This Ex-Vegetarian Is Teaching Portland How to Cut Up Cows
If the vegetarian argument won’t be bought by everybody, shouldn’t we educate people on eating sustainable and locally sourced meat? That’s the philosophy of Portland butchery school founder Camas Davis.
Photos by the author.
It is impossible to eat meat without killing something. The taking of life is a necessary part of consuming animals yet, with so many 21st-century carnivores completely removed from the act of slaughter, that fact is often forgotten. Camas Davis of the Portland Meat Collective is making it her mission to change this.
"Consumers don't see slaughter, they don't see butchery, they don't see the whole animal, they don't see the farm. By the time it gets to the consumer, it's just a random cut of meat that has no history, no visual reference," she says. "That detachment has allowed industrialization to run rampant."
For six years Davis has organized private classes on butchery. Taught by either her or local experts and chefs, these lessons cover everything from how to slice up the hindquarters of a cow to the proper method of killing a hare.
Over a thousand students have attended and a community of enlightened carnivores has formed around the Collective. Many alumni, says Davis, now exclusively buy locally sourced meat. A small few have even left their jobs to become animal farmers.
An online forum called the Switchboard hosted on Davis's site acts as a communal space for meat lovers and allows amateurs and professional butchers alike swap equipment and share recipes and tips. Without having to spend a dime on advertising, local farmers are also connected with eager buyers. "Growing Seeds Farm has freshly frozen pork for sale," writes one user. "I'm hoping to roast a whole lamb for a belated Greek Easter (a family tradition) and also my birthday," writes another. "Does anyone have a whole lamb available?"
But isn't it weird, one might ask, that such a thing would come out of Portland, a place associated more with tofu and tempeh than rib-eye and pork jowl? Not really, says Davis.
"On a basic level, we're an education organization. But on a more philosophical level we're trying to open up the process by which meat gets to people's tables and let people in," she explains.
When you think about it, Davis' Collective fits quite neatly into the farm-to-table, sustainable, organic movement led by eco-friendly places like Portland. The Collective sources 100 percent of its meat from local farms, so absolutely nothing comes off a conveyer belt. Like many in the organic movement, Davis hopes to bring people's thinking back to an age before industrialization and mega-farms, where no part of a slaughtered animal went unused.
And while many might not assume so, teaching people about slaughter and butchery doesn't typically turn them into vociferous meat-eaters. According to Davis, it often does the exact opposite.
"The way we value meat is different than it used to be," she says. "I think most of us just think it's cheap protein that we should be able to eat for every meal and should be able to eat a lot of for every meal. If we were forced to think about where it came from I wonder how much meat we would eat."
Davis hasn't always been so meat-obsessed. During her time at a small college in Ohio, she was a full-fledged vegetarian feminist, a self-described diehard who championed books like The Sexual Politics of Meat. After college, she became a journalist. Her turning point came in 2008, when she lost a job writing about food and beverages for the Portland Monthly. "I pouted for a while and then decided to completely reinvent myself, this time as a butcher," she said on an episode of This American Life.
Davis moved to southwest France and spent the summer working in the cutting room of a cooking school. That was her formal introduction to the world of butchery. When she returned to Portland, she wished to continue her education but couldn't find any butchery schools, so she decided to start her own and recruit local experts to run the classes. Thus, the Portland Meat Collective was born.
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One of the initial difficulties of running the Collective was an unforeseen one: communicating her message. "I just thought I'd start it up and people would immediately just get it," says Davis. She found out the hard way that she was wrong.
Soon after starting the Collective, Davis was invited to sit on an academic panel. The discussion, inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer's nonfiction book Eating Animals, was on animal ethics. It did not go well.
"I walked into the biggest trap ever. It was a room full of angry, angry vegetarians and vegans with very specific kinds of politics," she remembers. "By the end they called me a Nazi and an anti-feminist and stuff."
Davis was completely unprepared for the impassioned backlash. It didn't stop there. A couple years later, she and an instructor at the Collective were targeted by eco-terrorists. They stole nearly two dozen rabbits, including a nursing mother, from the backyard of the instructor's house. The bunnies were being raised for slaughter.
Consumers don't see slaughter, they don't see butchery, they don't see the whole animal, they don't see the farm. By the time it gets to the consumer, it's just a random cut of meat that has no history.
While the rescued rabbits may have been saved, the ten baby rabbits left behind and separated from their mother died. But this didn't stop the radicals. The thieves sent Davis death threats, nasty emails, and phone calls. They dressed entirely in black, donned bullhorns, and screamed outside the instructor's house that they were going to kill his mother.
"It was bizarre, it was really bizarre," says Davis. "That seemed a little over the top, given what I felt to be my philosophy on the whole thing, and that's when I was like, Oh I actually have to reframe this and find ways to talk about what we're doing that makes sense to both sides."
It's an easy enough philosophy to digest. In a nutshell: if you're going to eat meat, do it right and in the most humane, sustainable, non-wasteful way. If the vegan/vegetarian argument to just stop eating meat won't be bought by everybody, shouldn't we educate people on how to eat animals in the best way possible? That's how the former journalist and vegetarian sees things.
While it's been a bit of bumpy ride, the future looks bright for the Collective. Davis is in the process of expanding the operation, hiring helpers and opening up new collectives through a non-profit called the Meat Collective Alliance, hoping to export her model of meat education to other parts of the country. She is also working on a book.
Her aims are lofty. Davis seeks nothing less than to reshape the way in which most of us get our protein. And while she's been doing so for over half a decade, she's really just getting started. But personal conviction is a powerful motivator.
"For the people who want to eat meat but don't want to support the way that meat is usually produced in this country, what's out there for them?" asks Davis.
Well, there's her.