a history of butchery -- 12/17/19

Butchery was invented in Rome to feed an exploding population. In the modern era, due to increased factory farming, meat is now cheaper than ever and we no longer go to butcher shops to purchase it. Instead, we op for a cellophane-wrapped, prepackaged product:

"Meat only became part of man's diet 800,000 years ago, while the origin of our species dates back almost 2.5 million years. ...Butchery as we know it today had its beginnings in ancient Rome.

"In addition to fine wine and sewage systems, we also have the Romans to thank for the way they practiced butchery across the empire, with archaeological evidence showing us that they introduced the first cleavers and large slabs of wood, similar to what we'd now call a block. As populations increased with the size of the Roman Empire, so did the need for the farming and cultivation of livestock for meat, leading to the beginning of what we would now recognize as wholesale farmers, who supplied animals directly to early butchers. These butchers were called carnifexes (a word that would soon become associated with Roman murderers and executioners), and they sold their wares from wooden carts beneath a cotton canopy.

"Many carnifexes dealt in a wide array of meat, while others were specialists, selling only bone marrow or hooves. The divides in Roman society saw the meatier cuts -- the very beginnings of what we now classify as prime cuts -- go to the rich and the cheaper, less desirable to the poor.

"The Romans were also the pioneers of nose-to-tail butchery, which may be trendy now but began in the early first century. ... [O]riginally, nose-to-tail was necessary for feeding an ever-expanding population. ... Nose-­to-tail includes offal, too -- the entrails and organs of an ani­mal: bright, plump livers, tough and flavorful hearts, and even the soft, spongy kidneys.

An ancient Roman relief with a scene of a butcher shop.

"In the US, the supply chain historically began in local­ized rural areas, with Chicago becoming the headquarters of the American meat industry by 1865, when the Union Stock Yard and Transit Co. was built on more than 350 acres of downtown Chicago by a group of railroad companies. The 'Yards' was split into two sections: one section sold livestock a la Smithfield, and the other was built for the processing of carcasses. For more than a century, this was the central hub of meat processing in the US, as farmers from all over the country shipped in their cattle, sheep, and hogs to be sold and slaughtered on site.

"From 1865 to the late 1920s, more meat was processed in Chicago than in any other place in the world. Early meat-packing plants in Chicago revolution­ized almost all aspects of butchery, with the invention of new technologies to maximize yield and make the process­ing of animals quick and fast. One area in particular that was changed by plants was slaughter, with the invention of the Hurford wheel, a device that mechanized the killing of multiple animals at a time by hoisting them up onto a con­veyor to have their throats cut. This was the very beginning of the assembly-line technique in butchery, and by the time the Yards closed in 1971, more than one billion animals had been slaughtered there.

"After the Second World War, industrial-scale farming began, with supermarkets creeping in beneath our noses during the early 1960s. The eyes of consumers were drawn to pack­aged meat on refrigerated shelves, eliminating the need for contact with someone behind a counter. Convenience over­shadowed everything, factory farms made meat cheaper, and cheap meat created more demand.

"[I]n the 1990s, butcher shops were still a staple in most villages or towns in the UK. By the turn of the millennium, the total number of butcher shops in the UK had declined from 22,000 in 1995 to barely over 7,000 in 2010."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Jessica Wragg


Girl on the Block


Harper Collins


Copyright 2019 by Jessica Wragg


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