Reality Bites: Meat with Manners

Published  January 2014

antigravityjan14_Page_05_Image_0002I’ve been a hardcore carnivore for as long as I can remember. I vividly recall holding a plastic toy triceratops and wondering how I could carve out a rib roast like the one Fred Flintstone ordered up at his local drive-in. When I realized I was at the top of the food chain, my first reaction was “Hell yeah! Bring on the steaks and bacon.” As I grew older, though, I reluctantly recognized the unsustainable qualities of modern agribusiness. I saw how the politics of meat struck deeply into local economies, land use, and my own ethical concerns. Yet through it all I was too selfish to restrict my inner caveman; and part of me always felt guilty for it. I carried that weight around until I met Seth Hamstead of Cleaver & Co. Hamstead has forged relationships with local meat  producers, gotten down and dirty with the numbers, and put a brick-and- mortar butcher shop under his concept of a sustainable meat market. The result is the best of both worlds; a full service butcher shop that satisfies one’s brain as well as one’s incisors.

Hamstead studied chemistry at Tulane and economics at the University of Chicago. He’s a whiz-bang visionary when it comes to understanding the provenance of food items and their role in a market economy. He initially left academia to work for a private firm that applied scientific methodology to studying economics, but he quickly learned that he didn’t want to devote his career to consulting. He recalls,

“Consulting isn’t always based on who you believe is right, but who is paying the bills.” When he turned his attention to local agriculture, he saw farmer’s markets as one of the only venues for family farmers to sell their wares. Hamstead realized that if he could provide an outlet for producers to sell their goods six to seven days each week, they could give their attention to doing what they did best: growing quality food.

When he realized a career change was imminent, Hamstead quickly concluded that a relocation back to New Orleans was in order as well: “When I originally left New Orleans, I was moving to go to grad school, which was a pretty good reason. I was fed up with the bad roads, corrupt politicians and bad weather… then I moved to Chicago.” Hamstead laughs as he concludes, “I started working weekends and nights with a guy in Chicago to train and learn butchery and charcuterie and build a business around that. Then I thought, ‘Why am I doing this in Chicago when I really want to move back to New Orleans?’”

antigravityjan14_Page_05_Image_0001The result of Hamstead’s planning was to open Cleaver & Co. on Baronne Street. Though the building used to be a grocery store in the 1920s, the first thing most customers notice about the space is that there aren’t a lot of pre-cut packages of meat lying around in display cases. Efficiency is the cornerstone of Cleaver & Co.’s operations, which runs in opposition to the grocery store model that jams abundance down the consumer’s throat. The animal itself is the functional unit, which means there are only so many portions of each cut to go around. “If somebody comes to us looking for five pounds of hangar steak, we’re never going to have that,” Hamstead says. “We have one cow, which only gives us so much hangar steak… so when people come to us and ask first for a specific cut, we sell it if we have it, but we also respond by showing them all the different cuts they’ve never  been exposed to… At first it’s a bit of a reorienting process to get them to see where their meat actually comes from. That’s also why we offer the butchering classes; there they can see that this is actually an animal, and how it’s broken down. Then they start to think about  their food differently because they aren’t just seeing strip steaks or ground  beef or those specific cuts.”

Hamstead and his crew have developed  relationships with local farmers and sourced top-quality products. Cleaver & Co.’s products are responsibly butchered with the utmost respect to the animal; and again that respect manifests itself through efficiency. Says Hamstead, “We definitely want to honor the animal, this thing that gave its life to us. So we try to get as close to zero waste as possible. We only have a residential size garbage can outside  the shop to force us to use as much as possible. That’s why we also sell items like dog food that we make from beef liver and spleen. We also make broth out of the bones we don’t sell immediately… Of course, it comes down to economics as well. I paid for the entire animal; I want to get as much use out of it as I can.”

Thankfully, Hamstead’s vision is much larger than a meat counter and a tiny garbage can out back. He has big plans for the newly constructed St. Roch Market, which is still in its preliminary administrative stages. “We’ve put our hat in the ring to run this new facility as a public market. Around the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans had a network of fresh food markets and we recognize a need for that in our community today. We’ve formed a nonprofit corporation to manage the market so that individual vendors can sign leases to participate. Our preference is for vendors producing high quality food at reasonable prices. We’d like the market to approximate a grocery store because that  neighborhood doesn’t have anything operating as such at the moment.”

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