If you haven’t read the first post about breaking down a whole lamb, here it is. I’ve moved on to more serious territory, and if you’re a bit squeamish, try to make it through as much of this post as you can. I’ll keep it light. There will be no pictures of the slaughterhouse in this post. 

If you did read the linked post from above, you’ll remember that our butchers, for the last year, have been getting in whole lamb carcasses and breaking them down for sale in our meat department. As I stated in the comments, we come from a sterile environment of meat eating. Our meats come in shrinkwrapped packages with a sell-by date, and they have neither a face, nor a name. As far as we know, it’s what’s stamped on the package that gets us to buy things. Buzzwords such as ‘grass-fed’, ‘boneless/skinless’, and ‘organic’ influence our buying power as consumers, but we never give a second thought to where the meat actually comes from.

Chicago has a long tradition of being one of the nation’s top meat producing cities. Reaching back to 1906’s The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Slaughterhouses are part of the framework upon which the success of Chicago was built.  Compared to today’s massive feedlots, ‘farming operations’, and processing plants, the smaller slaughterhouses have gone the way of the dodo, making room for centrally located behemoths dotting the landscape of America’s ‘farmland’. Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods like Back of the Yards, once bustling with trailer activity and the smell of a barnyard, now lay mostly vacant. This past Tuesday, however, our butchers were taken to Chiapetti’s Lamb and Veal processors, the last Slaughterhouse to utilize live slaughter of large farm animals within the Chicago city limits.

I could be morbid here, and talk about death, but it’s not the time, nor is it the place. This is a job that needs to be done if those who eat meat want to have dinner on the table. Those who are involved do their jobs with skill, and with a quickness and precision that most home cooks will never see. They do it because it’s necessary.

We showed up to the plant at 8:45 in the morning and waited to be called in for our tour, just as the first shift of workers was going on break. As we stood out front, out came the USDA representative, everpresent for daily operations, and in went the Rabbi to inspect the plant. We were informed that today, instead of the USDA mandated stun kills, we would be seeing a Halal, or Muslim live slaughter. This is similar to a Kosher kill, in that the animal is slaughtered with a single knife cut to the throat, and bled immediately. The knife is the sharpest I’ve ever seen, and the kill is quick and arguably as humane as the bolt method. I’ll touch more on this later.
As we waited, the trailer drove by carrying the lambs and pulled around back to the loading chute. The familiar Midwestern smell of sheep passed us over. It was no different than a county fair.

We walked into the plant, and were introduced to the man who took us first to the fabrication room. Many of the readers of this blog have seen the movie Rocky. I’ll just say that the depiction of a meat locker in that movie is true to how they actually are in real life. Hundreds of spit-ready lamb were hanging, ready for bagging for wholesale or breakdown for smaller restaurant cuts. As we watched, one of their butchers broke a carcass down for us, first breaking the hindsaddle from the foresaddle with a breaking knife, and then fabricating them into subprimal cuts of shoulders, racks, bone-in legs, loins, and denver rib racks. As 25 people gathered around his small table, he had the opportunity to do each cut twice- the first with the speed necessary to meet the quota of 1300 lamb that they go through every day, and the second time, slower to show where each cut was to be made, and how to hold the knife.

Home cooks hold their knives different than chefs, who hold their knives different than butchers, who hold their knives different than the fabricators and breakers who split whole carcasses. The mistake that most people make when they use their knives is that they use the end of the knife closest to the hilt, because it gives them a feeling of more control.

I want you to do something right now. As you’re reading, reach over and touch something. What part of your hand are you using? I’m willing to bet it’s your fingertips. I can definitively say that it’s not the first digit of your fingers. Why would you do that?  When you use your knife all day, it becomes an extension of your hand. If you treat your knife blade as if it’s your hand, the highest level of accuracy you can get is with the tip.

Sound familiar?

Okay, maybe not the best picture for analogy, but you get it. We watched as he pressed with a pointed blade directly on the bone to separate the meat with the highest yield possible. This comes from years of practice. As he cut, we saw roast after roast cranked out. The square cut shoulder became a boneless shoulder roast. Using just the tip of the knife, the cap from the rib rack was removed, and the bones were frenched, removed of any incidental meat from a two inch area at the top, leaving an ovenready roast.

Most interesting was the tunnel cut leg of lamb, where he separated the femur bone from the meat, made an incision above the knee joint, and removed the lower leg, or shank, and femur from the whole roast by twisting, leaving the now boneless leg roast intact.

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It’s interesting to see how our meat gets to the state in which we recognize it as it comes to our case. I appreciate the workers who spend hours making it so we can easily make it for our dinner without much effort, but it’s important to realize that it came from somewhere. The next post I write will focus on how a live animal becomes something that these workers can use to make our trips to the store more convenient. It might not be as pleasant as this one, or as palatable, but it’s something that I need to write to get the full story out. If you eat meat, I hope you’ll find it a valuable read.

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