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By Eliot Fearey
Seattle, WA, USA

I’ve always operated under the assumption that bacon is hands down and unequivocally the most delicious food in the world. Not true! Bacon that has been cured by Brandon and Lauren Sheard is hands down and unequivocally the most delicious food in the world.

Brandon Sheard
(credit: Andrew Plotsky, Farmrun)

Proprietors of Farmstead Meatsmith, a mobile butchery business, the Sheards travel throughout the Pacific Northwest turning meat into charcuterie that is worth its weight its gold.

Academics by nature, the couple studies traditional European slaughter and butchery practices with the hope of sparking a meat processing Renaissance in the Pacific Northwest. Fundamental to the ideology of Farmstead Meatsmith is the importance of preserving the quality of the meat and harvesting all parts of the animal. When they say all, they mean…eyeballs, blood, and trotters.

Brandon and Lauren are eager to share their wealth of knowledge and offer classes on best practice slaughter methodology, hands-on pork butchery, and curing processes. It doesn’t matter if you are a butchery neophyte (me!), cuisinier très doué, or even vegetarian, the courses are worth taking. In a lesson on side butchery, Brandon offers anecdotes from provincial European harvest history and recipes for boudin blanc and pork rillettes.

I left their class “Cure the Butcher’s Pig” with one hundred dinner ideas.


THIRSTY: I’ve never known another butcher to harvest as much of the animal as you do. Are you replicating and reviving traditional methods of butchery? Or, are your methods a distillation of old and new, trial and error, and lessons from a community of butchers?

Brandon: Lauren and I puritanically hold onto older processes and try to make them fit with the needs of small-scale producers. It’s all about economy and getting every ounce out of the pig and into usable form. Older practices allow for harvesting all parts of the animal, like the head and feet, which are generally considered scraps. By using traditional methods, we can continue to use these parts of the animal.

Lauren: The last time the supermarket butchers were butchering whole carcasses was in 1986—no supermarket has really done that since. So, there isn’t the old guy down the street to give you great hints on butchery technique and old equipment.

Butcher Instruction
(credit: Andrew Plotsky, Farmrun)

THIRSTY: Where, then, have you found instruction on the older methods?

Brandon: A lot of the time we start with a recipe, which essentially tells us what the end product should be. The first thing to do is throw out all of the PC modern stuff about nitrates and cooking the hell out of something. There is a fear culture in America that has developed around meat. Then, Lauren and I ask ourselves, “Well, how did they do this?” Once we start asking ourselves questions and experimenting, we’ll find a way that we think was done back in the day. The methods that we come up with work and taste incredible.

Lauren: Then, sometimes, we will find out later that what we did is historically legitimate. For example, we just found an 1835 text by William Cobbett on cottage economy and it has instruction on how to kill a pig, or different recipes. A lot of what he says is exactly what we’ve been doing!

THIRSTY: Your family treats its animals more compassionately than any other farmers I know—you name your pigs and use kill practices that minimize the stress for the animal. Why do you cultivate caring relationships with your animals?


Only recently have the thoughts “I love this animal” and
“I’m so excited to make it into bacon” become contradictory.

When you are raising animals on the small scale, you have to force yourself not to develop a relationship. You get to know them as individuals. Also, it is inherent to the peasant economy. You care so much about the animals because your life is as much tied to the animal’s as the animal’s life is tied to yours.

THIRSTY: While explaining where to cut a shoulder in Andrew Plotsky’s film On the Anatomy of Thrift: Pork Provender in the Home Kitchen, you say, “the line I choose is at the end of the sternum.” Is there much room for personal interpretation in butchery?

Brandon: I think so, which is weird, because I am an extreme purist. For me, there is only one way to butcher a pig. But, I don’t like for people who come to the classes to feel like they are messing up if they do something differently. If you create a cut that you don’t have a name for, but it comes from a roughly recognizable muscle group, it is going to taste awesome.

I always say that people should do the style of butchery that is endemic to their kitchen—
what fits their pots and what fits their ovens.

THIRSTY: You offer classes on pork butchery and curing methods. Why is education an integral part of Farmstead Meatsmith?

Lauren: I look at it, frankly, from the business side. There is such a demand for this knowledge and, in looking at the numbers, it just made sense to start offering classes. The farmer whose animal we butcher gets a cut, we make a profit, and the student can take the knowledge home and feed a family on it for years.

Lauren Sheard
(credit: Andrew Plotsky, Farmrun)

Brandon: Also, I think that both of us are teaching personalities—it doesn’t matter what we are teaching. When I was in academia, I studied in order to teach. It could be butchery, knife sharpening, or English Renaissance literature; I just like teaching for some reason.

THIRSTY: Who takes the class?

Lauren: That’s a good question!

Brandon: Everybody!

Lauren: That’s our favorite part of what we do. People from all different walks of life come together at the classes. We get people from the entire spectrum, from old right-wing men all the way to young girls who are hungry for knowledge. It’s neat because you know that everyone has different political and cultural beliefs, but they have something in common here at the butchery table.

Brandon: I love it when young romantics, who are all about Democracy Now and NPR, start having conversations with the old right-wing guy about firearms. They are both totally engaged, but when else would they ever have the conversation? Never!

THIRSTY: Do you think that the word “organic” has lost its meaning? If you believe the word has been devalued and is no longer a guarantor of quality, what is it that you would recommend somebody looks for?

Brandon: I think a lot of labels, like organic and local, are more mystifying than they actually convey information. They allow you to not think. When you know what a real tomato looks, feels, and smells like, it doesn’t matter what kind of label it has. Even if the real tomato had a conventional barcode label, not one that indicated it was organic, you would still know that it was a real tomato…not a waxy POS.

THIRSTY: A lot of people I know, despite their intention to eat local/organic, find that it can be prohibitively expensive. Do you have suggestions for eating healthfully and economically? Or, do you believe it is a cost that we must incur?

Sausage Factory
(credit: Andrew Plotsky, Farmrun)

Brandon: I think it is really hard. One way to do it is to take the path that Lauren and I have, which is to immerse ourselves in the food economy and render a service to that field.

THIRSTY: What about for us urbanites?

Brandon: Yeah, people who are in the city can feel trapped, which is totally legitimate. I think farmers markets are incredible. But, there are also so many people in the city with skills that farmers need. There are people with grant writing, web design, and photography skills. I think they should consider a barter system and trade their urban skills with farmers. I think you would be surprised by how many people jump on that.


Farmstead Meatsmith

All opinions expressed by Eliot Fearey are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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