Our usually meat-eschewing food editor proves she’s got the chops for the job by getting acquainted with some dead animals.
People often presume that because I don’t eat meat, the thought of others eating it must horrify me. Anything from munching a ham sandwich in my presence to simply mentioning the nice steak they had for dinner last night is swiftly followed by embarrassed apologies.
I reassure them that it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t eat meat (I do eat fish, so really I’m a pescatarian, but that didn’t sound as good in the headline), but it’s not due to any great ethical conviction or because it grosses me out. I can’t offer a simple explanation for it because I genuinely don’t have one — I just don’t fancy eating meat, so I never really have.
Though that’s not quite true. As a child, I did eat meat, but was not a fan of anything with bones, sinew, gristle and the like. Basically, I didn’t mind the whitest chicken breast, or anything highly processed to the point it was no longer really recognisable as meat.
Cheese sizzlers were a favourite, for example. Which brings me to my day of meat.
I was invited to attend a butcher bootcamp with 2017 Alto Butcher of the Year Reuben Sharples, who runs Aussie Butcher in New Lynn, West Auckland. It was in the lead-up to Sharples handing over his crown (apron? cleaver?) to the 2018 winner, who would be chosen in the coming days (Riki Kerekere from Countdown Meat & Seafood took out this year’s competition, which was held on Thursday).
“Aha!” I thought to myself on receiving the invitation. “This will show my doubters.” It may seem hard to believe, dear readers, but there are some folk out there who question my ability to be a food editor because of my dietary requirements. Getting amongst some MEAT would show those naysayers that I am hardcore.
The first task would be developing my own sausages, so in the lead-up to meat day I crowdsourced flavour ideas. “Make a fancy cheese sizzler,” suggested my sister. “A fizzler, if you will.”
It was a great idea, I had to admit – a nostalgic nod to my childhood. So the fizzler was born.
I arrived at bootcamp HQ (the seafood school at Auckland Fish Market, where cooking classes are held) and was introduced to Sharples, who was to be my meat sensei of sorts. Pleasingly, he seemed entirely unfazed by my pescatarianism (at first he thought I said I was a pestatarian, which gave me a great idea for a story to delegate to an unsuspecting Spinoff staffer — possum pie, anyone?)
Anyway, once decked out in apron and cap, I proceeded to the flavour table where I had an array of herbs, spices and other ingredients at my disposal. After briefly flirting with the idea of a simple, sophisticated pork and fennel sausage, I glimpsed a block of Tasty cheese. It had to be the fizzler.
Sharples suggested adding jalapeños as well as cheese to make an American barbecue-style sausage, and I was sold. We decided to chuck some smoked paprika in too and though it didn’t really go, sage, mainly because I have a sage tattoo on my arm. This was set to be a real fusion fizzler.
Sharples had boned out a leg of Freedom Farms pork and minced it coarsely already, adding some pork back fat too, so my first job was to grate and cube some cheese, chop the jalapeños and sage, then chuck it all in and mix the bugger up with my hands.
I never really touch meat (because I am a selfish cook who only makes dishes I will eat myself), but it didn’t feel gross. It felt kinda good, to be honest.
Then shit got real. Sharples brought out the sausage-filling machine and the casing, made from a very long, collagen-rich layer of pig intestine. It kind of looked like a giant bunched up condom. It was fascinating. I loaded up the machine with the fizzler filling and threaded the casing on, fearing I might break it, but Sharples assured me that gut casings are much tougher than the artificial ones.
Then, with some help (OK, quite a lot of help) from my teacher, I filled the casing, winding the handle with one hand and gently keeping my other hand on the sausage as I filled it. In an incredible display of self-control, I did not make a single inappropriate joke.
No one uses these manual machines in a commercial setting any more, says Sharples — why would you when an automatic one can push out 120 snags per minute — but I found the process therapeutic.
Once the casing was filled, we were left with a single long sausage, so it was linking time. This was a little tricky but I soon got the hang of it — loop it, twist it, wrap it in. Again, therapeutic.
When it was all done, I felt elated. I had made sausages! Me! Sausages! What a thrill. I was the sausage queen.
But my meaty endeavours weren’t over yet. Now it was time to tackle a leg of lamb.
I thought this might be a more confronting task, as there would be bones and gristle and gross stuff like that, but as soon as Sharples said “hold your knife like you’re going to kill someone”, I was 100% on board.
Step by step, he showed me what to do and I followed, first removing the aitchbone. Slicing through meat felt kinda good too — satisfying on a deeply primal, slightly disturbing level. Also, compared to chopping up a pumpkin or similar, it was easy AF.
I think squeamish meat eaters may have struggled more with the process, but because I wasn’t really thinking about the hunk of meat in front of me as food, I was sweet. It was like dissection, or perhaps surgery, an analogy helped along by my teacher saying things like: “When you do hip replacements, that’s what they cut off — that’s your hip joint.”
Next we removed the shank and butterflied out the leg. “You’re a natural,” said Sharples. I could only agree.
Before I went on my merry way, taking my sausages and lamb leg with me to donate to carnivorous colleagues, friends and family, we cooked up a couple of snags for the expert to try. They split in the pan, which Sharples said we’d get penalised for if this was a sausage competition, but it wasn’t our fault — it happens when the sausages are very fresh and the pan is too hot. He cut off a slice and chewed thoughtfully for a few seconds, before announcing that they were a bit dry — his fault, this time, for not adding enough fat to the pork.
But the flavour was good, and the perhaps less discerning but honest recipients of the remaining sausages were fulsome in their praise. “Very good sausage,” said one. “Spectacular,” commented another.
No, I was not tempted to taste them myself, but I’d jump back on the end of that sausage machine without hesitation. And hopefully I have made some progress in proving to people that if I can bone a leg of lamb like it ain’t no thing, my delicate sensibilities can handle them eating a ham sandwich in front of me.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.