11 Reasons Why Being a Butcher is WAY Harder Than You Think

Butcher's counter
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Pork chop stickers
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1. In Australia, they have to learn a secret language 

It's called “rechtub klat," and it mainly exists to talk smack about the customers privately, while still right in front of them. It's sort of like Pig Latin, in that you just reverse the lettering of a word and speak it backwards. While in the day there were a lot of fluent rechtub klat speakers, these days most just have a working vocabulary of 40 or 50 essential words (mostly insults, because Australia).

Side of meat being carved
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2. One mistake could mean losing an entire cut

"Being a butcher has a very steep learning curve," says David Zarling, a veteran butcher at Rain Shadow Meats LLC in Seattle. "If you're chiming* a rack of lamb with a ham saw, you have to go through bone that’s less than an 8th of an inch. Now if you cut towards that bone just a little too much, and it snaps, you're done, you loose the whole rack of lamb." And some customer having a very sad Christmas. 

*Zarling says "chiming," apparently slang for "Frenching" a rack of lamb, which is to strip away the meat, fat, and tough connective tissues that tie the rib bones to the flesh.

Meat in a freezer
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3. Butchers have to know the science of temperature and aging 

Because it impacts the meat's flavor. For example, a "soft freeze" is considered around 23 °F, but that's much colder than you'd keep a steak meant to age (around 34 °F). To age meat is to let its own enzymes break down the meat, a natural chemical reaction that enriches the flavor. A butcher has to treat every cut of meat as a dynamic thing, which, as it's always decomposing, it is.

Cows in a field
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4. Some butchers take a cradle-to-grave approach 

Joe Bichelmeyer of Bichelmeyer Meats Butcher Shop in Kansas City is lucky: "We’re cattle ranchers; we work very closely with the people who finish the livestock. We can control the start of our product, from start to end," he says. What he means is, unlike other butchers, who he refers to as "just meat-cutters," he and his crew work as the cattle ranchers, operate the slaughter house, and prep the meat.

Meat being inspected
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5. Once meat is butchered, it demands eagle-eye inspection 

All meat is aged, in that you're not chewing on a live cow right now. But when a butcher is selling "aged" steaks it means cuts left in a special cooler at a temperature from 30-35 degrees. The meat loses a substantial amount of water while it sits, which enhances the flavor (and is why some distinguish this process as "dry aging"). But while the flavor is enhanced, mold and bacteria also form on the outer layers of the beef, which must be cut off and thrown away.

Closeup of butcher counter
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6. Losing fingers definitely happens

One meat-slinger witnessed one of his coworkers, an old pro, get too comfortable, and slice four of his fingers off with a single deft gesture. "At least we had plenty of ice," he says. (The guy had his fingers successfully reattached.)

Meat display
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7. They stay up-to-date on the food trends 

Before Mahi-mahi was mass-marketed to a seafood-hungry American public, it was always called dolphinfish (and still is by particularly salty/crusty Florida fishermen). Nowadays, a customer might come in asking for what they've heard is a leaner option, bison steak. Whatever latest cut featured in a foodie nerd magazine? These guys needs to know it.

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8. Including "exotics"

The global demand for meat continues to rise, translation: more and more US butchers are being asked to supply exotic meat. "I think it's fueled by the globalization of protein... and people are more health-conscious than they've ever been," says David Shell, manager at The Butcher’s Block in Bloomington, Illinois. When your customers want new meat, that means new considerations. "The skin actually has more value than the meat," notes Shell. See, they know that stuff.

Packaged meat
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9. They have to know 40 ways to cut slice up a cow

That's how many different cuts there are on Bessie, at least. And that's just in America. Cut styles and names vary around the world.

Meat aisle
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10. They don't make a ton of money

The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs their hourly wage at $13.70 an hour. That's three bucks less than the dental assistant who you see way less often and doesn't give you delicious meat.

Meat being carved
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11. There's definitely an on-the-job hierarchy

Nearly every butcher will tell you the same thing: conservatively, it takes at least a year of dutiful apprenticeship before you can start handling things on your own. "New guys are called meatheads or boneheads," says Zarling. But he emphasizes that a good butcher is always a student of their craft; since butchers tend to be a tough-looking lot with a gritty job, it's easy to overlook how much consideration and experience informs their work. So maybe don't sigh quite so deeply when your ticket number isn't next, yeah?