The Ethics of Beasts and Burdens


Photography by Jason Kaplan

You might notice something missing in Zeph Shephard’s modest butchery in Northeast Portland. His lacks a traditional meat counter. Instead, he butchers with vintage knives on handmade cutting boards.

The founder of Proletariat Butchery, Shephard believes in a revival of Old Country agrarian meat slaughtering, carving and preservation practices. His “nose-to-tail” approach utilizes the whole animal; it’s about honoring the life of the beast as much as it is about taste and frugality.

Unsurprisingly, he sounds sort of like a plainspoken philosopher when he talks about his craft. When asked to name his culinary influences, he cites back-to-nature writers such as Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau as well as legendary chef Julia Child.

Yes — it may seem contrary that a butcher who values a country approach would set up shop in the city. Yet this accessibility allows Shephard to expose his ideals of utilitarian stewardship to Portland’s hungry population. Come to him for cut-to-order meats and sign-up for one of his intimate classes, where you can learn to make sausage, do a duck press and cook on a wood fire.

He wants to teach you how to taste the country — both the beast and its burden.

How do integrity and ethics inform your approach to butchery?
My overarching goal is to create pieces of meat that are functional, that also look good, that people will see are an animal and think are beautiful … I am really into leaving bones in the meat. I always want to kind of make meat resemble what it once was — part of a bigger system. It helps people understand that it was once a living, breathing thing.

What is the ecological impact of using the whole animal?
We see [the meat industry] as this linear economic commodity. I want to take people out of that mind-set, and I want to put people into a more comprehensive mind-set. I want people to see meat as [something] that was once a living animal, not just a commodity. We have stewardship over the food chain. And we have dominion over the earth.

Your methods have been described as French butchery, as opposed to American butchery. What is the difference? Why do you maintain these French methods in approaching your craft?
I don’t adhere to one form or style of butchery. It depends on what the client wants. The French [way] is whole muscles, leaving the skin on. I also like the Spanish style, which I’m digging into. The American way is more of a cross-section style of each of the muscles — a boneless, skinless type, which I try to go away from [because I think it eliminates our sense of stewardship]. So, yeah. It’s “Frenchie” — I like “Frenchie” seasonings. My apprenticeship [with Brandon Sheard at Sea Breeze Farm at Vashon Island, Washington] was French-oriented, but I would not say that is how I distinctly cut my meat. I get to have a freer mind to explore these things.

Click here for Shephard’s Classic Winter Beef Stew and Homemade Beef Broth recipes.

BONUS: Watch Zeph make his bone broth.