Marissa Guggiana, Tia Harrison / March 11th, 2013
An ingredient often inspires a dish. You may start from a recipe or a tradition, but you could just as easily begin from a black radish or the realization that fava season has begun, and will quickly end. In butchery, each country, region, and culture has different ways of breaking down a carcass, and this process can dramatically change the way a piece of meat is viewed. Mexican meat markets often cut to order; only a lightly populated meat case and a few carcasses hanging can be seen upon entering. (Using less refrigeration ensures that the meat lasts longer.)
Since less perusing is possible, a conversation is the best way to learn what the Mexican butcher has to offer. In the spirit of a cross-cultural open market chat, we would like to introduce you to Oscar Yedra, who we recently sat down with for an interview at Canyon Market in San Francisco. Yedra was raised by a family of butchers in Mexico City. His parents, aunts, and siblings are all involved in the meat business. Oscar’s father would take him to examine carcasses when he was a boy, and teach him to ascertain the right shade of pink and give to the texture that would ensure a fantastic meal for their customers. Being a butcher meant not just cutting the meat, but selecting the carcasses, bringing them to the shop, and then doing the daily work of selling.
Yedra, a Butcher’s Guild member and Eat Real Festival Flying Knives Steer Butcher champion (that’s a mouthful!), is a bit of a butcher celebrity in the United States He appears in the new addition of Primal Cuts: Cooking With America’s Best Butchers, and has worked with Bill Niman for many years and helped make his Niman Ranch the great success it has become. Yedra has transformed many other retail and wholesale meat businesses with his keen understanding of butchery, as a craft and as a business. He uses his knowledge of Mexican and U.S. butchery to offer the best cuts to his customers at Canyon Market.
BG: How does Mexican butchery differ from butchery in the U.S.?
Utilization of the whole animal is new here. When I started butchering in the early 1980s, we never wasted any of the animal, including the skin, head, and foot.
The breaking down of the carcass in Mexico is done by separating each muscle at the seam. In the U.S., the primals are broken into sections of muscles.
BG: How does cuisine affect how Mexican butchers cut?
Cooking styles in Mexico are very different, as well, partially because the meat cuts in Mexico are often thinner in order to combine them with dishes. For instance, a thin layer of beef is used on top of chilaquiles. This makes meat stretch farther, to feed more people.
Some cuts that are deboned in the U.S. are not in Mexico. Carne para caldo (beef soup) is made with bone-in brisket, bone-in chuck, and other muscles. Ground beef is rarely made into all-beef patties in Mexico—it’s often mixed with other ingredients.
The first step in butchering in Mexico is to clean all the meat from the bones until they are white; we were trained to never waste any part of the animal. The scrapings would be used for ground beef. We learned to break down the carcass by hand, without using any electric equipment. Since everything was deboned, we didn’t need a band saw.
BG: Do Mexican consumers still buy from butchers, as opposed to shopping for packaged meat in grocery cases, like most Americans?
Most people go to their local butcher shops in Mexico, where they often have a relationship with their butcher, whom they buy from fresh every day.
BG: What Mexican meat cuts do you miss seeing?
The cuts I miss seeing are haujas para azar, which is “part of the plate” meat (after you remove plate short ribs, the remainder of the plate is cut into slices, which are a half-inch or thinner, along the bone, and then tenderized with a mallet to cook on a grill). Also suadero, which is the skin that runs from the plate through the outside of the flank steak, used for tacos. Another cut I love using is espinazo de puerco, which is the entire spine of the pork from the neck to the tail.
Tia Harrison and Marissa Guggiana are co-founders of The Butcher’s Guild, a "fraternity of meat professionals" based in San Francisco.