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The VPR Table: The Gourmet Butcher

03/04/11 5:55PM
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Courtesy Cliff1066 via Flickr
Butchering Day. ca. 1955, oil on fiberboard by Jennie Cell

Is butchering livestock a dying art?

Gourmet butcher, Cole Ward, is preserving the personal connection between the man, the meat, and the animal.

The students raise, prepare, and cook everything from garden variety vegetables to maple syrup, meats, and cheeses.

Learn more about: The Gourmet Butcher and Sterling College's Farm-to-Table Program


Last week I joined about 25 students at Sterling College to watch Cole Ward deconstruct a pig. Sterling College, for those who don't know, is a tiny college in Craftsbury Common with a focus on hands-on education: farming, alternative energy, outdoor leadership, woodworking, stuff like that. It turns kids into the strapping, multi-talented twenty-somethings you feel certain you would have been at that age, if only you hadn't majored in, say...literature.

And Cole Ward, for those who don't know, is The Gourmet Butcher. The barrel-chested 57-year-old plies his trade at the Sweet Clover Market in Essex, but more and more he teaches the fine art of butchering. That's what he was doing at Sterling, which has a new Farm-to-Table program. Students raise their own food, harvest it, prep it, and cook it. Not just cherry tomatoes, either. At Sterling, they're working with maple syrup, yogurt, cheese, tofu, and, yes, livestock. The pig that Cole Ward deconstructed was raised on the Sterling campus, and will be devoured there in a variety of delectable ways.

Watching Ward slice into the seams between muscles and produce beautiful cuts made me realize how important his expertise was, and how close we are to losing it. There are better and worse ways to butcher, and Ward teaches the right way. No power tools, just hack saws, cleavers, and knives. But power saws are standard practice now, and Ward's is a dying art. On the bright side, there's a revival of interest in butchering, as we've all started paying more attention to where our meat comes from. And Ward has welcomed the attention. "I thought I was done teaching this," he admitted. But wanting to learn how to do it yourself and wanting to enter the business are two different things. "Nobody apprentices anymore," Ward said.

Where will the next Cole Ward come from? I wouldn't be surprised if it was one of these Sterling students earnestly flexing their cleavers. Because, like any skill, butchering is cool and beautiful when you see it done right. There have been one or two occasions when my ability to deconstruct Ulysses has come in handy, but just imagine the party invites if I could create hand-cut bacon.



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