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Annapolis custom butcher tries to revive 'dying art'

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Most people take a day off work to spend a little time with the family, hit the beach or a local park, or try to get a few errands done.

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.

"When this guy opened, it was clear he wasn't competing with Giant Foods," says David Hechinger of Annapolis, a New York native who has gladly paid Smollon's higher-than-average prices for years, getting everything from custom sausages to instruction on how to cook an expensive piece of tenderloin.

It wasn't until two years later, when he moved the business to Annapolis, that Smollon refined his mission. Customers in the food-savvy town, he says, kept asking whether his meats were locally raised. "I got tired of having to say no," says the owner, who began hitting the road to meet local farmers.

About that time, a film also changed him. At a customer's recommendation, he sat down to watch "Food, Inc.," an award-winning 2008 documentary that exposed the environmentally unfriendly practices of many big-scale food producers, not to mention the way they chemically alter their livestock.

"It was really a shock. I realized that all those years in sales, I didn't even know what I was selling," he says. "There's a reason there are so many sick people today. You really are what you eat. Knowing that is part of what I do."

A slab of beef

Early one morning a week or so before Father's Day, a truck parks in the lot behind My Butcher and More. A man in a white coat steps out, pops open the rear door and hoists a 150-pound slab of beef onto his back.

As Smollon looks on from a doorway, the man lugs the forequarter into the kitchen, its ribs exposed, and lays it on the steel counter with a thud.

"Check out the tag," the man says, pointing to a numbered label stuck in a casing of fat. "I can tell you everything you need to know about the life of this animal."

This is Mike Brannon, who works for one of Smollon's favorite suppliers, Old Line Meats of Baltimore.

"The quality is consistently wonderful," Smollon says, referring to the beef Brannon brings in from Roseda Farms, an outfit in Monkton that specializes in grass-fed Angus cows.

The two fall into friendly conversation with Fidel Kisic, a burly, genial 51-year-old artisan who serves as the owner's top meatcutter. He trained years ago, at a custom butcher shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., only to end up working for years in the meat departments of several big grocery stores.

The sight of a man hauling a carcass into a store, they agree, is enough to startle an onlooker today. As recently as 30 years ago, when custom butchers were common in most American cities and towns, suppliers generally delivered in just this way, leaving the meat on hooks in walk-in freezers.

There, custom butchers would ply their trade: Depending on the flavor, texture and thickness a customer wanted, they'd use their knowledge of an animal's muscle structure to find and remove anything from a roast to flank steak to tenderloin, cutting away the nerve endings, gristle and other matter that reduces quality.

Kisic demonstrates with the new red slab, liberating seven sirloins, each an inch and a half thick and exquisitely marbled, with a few skillful swipes of his knife.

"That kind of ability is rare today," an admiring Brannon says.

The fast-food explosion of the 1960s multiplied the demand for meat, and the industry changed. By the early 1980s, producers were raising animals on mega-farms in the Midwest. Workers began cutting up the carcasses there, usually into predetermined thicknesses, then putting the pieces into boxes for quick shipment around the country.

"The motto became 'Kill it, chill it, get it out the door in 24 hours,' " Brannon says.

Lucky for Smollon, many still recall the good old days. Men and women over 50 are his biggest buying base. While customers 35 to 50 have fewer such memories, the gourmet cooking shows that have become popular on cable channels like the Food Network have whetted their appetites, and they're likelier to be able to afford his pay-it-if-you-can prices. (Prime steakburgers are an eye-popping $9.99 per pound, ribeye $24.99, tenderloin $39.99).

People younger than that? He's hopeful.

"They don't have a clue — yet," Smollon says. "They ask, 'Why do you have a butcher shop? Grocery stores do that.' I say, 'No, they don't.' Then we start to talk."

Word of mouth

Smollon isn't the only person out there selling locally raised meat, says Reitzig, president of the independent consumers' and farmers' association. Other vendors make a habit of knowing their local farmers, then sharing that knowledge with customers. Others still offer classes.

She knows of no one else in Maryland, though, who does all these things and more.

When it comes to blending old-style butchering with modern awareness of healthful eating, "Mike has the only one-stop shop," Reitzig says.

Not that it guarantees anything. Not everyone can afford the prices Smollon must ask. The owner say his business model allows little margin for error. He aims to use and sell 80 percent or more of every carcass, including parts you can't normally find at today's supermarkets: bones (for dogs and soup stock), kidneys (a few people love them), beef lips (a resilient bait for fishing) and more.

"You do this because you have a commitment to providing something valuable," he says. "I'll never become a millionaire in this line of work."

Since moving to Annapolis, Smollon has had little in the way of an advertising budget, but word of mouth has clearly spread. Holidays are big, of course, including banner weekends like the Fourth of July and Labor Day as well as the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

As Father's Day approaches, regular patrons are stopping by to pick up their custom orders and chat. Take Charles and Judith Beavers of Davidsonville, who visit around lunchtime one afternoon for their favorite fare: a sackful of prime beef patties, red and juicy and fresh from the grinder.

They're the kind of people who might just put My Butcher and More over the top. Charles, a retiree who calls himself frugal, lives off a government pension and Social Security checks.

To him, Smollon's meats are a bargain. "You've never had hamburgers like this," he says. "It's like having steak on a bun."

Lessons

Atkinson considers himself lucky to have taken Meat 401, one of the four classes regularly offered at My Butcher and More.

A longtime grilling specialist, he learned the proper way to sharpen a knife ("if you don't get it sharp, you tear the meat"), ground and cased sausage that passed Kisic's taste test ("he put it out for sale!") and left with an appetite for more.

"I was like a kid in a candy store, but with a kitchen knife," he says. "Mike has said he's going to bring in a beef carcass and teaching how to break it down. I'll make it to that" class.

Sound extreme? Atkinson, a broadcast engineer for Black Entertainment Television, doesn't care. The coworkers who used to rib him about working as a butcher on his days off have long since changed their tune.

He has taken to buying meats at Mike's shop, grilling them to order and bringing them to potluck suppers at work. "I'll just tell you they're not laughing anymore," he says.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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