did classes, what sort of rules would I have to follow. And then I came up with the Meat Collective model. I thought of it as classes at first, but with butchery classes, at the end you have like hundreds of pounds of meat, so it became this meat buying model with an educational component. Instead of consumers just buying from the producers and going home with a cut of racked meat, they are actually buying whole animals by themselves and going home with it. And that doesn't mean that people are then going on to butcher animals themselves, but it educates them in what it means to buy whole animals.

Overall, how did The New York Times piece affect the Portland Meat Collective?
It gave us a lot of attention. Martha Stewart called a few months later, and that was really funny and great. She flew us out and nominated us for this award. But it also caused a lot of controversy too: The photo that ran in The New York Times wasn't exactly everyone's cup of tea. I knew that photo was going to do that, and it was taken specifically for that. I have to say, I was a little bit nervous about it for that reason. But I actually think it brought up a good interesting discussion — both online and off.

I'm pretty public about what I do and I'm pretty unapologetic about how you get animals to the table in what I deem to be a good, humane, sustainable way, but that doesn't mean that everyone is pleased with it. I always know, for about three to four weeks after that, I'm going to get all manner of people coming to me saying either "Wow, you do great work" or "How could you possibly do what you do?" But in the larger scheme of things, it feels good to create that kind of dialogue. Whether or not the outcome of the dialogue is always fruitful, I don't know. [Laughs] But at least that dialogue is there and at least we are presenting something that's in between the polarized ends of the meat-no meat spectrum.

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Photo of a PMC class courtesy Facebook

What has been the most rewarding part of the PMC so far?
There are so many. But teaching high schoolers for the past two years has been really amazing and surprising. Teenagers are both remarkably open compared to adults and incredibly not open compared to adults at the same time. [Laughs] So that's been an interesting challenge: Really seeing them grapple with complex emotions and issues surrounding eating meat in pretty mature ways. The other rewarding thing — that I didn't plan on happening when I started this — was how many of our students just stopped buying factory farmed meat and immediately started buying from our farmers. And that sort of alternate economy of meat buying has been incredible, and the fact that farmers know that they can come to us and find consumers to buy from them has been really great.

And the hardest part?
So many. [Laughs] So many easy parts, and so many hard parts. I've had a lot of help running this business, but it's my business, so if you're a small-business owner and you do everything yourself at first, it's hard to slowly give those responsibilities to other people. When I started this I knew that there was the other side, like Tyson and Cargill and all of these huge meat conglomerates whose practices I don't like, but didn't realize that there was this other, other side. Which is people who just believe that no matter how you raise animals for food or how you kill them, or how humane or not it is, that it's just wrong. And so it's been challenging to hear that side, and I hear it and I get it — it's a difficult argument to win — but it think it's been challenging to know that what we do as an organization is lumped in with Tyson does. That's been challenging, but in a good way. It's forced me to be very clear, truthful, and articulate about why I'm doing what I'm doing.

And now you're working on a non-profit and you've helped open three other Meat Collectives…
I've helped other communities and individuals start the Olympia Meat Collective, the Seattle Meat Collective, and the El Dorado County Meat Collective near Sacramento last year. They're still getting their feet and their grounding, so I still continue to help them. But what became clear was that I can't keep teaching individuals the same thing over and over. So, how do you create a guide and a message and a forum that can teach a lot of people at once? The non-profit was sort of the obvious cultural fit.

We launched in April, we're still getting our footing, we're getting our board of directors, we're starting to do fundraising and look for sponsors. Next month, we'll be launching basically an e-publication of a Meat Collective start-up guide so people will be able to access that. Then we'll be launching a website and forum where people can learn from one another. From there, long-term, it's our hope to create a scholarship fund for people who want to take classes but can't afford them, a micro-loan fund for people who want to start collectives, and potentially some youth programs. The possibilities are endless, it's just a matter of finding enough people to get it all done.

Can you tell us some of the other cities that will be starting Meat Collectives?
There's a lot of people in the wings. I've been holding them at bay, saying, "Just hold on, I've almost got the guide up!" A couple of people have already registered their names with the state, and probably a list of a hundred communities or individuals who have continually in the past have said, "When are you going to help us start our collective?" They're all over, on an individual basis. We've got someone in Montana, and Montana is largely rural, so he wants to cover the whole state. We've got someone in Atlanta; we've got people in small towns in Texas who want to focus on wild game, because they've got a lot wild pigs. We've had people in Southern Oregon. People in rural and urban environments. It will be a very different model depending on the region that it's in. It's a pretty diverse group of people.

Finally: If you're heading to a barbecue is there a particular cut of meat you like to bring?
I have a freezer full of every part of pretty much every animal, so whatever I pick out first, I make it delicious. Once you learn whole-animal butchery, you kind of stop having favorite cuts and you start liking every part of the animal and valuing it. I often end up, at my classes when people don't want to go home with bone or skin, I tend to take that home. I make a lot of stocks and I do a lot of strange things with skin.
· Portland Meat Collective [Official site]
· All Five Days of Meat Coverage [Eater PDX]

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