Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura are better known by the nicknames that grace the awning of their Los Angeles butcher shop, Lindy & Grundy, which opens today. We first spoke while the business--which sells only local, pastured, and organic meats in a decidedly old school, hip vibe--was still under construction. Yet despite the fact that sheets of brown paper still covered the glass entryway, three entities (and I use that word deliberately) proved shockingly excited to meet the couple who had yet to sell an ounce of their wares.
The first was Larry, a small dog who looked like a happy, well-fed bath mat. Then there was Patrick Murray and Lauren Cudney, a couple who'd driven up from Costa Mesa for dinner at Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook's seafood restaurant, Son of a Gun, as well as to scope out the the much-hyped butcher shop. Lastly, there was a a celebrity, who shall remain nameless--partly out of respect for his privacy, and partly due to the fact that neither Lindy nor Grundy were exactly sure who he was (trust me, you would). They admitted this to me moments after genially shaking his hand and welcoming him to their shop, not with malice or egoism, but rather the charming cluelessness of an artist who's spent his day elbow-deep in oil paint, too involved in his work to recognize the billionaire collector standing in his studio.
Larry enjoyed how, due to the fact that they spend their day preparing pristine cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, the self-described butcherettes smelled like giant dog treats. Meanwhile Lauren, who works at a culinary school, is "obsessed with meat," while her boyfriend Patrick loves the idea of a "small, local butcher" specializing in ethically-raised meats. When they peeked in the door and spotted the ladies in the flesh, Lauren's voice trembled with an enthusiasm that, historically, seems reserved for teenage musicians with bowl cuts. Lastly, the actor, who politely declined giving a quote because his love of food "gets him in trouble"... well, that's pretty self-explanatory.
Amelia and Erika share their story with the back-and-forth cadence that your great-grandparents probably did, honed with a lot of repeating and a lot of love. Their journey to opening Los Angeles's first sustainable butcher shop began several years back, on the opposite side of the country. They met, as all couples really should, at a drag show in Brooklyn in 2006. Their romance progressed via a medium that would foreshadow their current, masterful use of social media: MySpace (according to them "when it was still cool," if that's possible). From there, their love blossomed.
Amelia, with a background in journalism and floral design, had been a ethical vegetarian for fourteen years, but began craving meat with the requirement that it be "humanely [sourced], organic, and sustainably raised." Yet with the majority of American supermarkets featuring animals raised on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, slaughtered in a factory, then injected with a litany of additives including sodium phosphate, sodium lactate, and potassium lactate, finding meats that adhered to her rule proved difficult. Erika was also a former vegetarian of seven years, whose experience at the French Culinary Institute and in the kitchen of a number of fine dining restaurants (where "vegetable scraps get turned into mirepoix") ingrained her with the belief that food waste was not only unethical, it was plain uneconomical.
Realizing the frenetic life in a restaurant kitchen wasn't for her, Erika contacted Joshua Applestone, the owner of Fleisher's--a butcher in Kingston, New York specializing in butchering whole animals raised sustainably--and enrolled in his apprenticeship program. Applestone is a third-generation butcher, dedicated to passing on the "nose-to-tail" tradition that is all but lost. His wife and co-owner of Fleisher's, Jessica Applestone, told me that "since the industrialization of the meat industry, the way that we work... which is to use every single aspect of the animal, it's just not done any more." Neither she nor her husband, both former vegetarians (starting to notice a trend?) knew what they were doing when they first opened the shop in 2004, as Joshua's father had broken the chain by opting out of the family trade. But the Applestones were committed to creating "a movement of sustainability in the meat industry" that, they felt, hadn't existed since the widespread implementation of factory farming in the 1960s. The husband and wife brought in a number of retired butchers, convincing them to resharpen their blades and train the young idealists in a model that was really just hearkening back to the way things were done back in the Middle Ages. A Fleisher's apprenticeship, however, is not just some sort of throwback, a meat-centric Renaissance fair in upstate New York. "If you don't learn it from an apprenticeship program," Jessica informed me, "you can't learn it all."
