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Tom Mylan on The Craft of Butchering

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We're sitting down with butcher, cookbook nerd, and burrito lover Tom Mylan to talk about his new book -- which you could win!

  Tom Mylan on Food52  The Meat Hook on Food52

Tom Mylan's cookbook The Meat Hook Meat Book is not for the faint of heart. It addresses hot-button issues like animal slaughter, and uses terms like "hot weight" and "chine bone" -- as well as a few choice four-letter words. There is talk of a drink called the "Bear Hunt" and detailed, intricate photos illustrating how to break down various animals. Even if you're not going to butcher a cow carcass in your kitchen, Tom wants you to understand the process regardless. He also shares tips for choosing the best meat, and recipes for every part of the animal -- from fried beef kidney to ramen broth to the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.

Tom opened The Meat Hook in 2009 because he thought that people didn't know about good meat -- meat raised with care by small-time farmers -- and they certainly weren't eating it. Not enough, anyway. What resulted was not only a shop that sold really, really good meat (and had some pretty significant drinking contests along the way); it was also a small, but significant, way to shift how people thought about the food on their plates.

More: Meat and grilling go hand in hand -- check out our favorite tips for a superior barbecue, then hit up your butcher. 

Our Best Grilling Tips on Food52

Prior to opening up the carnivorous haven that is The Meat Hook, you had been a vegetarian. What prompted this dramatic switch?
I was a vegetarian for three years because I didn't want to eat meat from animals that were badly treated and pumped full of drugs and antibiotics. At the time, I was totally ignorant of the alternatives to industrial food, like farmers markets and the local food movement. When I moved to New York, I was like, "Wait! You can buy meat from the guy who actually raised the animal? Yes, please!" Sure, the meat was more expensive than what you’d find in the grocery store, but it tasted so much better -- and I could eat it with a good conscience. I had really missed eating meat! 

If you could eat only one animal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Beef. I would miss pork, but 100% grass-fed beef is a flavor you cannot replace. I wouldn't be able to go on without it. I'd die, or be very depressed.

More: Once you get your hands on some high-quality meat, make sure you store it right.

Meat on Food52

Which offal cut would you recommend for nose-to-tail novices?
Beef heart. If you marinate it overnight and then grill it, it tastes like the best steak you've ever eaten. 

You guys seem to have a pretty raucous time at the Meat Hook. Is it hard to balance off-the-wall shenanigans with serious (and potentially dangerous) work?
Butchering is not for stupid people or for people who don't know their limits. If you're a spaz, you need not apply, because you'll most likely cut off your fingers or bury a knife in your belly. You have to think very clearly about what you're doing, or you're going to get hurt. I guess the short answer is that you have to be able to handle your shenanigans!

What's your death row meal?
A 99-cent bean and cheese burrito from Del Taco with extra cheese and extra green sauce. Two of them. And an ice-cold root beer.

More: Do you have a sudden craving for a burrito? Here's how to make it happen, in only 5 steps.

Burrito Not Recipes on Food52

How did you go about learning the butchering trade? What was the most difficult part?
Basically, I was drafted. No one wanted to be the butcher where I was working, and without a butcher, we couldn't get local meat. Back when I learned to cut meat, butchering was not "cool" like it is now: It was a tough job that nobody wanted, like being a prep guy.

The biggest challenge of becoming a butcher was learning the technique. That sounds stupid, but there was very, very little information out there about butchering whole animal carcasses. I had to become a detective of sorts, trolling eBay for old books and going deep into YouTube rabbit holes to pick up a well-rounded skill set. Looking back, it actually seems pretty fun, but at the time it was extremely frustrating.

Who are your favorite cookbook authors?
That's a hard one! I really love Kenny Shopsin. Robb Walsh’s Tex-Mex cookbook is also awesome. Paul Bertolli's cookbooks changed my life. Lately, I've been really into cookbooks from classic restaurants like Rao's, The Palm, Grand Central Oyster Bar -- that kind of thing. I think it’s a shame that those kinds of places aren't opening anymore. Who knows, maybe they’ll make a comeback, just like butchering has. I hope so!

We're giving away a copy of The Meat Hook Meat Book! Comment below with your favorite carniverous meal -- we'll choose a winner at the end of the week!

Photo of Tom Mylan by Michael Harlan Turkell, all other photos by James Ransom.

Tags: Pork, Steak, Lists, Interviews