Elle Wolfe and Sunny Sanchez often find raw meat in their hair. It’s not uncommon for Wolfe to spot a chunk of bright-pink beef in Sanchez’s long black-and-bleached ombré ponytail; when she does, she reaches over to pluck it out before casually flicking it to the floor.
Once, as Wolfe rode the subway home after a long day’s work, she let her hair down and “a clump of ground beef fell out,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘Oh, good, nobody saw!’ But there was this teeny skateboarder kid in the corner of the train, totally freaked out, just staring, like a chunk of my brain had just fallen out of my head.”
Neither Wolfe nor Sanchez, 24 and 28 respectively, is squeamish. As butchers at Williamsburg’s The Meat Hook, they frequently find smears of blood across their necks or shoulders. Like war-painted soldiers, they heave hulks of beef and pig larger than their own torsos across the bright corner butcher shop, casually deploying knives and band saws to carve through twelve inches of muscle, sinew, and bone.
But “lady butchers”— an unwelcome term foisted on them by some media and customers — these women are not. Wolfe and Sanchez have no tolerance for the attendant assumption that they are either tomboys or lesbians (they are neither). Nor do they take well to comments about the incongruity of lipstick and butchery, or when a customer — rare, but it happens — looks over their heads to address a male butcher in the room. The same goes for jokes about how “dangerous” they must be.
“When I’m hanging out with my boyfriend and someone finds out what I do, they’re like, ‘Ooh, don’t make her mad,’ ” Wolfe says. “How about you just not make me mad because it’s a shitty thing to do?” They can see the funny side, though — especially when men, wanting to appear knowledgeable, over-order at the counter. “There’s this idea that by eating a lot of meat or knowing a lot about meat you’re going to impress us, but that’s not what we’re here for,” says Wolfe. “Yeah,” Sanchez jokes, ” ‘Can you cut me a rib eye, three inches thick?’ ”
Mostly, the comments Wolfe and Sanchez inevitably receive while hoisting hunks of meat inspire backroom mockery. “The whole time I’m cutting chickens? I have a vagina,” laughs Sanchez. “And when I’m grinding beef in the meat grinder? Believe it or not, there’s a vagina down there the whole time.”
Gender aside, neither is a stereotypical butcher. Sanchez grew up mostly vegan in California, “eating rice cheese, amaranth flakes, and a lot of avocados,” she says. She wanted to work with food and, after starting in cheese, wound up at the counter of Lindy and Grundy in Los Angeles, where she fell in love with butchery and “the visceral experience of touching food, seeing what it looks like and where it comes from.” Wolfe, meanwhile, fell into butchery while earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish in Colorado, where she’s from. Both had part-time jobs at meat shops before moving to New York to pursue full-time butchery.
At The Meat Hook, a whole-animal shop specializing in pasture-fed meat from family-owned New York farms, Wolfe and Sanchez found an appreciation for intense, hands-on work and the desire to be, as Wolfe puts it, “a healthy part of the food system.” They know where their meat comes from, how the animal was raised, how it was killed, and that the farmer is well and fairly paid, and they want their customers — and American consumers in general — to know these things about the meat they buy as well.
And, perhaps counterintuitively, these butchers actually encourage less meat consumption. “I eat less and better meat now,” Wolfe says. “Our meat is expensive. That’s what humanely pasture-raised meat should cost.” She eats red meat once or twice a week, while Sanchez calls herself a “pork shoulder girl.” She’ll cook a batch of carnitas and stretch it for a week.
A growing number of women are entering butchery with motives similar to Sanchez’s and Wolfe’s. Their ranks include The Meat Hook’s previous general manager, Sara Bigelow; the female owners of California’s sustainable Belcampo Farms; and Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura of Lindy and Grundy, which focuses on local, pastured, and organic meats. “We’ve come in at a time when a lot of women have led the way and forged a path that we are lucky to follow,” says Wolfe.
Theirs may be a historically male industry, but women, despite physical differences, are as suited to the job as men. Butchery requires equal parts brawn and finesse — with an added dose of attention to detail, explains Sanchez. “We have to make these cuts retail-ready. If something is misshapen, unless it’s supposed to be that way, we have to shave it down, make it pleasing to the eye.” A major point in favor of female butchers, according to Wolfe: “We’re a lot more comfortable asking questions than guys are. They’re all, ‘Oh, whatever, I have something to prove.’ We’re not. It’s not all hacking away.”
As Wolfe and Sanchez work, an occasional peal of laughter punctures the store’s background soundtrack of Hall and Oates, Michael McDonald, and Fleetwood Mac. The camaraderie in the shop is palpable, and trust and communication — while wearing six-pound chains with scabbards holding a dozen sharp knives — is paramount. This lets them concentrate on their number one priority: carving giant animals into human-size portions and helping customers pick out what they want to eat, in a conscious way.
“People are intimidated: There are so many cuts in the case. But that’s our job, to guide you to what you’re looking for,” says Sanchez. “We’re breaking these things down, cleaning steaks, we’re gonna be like, ‘The blade on this shoulder was so big and beautiful, this is truly something special, you need to give this guy a loving home.’ ”
That’s why, when they take off their scabbards to leave The Meat Hook, Wolfe and Sanchez aren’t thinking about their hair. “At the end of a long day, even if you fuck something up or you feel like you didn’t do a good enough job, you cannot wait to go back the next day and try again. No matter how tired you are, you feel vindicated, satisfied,” says Sanchez. “Tomorrow I’m going to do it better. Next time I’m going to do it faster. Next time I’m going to do it perfectly.”