With dreadlocks and a tattoo on his arm, Jamal Bedeau stands at the chopping block at Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meat Market in Park Slope, Brooklyn, delicately slicing a thick slab of beef. The 31-year old didn't have any butchers in his family, but says he raised animals as a kid in his native Trinidad and that carving up whole animals, the way they do at Fleisher's is also the way it's done in the Caribbean.
Working as a butcher since he was 23, he says he "loves his job" in part because it satisfies a creative impulse.
"It's artistic destruction," he says. "Taking apart something and making it pretty again."
Fleisher's manager Caleb Murrah, a former chef with pierce marks on his face, says part of what drew him to the profession was getting to interact with the customers he serves, unlike working in the kitchen.
Jamal and Caleb are both part of a new generation who are reviving an old craft.
Once a blue-collar profession that was often passed on from father to son, many of the new butchers of today are a younger hipper breed who adhere to the ethos of environmental sustainability and humane slaughtering practices.
"It's not that we are hipsters," says Bedeau. "It's just that the times have changed. I'm a gamer, I am a father and I'm a butcher."
He says people want to have a personal connection to the butcher and are now more conscious of where their meat comes from and how the animal was raised.
For instance, Fleisher's only sells locally-grown pastured meat with no antibiotics or growth hormones. They also offers a training program for people who want to learn the trade of sustainable butchery.
Fleisher's was featured in Suzanne Wasserman's documentary Meat Hooked!, which looks at the rise and fall and rise again of butchery in America.
Wasserman, a social historian, traces the history of butchery back 200 years and follows several butchers throughout her film, including Josh and Jessica Applestone who own Fleisher's.
"These butchers that we looked at in my film, they were all doing other things. They were working in finance and they were working in other professions," says Wasserman. "But they went back and they decided they wanted to work with their hands, they wanted to work on farms, or they wanted to work with doing something that was more meaningful to them."
Josh Applestone was a chef and his wife Jessica was a server and both were vegetarian. They wanted to reincorporate meat into their diet, but didn't want to eat the shrink-wrapped mystery meat offered at the supermarket. So they opened their first shop in Kingston, N.Y. as "an old-fashioned butcher shop offering meat sourced locally, free of hormones or antibiotics, and full of real farm flavor."
On the Meat Hooked! website, Wasserman explains the resurgence of butchery as part of a trend "to go back to a seemingly more authentic time and place, to a time when a sense of place was concrete, not virtual." She says "butchers, butcher shops and butchering fit into that acute yearning. It allows the consumer to have more of a sense of control over what we eat and a face to face experience with the butcher."
One of the more memorable and visceral scenes in the documentary is a pig slaughter. In a culture which often denies that eating meat involves killing animals, Wasserman says it's important for people to see the way it is done.
The film shows the entire process from farm to table.
Not everyone agrees that organic meat production is as environmentally sustainable as its advocates claim. In a New York Times op-ed from April 2012, James McWilliams writes :
Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country's land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rainforest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.
Another issue is cost. Organic meat is about 15 percent more than what you pay at the grocery store, though Fleisher's butcher Jamal Bedeau says that's a fair price for the quality of the meat.
But for those of us who want to continue eating meat and would still rather go for a more sustainable option than industrialized meat products, food expert Michael Pollan offers a solution: eat less meat.
Wasserman agrees. "Pay a little more for it, eat less. It's better for the environment, it's better for the animals, and it's better for us personally."