As Erika began her training, Amelia thought she'd settle into the quiet, domestic life, and began planning their wedding from their new home--a cabin in Woodstock. Keep in mind, this is the dead of winter in a place famous as famous for its cross-country skiing as its seminal music festival. The tranquil life was not to last; enamored with the ten hours a day she spent under the tutelage of Applestone and others, Erika came home one day and announced "Babe, we need to talk." Now, if I heard my girlfriend say this, I'd probably start packing my suitcase, wondering what the hell I'd done wrong. Instead, Erika continued, "I want to open up a sustainable, nose-to-tail butcher shop... in Los Angeles." Amelia heard mention of her decidedly-non-freezing-in-the-middle-of-New York hometown and promptly replied, "What do I have to do?" Erika's answer: "You have to learn how to become a butcher."
Fleisher's is the Harvard of sustainable butchers, only without its graduates annoying you with constant reminders of their perfect SAT scores. In addition to selling their meats to customers and renowned Manhattan restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Casa Mono, Fleisher's trains its students not only in breaking down a whole animal, but in adhering to their philosophy of respect for the animal, the consumer, and the planet. Erika and Amelia trained for ten months under a large, Bavarian man named Hans Sebald, a former Culinary Institute of America master butcher who, in the movie version of Lindy and Grundy's tale, would be played by Max von Sydow. According to Poppy Gordon, a Los Angeles-based private chef and CIA graduate who studied under Chef Sebald, he is the kind of man whose size and accent make him "a bit intimidating," but who can "break down any animal you put in front of him." Higher praise does not exist in the world of butchery.
On Amelia's first day of training, when instructed to retrieve a lamb from the walk-in freezer, she suffered a panic attack. Erika explained her wife's nervousness, pointing out how the carcass "looks like a monster!" with its lolling, black tongue and empty eyes. Josh Applestone told Amelia, "You're not ready" and sent her off with Hans Sebald and Jessica Applestone with the unusual direction, "You're going to Wa-Mart." There, the Bavarian spent three hours demonstrating the meat made readily available to Americans at supermarkets across the country--bloated with water, pumped with chemicals, dumped in Styrofoam. Amelia told me she suffered yet another panic attack, ruminating upon how this was the only meat available to many families and their children. From that point on, butchering a lamb that had lived its life eating what it wanted, when it wanted, on a farm where it could, well, be a lamb, didn't just seem easier... it seemed right. Jessica Applestone, who co-authored the upcoming book The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat, reflected that Amelia's apprenticeship was a "real growing process," but that by the end of it, both Amelia and Erika were "definitely some of our stars."
Of course, not everyone is convinced of the merits of this new (but actually old) breed of artisanal, sustainable, and correspondingly pricier butcher shops. Karen LaRossa, a Maryland-based middle school teacher with an advanced degree from Johns Hopkins, explained that while she respects the sentiment behind the shop, the fact that she's had no cost-of-living or step increases in salary in three years due to state budget issues means that "fifteen percent more money [the average additional cost, per pound, of their products] for anything is a turnoff." Her boyfriend, Todd Finnerty, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, put it more bluntly, only half-joking when he said: "Screw that! I'm still eating off the dollar menus at McDonalds and Taco Bell." Then there are the committed vegetarians like Sylvia Duran, a semi-retired oncology nurse and Kundalini yoga instructor from Redondo Beach, CA, who noted that while she appreciates the "increasing consciousness" in meat consumption and acknowledges that "humanely is the way to go," having seen the look in a cow's eye up close, there is no way she could bring herself to eat one, no matter how it was raised.
For the committed vegetarians, Amelia and Erika can't do much other than respect their choice and hope they're getting enough protein in their diet. As for the cost issue, Lindy and Grundy are upfront on their website that the pastured meats they carry are more expensive than commodity meats. They go on, however, to explain that that cost derives from the expense of additional land required to raise the animals (as opposed to, say, a cramped feedlot) and the time it takes to grow an animal to market-weight on a natural diet. What they have the tact not to mention is that factory farmed animals grow a lot faster when they're fed a diet of government-subsidized corn products (and the antibiotics necessary to counter the illness such a diet inevitably causes). They also don't mention the fact that the fifteen percent discount on supermarket meat becomes questionable when you realize that what's sold as a four pound chicken--which has actually gained twelve percent of its weight from the sodium/water injection it received at the factory--isn't really a four pound chicken. But, Lindy and Grundy leave it at the far more diplomatic, "15% more is a small price to pay to support local farmers, to have access to the health benefits associated with pastured meats and to relish the premium flavor of Lindy and Grundy's meats." Plus, Erika was sure to point out, the shop will accept EBT cards, better known as food stamps, from low-income families.
