An excerpt from Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers
interview by Marissa Guggiana
photo by Julio Duffoo
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.
Sonoma Direct is a USDA-inspected meat plant in Petaluma, California. My family purchased it in 2005, and I have been running it since then. Slowly, I developed relationships with local food producers. A farmer here, a chef there. Along the way, I began to revisit my past life as a writer. Writing about food had always seemed to me like stealing from a moment. What more is there to describe beyond the wordless satisfaction of nourishment and pleasure? But discovering the complications of actually providing local meat brought me to a deeper understanding of the importance of intellectual generosity. To create community through food, we must share our wisdom and our discouragement and solutions. So I wrote a book called Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers (Welcome Books, 2010). As much as providing recipes and cooking techniques, I am sharing the stories of people who have
passionately plodded through the process of providing protein.
Gerrit van den Noord, born in Holland, is the butcher at my meat-processing plant. He had worked for the previous owner and agreed to come on board when we bought the business. I can’t imagine a universe where there is a Sonoma Direct without Gerrit. He is an adventurer and incredibly skilled,
in a way that is both macho and humble. Gerrit has a sense of pride in his work that is almost daunting. In his world, butchering means taking care of his meat cutters and taking care of the building, as well as taking care of the carcass. His masterful knowledge of meat has made it possible for Sonoma Direct to become a resource for local ranchers who want to sell their meat, teaching them about the cuts and their applications. Plus, he is endlessly full of good stories.
I WAS AN ORPHAN AT 16, and they wanted to put me in a camp. I knew a butcher and his wife, and they wanted me to live with them instead. They had two kids of their own, a butcher shop downstairs, and they lived upstairs. They paid me under the table. I always had money then. The lady of the house would come down every night and take whatever was left for dinner. I never had a bad meal. There’s no such thing as a bad cut; it’s all about how you cook it.
Then I went to school for butchering, two days a week for three years. I joined the service, and when I came back, I went into carpentry for a while. When I got back to butchering, I worked for a company from Australia. They bought up cattle from all over Europe, and they would call me up and say, Gerrit, we’ve got 500 head in Italy or Austria or France, go take care of it. I did everything. I had 35 butchers working for me. That was a lot of fun. We all stayed in a hotel. Paris was a lot of problems because the people there would take a four-hour lunch break and drink wine. When I brought my guys, if they drank wine, they wouldn’t come back. A lot of the meat came from France; they raised them so the front was small and the back was really big because that’s where the money is.
Then, in Antwerp, we took the meat outside to cut —there were no regulations. Wherever the meat hall was in town, that’s where all the bars and the prostitutes were. In the slaughterhouses there was always a bottle of brandy in every corner; they said it was to keep the flies away. People could drink as much as they wanted and no one said anything. Insurance changed all that. Now people get cut and forget about it.
For several years, I had my own union. We didn’t have unions in Europe then. I knew all the butchers from Holland and Belgium, so the big grocery companies would call me when they were short. I would call my people up and send them out. I got bigger and bigger. I got so tired of it because of taxes. I told Jack, my first hire, that he could have the company and I moved to the United States.
I didn’t know any of the American names for the cuts, but that was easy to learn. Then I went to Tambolinis [a meat processing plant in San Mateo, now closed], and in three months I was running the place. There were two young kids doing all the ground, making $4 an hour. I gave them both a dollar-an-hour raise and Tambolini got so pissed. He said you run the place, but no raises.
I came to this plant to look for work when Simon Samson owned it. I walked in and couldn’t believe it was him. I’d seen Simon around in Holland, but I had no idea he had moved here.
My first boss would pick up every little scrap I missed —It’s all pennies and nickels, Gerrit, pennies and nickels. Of course, then I was making $20 a week. So meat was much more expensive then, relatively. That’s how I learned.
Contrary to popular belief, true gulyas does not include sour cream or tomato. What it does require, however, is genuine paprika, imported from Hungary. You can find it at specialty food stores, as well as many supermarkets. Some recipes recommend the addition of sauerkraut, which you can add at the very end, if desired. Serve with egg noodles.
2 tablespoons butter
2 large onions, peeled and chopped
2 pounds beef or pork for stew,
cut into 1½- to 2-inch cubes
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ teaspoon fresh or dried marjoram leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 tablespoons imported Hungarian paprika
2 cups beef stock
1 cup water
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Cook the onions until they are soft and translucent. Add the beef and brown it on all sides.
Add the caraway seeds, marjoram, garlic, and paprika. Cook for a minute or two to soften the garlic and release the flavor of the paprika. Add the stock and water, and cover.
Simmer the beef over very low heat for 2 hours. (Alternatively, use an ovenproof casserole and cook the
goulash in a 300°F oven.)
Add the potatoes and cook until they are tender, about an hour. season to taste and serve.
MARISSA GUGGIANA is the author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers. She has also recently established the Butcher’s Guild, in support of a meat industry with integrity and fraternity.
Photographer JULIO DUFFOO was born in Peru and raised in Brooklyn, and is now based in San Francisco. He has photographed people who spend their lives engaged with meat for every issue of Meatpaper since Issue One.