Annapolis custom butcher tries to revive 'dying art'
With focus on locally raised meat, Mike Smollon tries to make specialty a thing of the future
Zeb Atkinson of Gambrills decided to stop in at a local business, spend nine hours slicing and sawing, and pay the proprietor more than $200 for the privilege.
"It was like heaven," he says of the "vacation" day he took in April. "There wasn't a moment that wasn't interesting."
Atkinson, a 43-year-old amateur chef and food buff, believes he got the better of the bargain. He had just completed Meat 401, a hands-on course in a craft he and others feel is more crucial today than ever.
"Custom butchering? It's a dying art," says Mike Smollon, the owner and president of My Butcher and More, the Annapolis store that offers the class. Meat workers "in the big grocery stores are mostly hackers. They take a hunk of meat, chop it up and throw it out there. There's no attention to detail. Customers have no idea what they're getting."
At a time when economies of scale have long since reshaped the production of American food — including the beef, chicken, pork, veal and other meats millions of people consume each day — custom butchering, once practiced in nearly every town, is a rarer phenomenon than ever.
Smollon's operation is the only independent custom butcher shop in Anne Arundel County, says Lisa Barge of the county's corporation for economic development. The 52-year-old is trying to revive the trade as part of the sustainable food movement.
Smollon's customers know the meat they're getting has been raised within 150 miles and the conditions under which it's been raised. They can order specialized cuts, get personal instruction on cooking and even, like Atkinson, take classes that cover topics including the anatomy of cows and the right way to sharpen knives.
It's a bold approach in an industry that long ago left the personal touch behind as though it were so much gristle and bone.
"What he's doing is unusual," says Liz Reitzig of the Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, an Annapolis-based nonprofit. "Like most visionaries, Mike is sticking his neck out. But consumers today are getting back to the day of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. I think there's a real future in it."
The good old days
He never set out to be a maven of meat, let alone an avatar of healthful eating.
A Severna Park native, Mike Smollon was 14 when he was looking for a part-time job. He got one, as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Annapolis, and as he worked his way through a succession of low-paying gigs over the next few summers, he developed enough of a taste for food that he ended up attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Even there, he says, he learned precious little about his future specialty. Perhaps because butchers traditionally learn through experience, not in a classroom, the program offered nothing more than a brief crash course on meat.
"I realize now I had no clue," he says. He graduated as a chef in 1980.
A brief foray as a cook ended badly — he was fired for improvising once too often on a hotel chain's recipes — but even that, in a way, contributed to Smollon's education. In 1983, he landed a job in sales. He spent the next 21 years meeting and working with farmers from Washington to the Eastern Shore, selling their meats to high-end restaurants in the region.
A curious, gregarious sort, he remembers spending much of his spare time asking butchers what they did with the pigs, chickens and slabs of beef he brought them: how they broke it all into parts, which portions tasted like what, how much you could earn if you conserved the tail, the kidney, the bones. "If you want to sell something, why not learn everything you can about it?" he says.
He ditched the sales career in 2004 to start his own custom butcher shop, inCrofton.
Customers remember the place as offering steroid- and hormone-free meats, often from family farms in the Midwest, not to mention the sort of patient, personalized service old-time butchers used to offer.