The admission of their higher prices seemed surprising to me at first, especially considering how depressing any thought of money seems to be these days; but I get now that it's all part of the philosophy at the heart of Lindy and Grundy's operation: honesty, and a desire to sell their wares to informed customers. "The [commercial] meat industry is built on the lack of trust," Erika explained. Commercial meat retailers often rely on convenient oversight, if not outright misrepresentation, when it comes to their wares. "Most people become so detached from where their food comes," Amelia lamented. It doesn't take a Nobel prize in Economics to understand why: if consumers could see the sows spending their lives crammed in two-foot wide gestation crates, the steers packed into shit-laden holding pens, the chickens being boiled alive in scalding water when the mechanical blade that was supposed to slit their throat earlier on the line doesn't finish the job... well, it's hard to have much of a customer base when they're too busy sobbing between vomit heaves. Instead, well-paid marketers sooth us with abstract labels like "fresh" and "natural" and "premium," perverting even seemingly concrete words like "local" and "sustainable." You've probably heard this marketing described as "green-washing;" Amelia refers to it as the "burlap bubble," in which supermarkets provide shoppers with pleasant images of old-school farmers filling burlap sacks with their goods, ideally while wearing overalls, chewing a piece of straw, and patting Ole Bess on the head. Amelia posed a question that she hopes will cease being merely rhetorical: "If a farm is big enough to support all of these big corporations, how sustainable and local can it really be?"
The reason many are convinced Amelia and Erika's venture will be a success is that consumers--seeking out what often amounts to buzz words at the supermarket, or restricted to finding the meats one day a week at the farmer's market--will be able to find the real deal at the women's shop six days a week. They told me they have their carcasses delivered straight in the front door, often to the cheers of the morning coffee crowd who've watched the ladies' shop progress over the past months. Only, before any meat can even cross their storefront's threshold, Lindy and Grundy have a rule that they have to have visited the farm from which it came and ensured the animals are being raised ethically and sustainably. All of their meats are raised on nearby, small farms, without exposure to herbicides, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotic ever. This means if you're a cow, you're eating grass instead of getting sick off corn; if you're a chicken you're eating grubs and clover and have more room to roam than a chicken knows what to do with. But visiting the farm isn't enough: the butcherettes have visited each of their slaughterhouses, stood on the kill-floor, and watched the creatures in their final moments to ensure a humane end. I should mention this is not something they especially enjoyed--don't worry, you won't be buying from sociopaths--but rather, a willingness to invest time and empathy that demonstrates the two attributes I mentioned above: education and honesty. As Alex Jermasek, Lindy and Grundy's nineteen-year-old apprentice with the "prestigious resume of having worked at Chipotle for six months" told me, "[Unlike the commodity meat industry,] there are no secrets... it doesn't seem very gross to me, it feels natural."
While their dedication to providing responsibly-raised meats in a butcher shop setting is fairly unique, Lindy and Grundy are part of a larger movement spreading among both providers and eaters of food. I attended a lamb butchering demonstration the couple held at the Los Angeles restaurant, Terroni. In the front of the dining room, Erika set about about dismembering one of their shop's pastured lambs, raised sustainably on Wyland Farms in Petaluma, provided by Sonoma Direct, and distributed by Rocker Bros meats (see what I mean about knowing where your meat comes from?). From their chairs, the audience watched on with a mixture of bemused indifference (Executive chef of Jar and Tracht's and Top Chef: Masters contestant, Suzanne Tracht) and horrified amazement (my girlfriend). Meanwhile, I spoke to chefs like Christian Page--the man behind the upcoming Daily Dose, an artisanal cafe that will bring the farm-to-table concept popular in fine dining to a less-formal setting. He observed, "All of a sudden, every one's got heart disease... you can take all the pills" you want, but it's not addressing what he believes is at the root of the issue--America's diet. When I asked Christian about his own approach to both eating and cooking, he put it equally bluntly: "I became interested in it because I don't want to eat shit. I want to eat stuff that's really good for me, stuff that tastes good, and stuff that's... truly sustainably raised." Ben Ford, the chef and owner of Ford's Filling Station (which features dishes like kobe cheeks and a whole pig dinner), added that, "when the malls came, the butcher went away" but that people "have a desire to see the craft of cooking come back." Suzanne Tracht summed it up with, "It's finally realizing, yes, that old way is better."
