When Marissa Guggiana approached the barn on that Monday morning in Virginia, she could hear the sound of a pig screaming. Inside was the butcher she had been looking for, Joel Salatin, in the messy, squirmy throes of castrating a pig. When he finally noticed Guggiana, he walked over and threw a pair of fresh testicles at her feet, sticking out his hand. She didn't hesitate to shake it.Such are the adventures of one who dedicates a year to researching a book about the act of cutting up animals. After 11,000 miles of driving around the country to meet with 50 butchers, after seeing and slicing and cooking and eating more cow and pig and lamb parts than one can imagine, the Santa Rosa author has delivered the definitive guide to the country's carvers with the new hardcover Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers (Welcome Books; $37.50). What's more, she's come away with an unexpected conclusion."What I got out of it," she says matter-of-factly over lunch at local vegetarian cafe, "is that everyone needs to eat less meat."Such a statement might be surprising to those who know Guggiana from her roles as an editor at Meatpaper magazine and president of meat supplier Sonoma Direct, but the self-described "meat maven" sees eating meat responsibly as imperative to the cause of better food systems. "Beef and pork are so taxing to the environment, and we already eat way more than we need. If we were five-day-a-week vegetarians, we could eat really good meat on the weekends," she says, drizzling dressing on her salad. "You don't have to eat it with every meal."The irony is that Primal Cuts inspires a desire to eat little else. At 287 pages and roughly as weighty as a rack of lamb, housed in a butcher-paper jacket, the book is full of butcher profiles, recipes, tips, philosophies and information along with hundreds of incredible photos. Consider it a primer on the recent butcher-as-rock-star phenomenon, which, like the bacon-on-everything trend, even Guggiana predicts may run its course soon. ("The shark is leaving the water," she deadpans. "It's ready to jump.")
Along with Italy's famed Dario Cecchini, who supplies the book's foreword, and Brooklyn's elevated Tom Mylan, San Francisco—based Chris Cosentino is among the more high-profile butchers in the book, mainly due to his work with offal. Cosentino's ill-fitting role as a Food Network poster boy for the macho meat brigade is downplayed in Primal Cuts.
"It really gets characterized as this fetishistic obsession with eating food that's like a dare, or eating gross things or eating so much meat," Guggiana says, "and I find all that really grotesque. It's not really about that. It's more like, 'Look, there's this whole animal. Let's find ways to use it that are delicious and amazing.' Pig ears—you don't just put 'em on the George Foreman and they're delicious; you have to cook those things for 48 hours before they stop tasting like sewage."
Another San Francisco butcher, Tia Harrison, represents the growing population of female butchers. Guggiana and Harrison have cofounded the Butchers Guild, a network they hope will evolve into a national trade organization for self-taught butchers to learn from each other and to create a direct line from butcher to consumer. Most butchers in Primal Cuts are on board already.
Guggiana already has two more books planned about restaurants and farming, and if the process of writing them is anything like that of Primal Cuts, it'll involve driving up to 600 miles a day, staying in families' farmhouses, waiting for unemployment checks to arrive, going on dates with butchers who turn out to be married ("Ugh. That was lame") and, yes, getting her hands covered in testicular residue."Also," she adds, slowly working on the last of her salad, "trying to convince people that they need to spend more money on good meat. It costs what it costs. Land is expensive, it's expensive to raise these animals, so what's the solution? Eat less of it. That's it."
Marissa Guggiana answers every question you've ever had about meat, and Osteria Stellina's Christian Caiazzo prepares a five-course nose-to-tail meal of local meat and produce on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at Osteria Stellina. 11285 Hwy. 1, Pt. Reyes Station. 7pm. $75. 415.663.1542.