The triumphant return of the sun has come and Portlandians all over the city are firing up backyard bar-be-cues, hosting countless dinner parties, potlucks and grilling every night of the week the weather will allow. As you do. Enter stage right Proletariat Butchery. I want everyone to know about this guy and his special little butcher shop.
A couple of months ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Zeph Shepard, owner and proprietor of a unique take on the modern old-world butcher’s shop. For starters, Zeph brings his philosophy/sociology background into his biz as an everyday knife-gripping butcher. Ahem. As you do. You’ll also have to ask him for the story of how he convinced the health department to let him keep his wooden tables and chopping block (when stainless, for obvious reasons, is the industry standard). There is an alluring mystique that hovers around this guy like the scent of cooking bacon, let me tell you. Along with all the artisanal meat processing hallmarks you never knew you didn’t remember. Charming, well dressed, and most importantly, a truly infectious enthusiasm for his corner of the food revolution. The fuel that propels him through his tireless educational and DIY classes schedule and those long days elbow-deep in animal.
Irish stock, Boston native, Shepard grew up humble in a frugal blue collar family surrounded, always, by home-cooking. One taste of anything this dude makes and that will be glaringly obvious — in no time you’ll be scratching at the door for more like a kitty cat in no time. Meow. Trust me. Turned off by the incredible amounts of waste he was witnessing while working within the traditional retail butchery model, Shepard broke away and opened the first iteration of Proletariat Butchery in a commissary kitchen space in 2013.
He wanted a venue to help people understand more what comes from the Earth; the intrinsic value of all parts of livestock. As boots on the ground he spends a lot of time processing small farm direct 1/2 and 1/4 carcasses, as well as how to use every part of the buffalo, as it were. He refers to this forgotten knowledge as “home economy”. Here’s the really exciting part: in an effort to de-commoditize these animals, Shepard charges a flat rate for all of his meat. Everything is $6.50. Bones, fat, NY strip, pork belly. All of it. And you’d love to order some prosciutto? Coppa? Great! Place your order today and come back in 6 months.
“I’m not here to promote a typical instant gratification kind of commercialism. I want to encourage people to engage in long-term thinking and planning.” I gawked at first, and maybe it was the opera playing over the speakers, but then, it seemed revolutionary. Righteous, even.
“This model of consumerism strips us of a certain level of humanity not possible without that level of home economy,” sayeth Shepard of the modern commercial meat industry. And so the philosopher steps up to the woodblock. He speaks almost incessantly about this essential level engagement on behalf of the consumer with the product they purchase. Of the “burden of responsibility” that falls on our shoulders to educate ourselves and translate as much of the animal into consumable food product as possible. This is how we, as modern consumers, have an opportunity to acknowledge — to fundamentally show respect for — the life that has been taken to nourish our own. Zeph won’t even cut his bacon or cured meats for his customers. He feels this would be robbing the consumer of their due diligent hands-on with the whole version of the animal. I got a little wide-eyed on that one. Well, okay Zeph. I’ll just do it myself then. A true holistic thinker, this one.
As much a filling a practical niche in the growing market for sustainably sourced local meats, it seems Shepard is extremely empowered by the social service he offers to his customers as a bridge to a lost lineage of knowledge. Techniques that were once commonplace and found in nearly every household, that have been unable to keep pace with the frenzied speed and technology of modern lifestyles. Like me at the Portland Marathon, slowly trailing off into a foggy obscurity..
That is, until now. If you are reading this, you likely know that there is a renaissance in food occurring in our midst. Heirloom breeding, salt preserving, handmade gourmet sausages, pates, as well as all manner of charcuterie seem to be rising like stars in so many popular restaurants. And more like North Stars in others. Shepard wants to empower the home cook with the tools to make these regular household names again.
My boyfriend and I attended his Bacon Curing class and seriously had the best time. I cook constantly, but meat is an area I have never had a ton of confidence. And curing my own bacon? Never even crossed my mind. And there I stood bravely spanking slabs of pork belly, drinking beer, laughing, connecting, and eating Zeph’s otherworldly sausages while he cantillates about the fine philosophical points of evolving meat consumption paradigms. And most importantly bonding. Over food. What it all comes down to. Proudly digging in with both hands to become more engaged, educated citizens and taking a couple of delicious steps to close the gap a little farther between the farmer, the butcher, and the consumer.
If you’d like to find out more information on Proletariat Butchery products, services, and classes visit www.proletariatbutchery.com or @proletariatmeat on Instagram.
Shannon Sims is a Holistic Health Coach based out of Portland, Oregon. Shannon’s work cycles between creating luscious seasonal catering spreads for small events and retreats and building her practice as a self-titled “Food Solutionist for Busy People” for her clients as a health coach and healing artist. Connect with her and blog at www.foodartlove.com and FoodArtLove (fb) or @loveshovel on Instagram.