Johanna Kolodny is dedicated to working to change the food system at multiple levels. She has worked with the NYC Greenmarket and Slow Food, and taught undergraduate courses about the food system. A graduate of Williams College, she received her MA in Food Studies from New York University.
On a frigid weekday evening in Boston not too long ago, I arrived at the Garden of Eden Café in the South End to witness an extraordinary event: the butchering of a hindquarter of Hereford Angus beef — locally raised and grass-fed, of course. Presumably, to many this act would evoke distaste or even disgust, but approximately 50 others and I were mesmerized and elated. That had a lot to do with who was putting on the event.
Our host that evening was James Lionette (right). He and his parents, Bob and Mary, and his brother, Robert, own the restaurant as well as the adjacent Lionette’s Market, which has become my home away from home while I live in Cambridge for three months for a job. In New York City, I’ve created a food community and have my usual food haunts. Knowing that I was going to be spending a substantial amount of time in Boston, I made it my business to seek out food shops whose values are in line with mine, and the Lionettes are amazingly focused on supporting all things local and sustainable.
Creating a local Garden of Eden
Both James and his brother started out working in restaurants and bars; his parents got into the food-service industry later in life. After winning several awards, Mary left her gig cooking pastries for a couple of restaurants to take over a small café around 1995, to do her own thing. Just six tables, the old Garden of Eden offered cheese, prepared food, bread, coffee beans, pastries, and cakes. Around 1999, she expanded into the big space it is in now, and the entire family joined her full- or part-time in the endeavor; in 2004 they moved the market into the original space and opened up the dining room to be all seating.
Their move to supporting sustainable food was gradual at first, picking up speed with the birth of Robert's first child, but has become paramount to the market's ethos. "The more I try to source and sell local and sustainable food, the more alarmed I become of how distanced we, as a nation, are from our food, and how ignorant we are to eating, one of the basic means of subsistence," says James. "Really, I am sure half of Boston's population goes months, if not years, without ever eating anything grown in New England."
The Lionettes' menus and shelves rotate based on season and weather. "We buy direct from farms, or through co-ops, or through small distributors who carry local products, and on rare occasion through big purveyors, who have an item or two from local sources," explains James. The non-local items are also carefully sourced; for example, the Sicilian olive oil they carry comes from producers who Bob and Mary met at Slow Food's Terre Madre five years ago.
Sustainable Beef 101
The butchering event was a prime example of these values. In addition to the general public, the attendees included local farmers, Michael Bowen of North Hollow Farm, whose beef was on display, as well as Ridge Shinn and Michael Gowlay of Hardwick Beef. North Hollow Farm is located in the heart of Vermont, near the Green Mountain National Forest, where Bowen raises cattle and pigs, and makes maple-syrup products. The cattle eat nothing that’s not produced on the farm — a tremendous feat, as farmers often don’t grow their own, or grow enough to store, forages (hay and silage – ‘chopped grass’) to sustain their animals through winter. Hardwick Beef, meanwhile, sources its beef from six farms spread throughout Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. All of these farmers care about how their animals are raised and handled, from birth to death, and about being stewards of the land. And that makes me feel better when I’m cutting into a piece of their meat.
I’ve always wanted to get down and dirty with my food. While the event wasn’t hands-on — which would have been even better, but difficult to pull off logistically — it was a bargain at $35, which included an all-local sampler of meat, vegetables, and grains to kick off the evening. (I was sad to learn that I had missed the “Art of Butchering a Pig” event the week before I arrived in Boston)
Adam Tiberio, the meatcutter, dazzled us with his precise, cat-like movements, knowing by sight and touch where exactly to insert his blade into the carcass. Adam works for Lionette’s Market, handling its meatcutting and charcuterie, as well as at Lemay and Sons Beef, a small slaughterhouse, in Goffstown, New Hampshire. He oriented his body around the carcass’s angles like a contortionist in order to dissect it efficiently with hook and blade. (That's him, far right.) I can only imagine how fast he slices and dices usually, given the speed he managed while fielding questions from the crowd with the help of the farmers. While the farmers answered questions about, say, the effects of an animal’s diet on the meat’s nutritional value — grass-fed meat is both lower in fat and calories, higher in omega-3 fatty acids, and higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as well as vitamin E — Adam talked about BSE (aka "mad cow disease") and what he must do to each carcass in order to protect consumers from it. Workers on the kill floor are responsible for removing the spinal cord, which is where BSE is found. He must then carefully knock the whole backbone off, which is barely past the column. All of this work requires attention to detail as the law states that the spinal cord cannot be cut.
Adam was extremely eloquent and knowledgeable about not only how to break down the carcass but also cultural differences in butchering — for example, in Brazil, they break the rib between the 12th and 13th rib while in the U.S. they break the rib between the 4th and 5th — as well as the flavors of the different cuts and how to cook them. He encouraged us to think about how an animal uses its different body parts and then how that level of activity imparts flavor to them. For example, he explained that chuck meat, which comes from the shoulder, is heavily worked and hence deeply oxygenated, thus requiring a long cooking time. This cut has a much deeper flavor than the tenderloin, which is not a heavily worked body part. Adam said he actually doesn’t think the tenderloin is that flavorful.
Adam also described the distinct differences between a grass-fed carcass and a grain-fed one. The latter would have a grotesquely thick layer of yellow fat overlying the muscle while the former has almost no fat, and what fat there is much more dispersed. Later, he pointed out that the USDA's current system of grading is set up so that the more fat marbling, the higher the grading — which shuts out grass-fed meat — and that fat weight adds profit to the hanging weight, which is the point at which the farmer is paid. But of course, eating more fat and less muscle do not make for good consumer physical or fiscal health.
The Lionette family, staff, the farmers, and Adam put on a great event, one I wish could be replicated throughout the country for a number of reasons. It brought me and the other attendees one step closer to our food, and having the farmers and Adam there gave us a chance to learn even more about it. When we buy our meat it is usually precut into specific cuts. Such an event allows one to see that many parts equal a whole — whether it is how muscles link together to equal an animal, or how conscientious sourcing contributes one link in a stronger food chain.
For Boston-area residents: Mary and Bob are retiring, and the family’s current initiative is to merge Lionette’s and the Garden of Eden into a single storefront. It will be supported by an innovative business plan that will apply the principles of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program to create a community-supported market (CSM). They are currently selling “shares” in this venture to interested investors. E-mail lion...@gmail.com.