A Meaty Conversation About Butchery and Thanksgiving Turkey with Zeph Shepard

Just yesterday, it feels, we were celebrating St.Patrick’s Day, yet now it’s somehow November, which means in the blink of an eye, it’ll be Thanksgiving. Fortunately, the menu is pretty well established — and the world is producing plenty of topics for making the dinner’s conversation strained and awkward (namely, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, LeBron James and the Lakers, and that new Pikachu movie) — so really all you need to figure out is the Thanksgiving turkey. Heritage? Organic? Free-range? Butterball? Who the hell knows.

Proletariate-Butchery-Zeph-Shepard-square
Zeph Shepard. Proletariat Butchery/Facebook

We met up with Portland’s coolest butcher, Zeph Shepard of Proletariat Butchery, to talk turkey. Shepard has a deep respect for the animals that nourish us, as well as the hard work and humanity butchery requires. His passion for food and for protecting the Earth makes him a fascinating wealth of knowledge on a topic that many of us may tend to shy away from. Proletariat Butchery is stocked with pasture-raised, local meat from farms with an emphasis on sustainability and happy, healthy animals. You can also purchase salted and preserved meats, or even hire him to roast an animal for a special occasion. Shepard also offers some of the best classes you’ll find, teaching you anything from how to butcher a whole lamb to prosciutto-making.

Before we got to the bird of the hour, we had a few questions about butchery for Shepard.

The Basics of Butchery

The Manual: You had a love of cooking early on, but what drew you to butchery?  

Zeph Shepard: The tactile nature of the job; having my hands in stuff and producing a unique, hard good. I like thinking in the abstract and conceptual side of things, but I have definitely had a profound experience with taking something and transforming it into a different form. The business is unique in that I get to interact with the elements and nature very often, which is something I am very drawn to.

Harvesting and butchering is a part of a basic human drive to survive, produce, and exist.

TM: Why is it important for consumers to learn more about slaughtering and butchery, two topics people tend to avoid?  

ZS: In our 21st-century society we have been largely reduced to being blind consumers with a very narrow monetary interaction that divorces us from our humanity in a significant way. My guess is that our obsession with vanity is due in some part because we have little to no real production in our lives. Harvesting and butchering is a part of a basic human drive to survive, produce, and exist. It’s also easy to say I like meat but couldn’t kill an animal; this is due in part because you are not starving and not put in a position where you either die or survive by harvesting a live animal for a necessary source of nourishment.

everything to know about thanksgiving turkey proletarate zeph shepard proletariate butchery class
Proletariat Butchery/Facebook

Harvesting an animal puts us in a situation where we grow into our innate humanness more. It’s not easy or “fun,” but it’s profound and moving and difficult. It helps us also become better stewards of our resources because we know what it meant to put meat on a table — more so than just giving someone some money. You form a connection that moves you to care about the meat more, and also how it impacts the land and society’s interactions.  

TM: Can you expand upon the concept of agrarian utilitarianism and why it matters?

ZS: I’m not sure what those terms are: they just sounded fancy so I used them. Hahaha. Just kidding. Being oriented around agrarian methods essentially means to intimately know and interact with the land that surrounds you. Being intimately connected to the land, there is an inherent utility there to produce off the land. It matters because “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse,” according to Herman Daly.

If we pillage the Earth, we will die. If we act with responsible dominion over the Earth, we will flourish.

If we pillage the Earth, we will die. If we act with responsible dominion over the Earth, we will flourish. Currently, it’s backward, with much exploitation and carelessness to say the least. So we must push back against that and do what is good and right regardless of the difficulty.

TM: What are “old world” butchery techniques?

ZS: I’m honestly not completely sure, that is why I want to go to Europe to work under some old butchering folks. That being said, my understanding thus far is doing it all by hand. Using a basic boning knife, carving knife, cleaver, and hand saw. Using these tools, and not an electric bandsaw, forces you to work with a better understanding of the anatomy of the animal. It is a lot more difficult than just sawing through anything, so you need to more adroitly parcel out the animal into more intuitive and natural cuts that resemble the animal and its anatomy more.

Let’s Talk Turkey

TM: How do you pick a good turkey?

ZS: There are a lot of popular terms that have manipulated and contorted, so I stay away from those and lean toward more direct conceptual terms like pastured and animal husbandry. These terms represent good farming practices that have been contorted by media and so forth.

thanksgiving turkey served
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

TM: What is your favorite way to cook a turkey? 

My favorite way is split in half (otherwise known as spatchcocking the turkey) and roasted on a grate over wood coals. This way you get nice charred, crunchy bits on more of the surface area. It also cooks a lot quicker because the heat doesn’t have to penetrate to the center. Brushing it with some type of garlicky, rosemary oil marinade never hurts, either. With the wood coal, you get a nice char and a light smoky flavor.

I know brining is a contested method, but I have found it works quite well. Though you need to brine it for at least three days. None of this 24-hour stuff — that just doesn’t work with how thick the bird is. You need your brine to fully penetrate, which it won’t in a 24-hour brine.

My favorite way is split in half (otherwise known as spatchcocking the turkey) and roasted on a grate over wood coals.

TM: What can you do with Thanksgiving leftovers?

ZS: Eat cranberry sauce, turkey, and stuffing sandwiches until you are blue in the face. So satisfying. Keep a bottle of grappa around to wash that heavy meal down too!

I also like making a curried turkey salad and turkey noodle soup. But let’s get real — make a sandwich, eat it, and be happy!

What is a good alternative meat for Thanksgiving dinner?

ZS: I’d go with a nice tempeh turkey! Such good meat-like texture and they look like a real turkey! Hahaha … just kidding! That shit is dumb! I’d honestly go with a duck or a goose, preferably cooked over a fire.

Learning More About Meat

TM: You encourage vegetarians to attend your butchery classes — a bold decision! Why? What, do you find, is the biggest surprise or takeaway people have after taking one of your classes?

ZS: Bold in comparison to what? I don’t think it’s bold. I think it’s uncommon though. People are hesitant to delve into intimate, probing conversation. I welcome it. It is what encourages critical thinking and good discourse.

everything to know about thanksgiving turkey proletarate zeph shepard proletariate butchery class 2
Proletariat Butchery/Facebook

I’d say vegetarians and my shop have similar principles, but different pragmatic choices. These need to be discussed to have more potential camaraderie. Continuing to polarize society through passivity will not move us forward in a meaningful way so having someone of a potentially different mindset attend a class is a great thing to encourage.

I want all people to also feel welcome in the shop regardless of what they believe. The large takeaway I often try to show people in class is that this is approachable and simple. Something you can do on your own and have access to. In this way, people become more fully human in part of their lives. They go from consumer to producer … this is satisfying and necessary for the betterment of society and the Earth.  

TM: What advice do you have for someone looking to find a butcher like yourself in their hometown?

ZS: Look for [butchers] actively cutting meat. Large pieces of meat, not pre-processed boxed meat. First, inform yourself so you can ask thoughtful questions to be able to discern if they are a worthwhile enterprise or if they are just smoke and mirrors.

TM: Now that you’ve got the turkey sorted out, it’s time to think about the wine, cocktails, and desserts. Oh, and don’t forget the shots.

Article originally published November 7, 2017. Last updated by Sam Slaughter on November 17, 2018.

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