I should mention that Lindy and Grundy's lamb, which was prepared four ways by four excellent chefs, was sublime--subtle and tender in the carpaccio, bursting with flavor in the lamb's tongue crostini. Debbie Rocker, whose family business supplied the lamb, explained her take on the meat they provide (and, perhaps unknowingly, an explanation as to why it tastes so good): "It's an understanding that we take care of the animals" by raising them properly, "then they take care of us." To some, dining on such atypical cuts may seem to be solely the domain of foodies, snobs who use food as cultural capital much the same way others will causally mention a holiday in Jose Ignacio ("Croatia was so 2010") or the newest Nico Muhly work. I've met people like that and, yes, they're assholes. But what Lindy and Grundy, Fleisher's, Christian Page, and all these other folks are doing has less to do with foodies and more to do with my Greek grandfather, Alekos, who passed away years ago. One of our favorite family stories was of Alekos's insisting that he get to eat the eyeball of the lamb they'd roast on a spit every Easter. Not because he was a snob (the guy walked around shirtless and, occasionally, pants-less, during pretty much every one of my visits to Greece), but because letting a perfectly good eyeball go to waste when he and his family grew up with hardly ever enough food on the table was unfathomable.
With their apprenticeship at Fleisher's over, Lindy and Grundy began that most quintessential of American traditions, the road trip... though with a uniquely 21st century twist. During their drive, Amelia and Erika began following everyone food-related in LA on Twitter they could. Then following who they were following. On their own accounts (@LindyGrundy, @thefemmebutcher, @TheButcherette), the ladies would tweet about sustainability and cooking, giving hints of their plans and posting the occasional photo. Then, Amelia told me, "[people] started following back." By the time they arrived in Los Angeles, Krista Simmons wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Lindy and Grundy were "practically household names among local foodies." Max Shapiro, a real estate broker and self-described food enthusiast, told me he was captivated by their personalities, explaining "they're like the rock and roll butcher chicks."
I tried to wrap my head around this seeming dichotomy--practitioners of a Middle Ages craft employing a social media technology that would probably have gotten them burned at the stake as witches back in the day. But then I got it. When you walk into Lindy & Grundy's, or a local bookstore or auto mechanic, you expect a story, an experience. It's seeing the same shop owner every time, the one who knows your name, who asks how the kids' little league team is doing, who can make recommendations based on what you like and what you don't. It's about a one-on-one connection. Twitter, at its best, can provide the same experience: when Amelia and Erika post about having a killer brunch and renting moving trucks and the pain in the ass it is to get your smoke alarm working properly, they're providing a look into their lives that probably isn't all that much different from when your grandma used to hear stories about her fish monger from her postman. And that's somehow more reassuring than all the murals of farmers wandering their fields than Whole Foods or Bristol Farms could ever provide.
Fortunately, Amelia and Erika's real-life personalities--friendly, hip, and passionate about their line of work--surpass even their online presence. "Everybody who met them was overwhelmed," Shapiro mentioned. "You want to support them," he continued, "because they're such cool people." Shawna Dawson, a restaurant and non-profit marketing consultant and creator of the LA Street Food Fest and Artisanal LA, told me, "There really is no better persona to communicate education about whole-animal and sustainable butchering than [these] two women." Like so many others, she first "met" Lindy and Grundy on Twitter. Dawson then invited them to hold a pig butchering demo, "whole head and all," at last fall's Artisanal LA. She recounted that Lindy and Grundy's event was "more crowded than any other demo all weekend long." Then she smiled, recollecting the families having having the same conversation she had as as a child with her uncle, a trained butcher: "People were educating their children right there."
The downside, of course, of so much hype surrounding their shop is that it leaves Amelia and Erika with a lot to live up to. Erika admitted "I am totally freaked out, man." Amelia was quick to add that they found comfort in the fact that they are "surrounded by awesomeness" thanks to a community of food lovers and activists encouraging and supporting them along every step of the way. "So," Erika smiled, "we'll try not to screw this up."
Photos courtesy of Evan Golden.
Lindy & Grundy - Local, Pastured, & Organic Meats. 801 N. Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90046.
Fleisher's Grass-fed and Organic Meats. 307 Wall Street, Kingston, NY 12401.
Daily Dose Cafe. 1820 Industrial St, Los Angeles, CA 90021.
Ford's Filling Station. 9531 Culver Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232.
Jar. 8225 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Terroni. 7605 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
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