A butchery demo by Kari Underly is like an improv comedy sketch. At Cane Creek Farm in Graham on Sunday, she rolls with the shouts and whispers from the crowd while sawing through a whole lamb.
Underly, a master butcher from Chicago, is famed for honing her third-generation skills and earning a James Beard Award nomination for her 2012 book, The Art of Beef Cutting. She's also credited with developing the flatiron steak. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association hired her in 2002 to figure out how to make the most of a cow to boost profits, although the man for whom she consulted tends to take credit for that "discovery."
Slicing out a flatiron cut in less than five seconds, Underly explains how, early in her career, men told her that she worked for them and that her ideas were theirs. She dangles the meat high above her head.
"If all he's got is this little piece of meat, then just take it," Underly says, her wry smile exploding into a sardonic laugh. The women seated before her in rows of folding chairs—all meat-industry workers—clap and laugh at this all-too-familiar struggle, delighting in a shared jibe at the patriarchy.
They've come to Orange County from all over the country to attend the third Women Working in the Meat Business Conference, sponsored by NC Choices in Raleigh. WWMB began as a small conference, in 2013, with around thirty attendees. This year's gathering included seventy registered participants, with at least a dozen more speakers, consultants, and volunteers. It was the first of its kind, says coordinator Sarah Blacklin. It grew out of a women's session at NC Choices' annual Carolina Meat Conference.
"It has inspired similar programming in New England, California, New York, and now the newest Women in Meat Northeast in Boston, which are just a few examples of this growing national trend," Blacklin says. She confirms that about 65 percent of the attendees are meat farmers, and 15 percent are butchers or own butcher shops.
Judging from the chatter on Sunday, the conference's first of three days, women were there to learn from the experts.
"I work at a butchery in Asheville, but I'm still a counter girl," I overheard one woman say. Heather Thomason, owner and butcher at Primal Supply Meats in Philadelphia, is attending WWMB for the first time. When she wanted to apprentice in New York a few years ago, no one would take her up.
"There's not a lot of resources for us [up north]," she says. "I'm kind of jealous of what you guys have." Blacklin attributes resources like her program to North Carolina's leading role in the local food and agriculture movement sweeping the country. Since the 1970s, the number of women farmers has doubled nationally. But that increase is not happening evenly across the country.
"The increase is happening in areas where local food is also on the rise, primarily in urban areas with access to rural farmland," says Blacklin. "Local foods provide new entrepreneurial opportunities for women to enter, innovate, and lead rather than swim upstream against gendered stereotypes in established farm professions. This is especially true for North Carolina, with the rise of urban, food, and university centers in close proximity to ample rural farm land with the ideal climate for raising pastured meat."
According to the latest U.S. Census data, women in North Carolina are entering the local meat business at a rate well above the national average. At least 30 percent of meat farms involve a female operator in North Carolina, twice as many as we find nationally. In more urban areas, women are entering farming at a much higher rate than men. While statistics for butchers aren't as clearly defined, Underly says that most female butchers also own their businesses.
Chiara Gledhill hopes to one day take over her family farm, Windy Hill Farm in Cedar Grove, with her husband. It started as a hobby for her father. He, and now she, pasture-raise cattle and other livestock.
"It's a weird industry to be a part of as a woman, and I'm conscious of it sometimes," she says. "Listening to men talk at cattle gatherings is really exhausting. I say that also realizing that my dad is my driving inspiration and has been for so many years. But listening to ladies talk about it, it's much more something that I can relate to."
Gledhill, like most farmers, is still trying to figure out how to make farming a lucrative, or at least sustainable, full-time job. The conference also offered presentations on the economics of sustainability.
Underly moves on to the next animal: a tougher mutton that she slips her knife into with both brute force and finesse. In a male-dominated profession, the women who cut meat do so in a way that maintains a vibe of nurturing and care.
She anchors her elbow, using her other arm to twist the animal's leg "where the saddle dips visually." Holding the sheep's leg in one pink-gloved hand, she mentally catches up to a joke she started earlier but never finished.
"You know why I wear these pink gloves? Guys don't steal a pink glove," she says. The amused crowd erupts into laughter again. And Underly ends her demo right there, dropping the knife like a mic: "We're out!"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cutting Edge"