Butcher Block

Wood butcher block, detail

End grain butcher block.

Since I am still in search of a good butcher in L.A. (alas, none to be found!) – I am finding myself delving further into the dissection of strange and exotic cuts of meat – at home. A recent purchase of a meat grinder (more on that soon!) has lead to a whole lot of chopping and cutting, slicing and dicing and a new search – for a superior place on which to cut.

Butcher block is what I’m seeking – and some digging shows that this material – an infinitely sturdy hardwood maple that is used for high-end counter tops and chopping boards – has a fascinating history.

Originally butchering was done atop a tree stump or “tree rounds”, which were literally enormous chunks of tree set on legs. I love imaging these ultra masculine old-time butcher shops – where giant chunks of dead animal were axed apart by sweaty guys with huge blades – atop giant tree trunks! Wow!

19th-century butcher block. (Image courtesy of the Musée de la Civilisation)

19th-century wood butcher block. (Image courtesy of the Musée de la Civilisation)

This process was functional but not the best option, as eventual cracking lead to an inability to keep the surface of the chopping area clean – making for some pretty unsanitary conditions. Seeking out a durable alternatives, in the mid 1880s butchers created a maple-based material which they rather unimaginatively dubbed “The Sanitary Meat Block”. Now known as “butcher block”,  it is used all over the world – in both home kitchens and professional and currently exists in two basic forms, Edge Grain and End Grain.

The superior (and more pricey) End Grain is created by gluing the maple wood fiber perpendicular to the surface and creating a thickness of at least 4 inches (the more the better). This process creates a pleasing, chessboard/parquet design surface which not only looks nice, but also serves double duty by absorbing the impact of knife blades – allowing blades to come down between fibers and thus absorbing the impact. As a result a knife will stay sharp longer, and the butcher block will keep free of nicks.  End Grain is used by professional chefs and deep-pocketed amateurs with some extra dough to put toward their kitchen fetishes.

Butcher at the Waldorf Astoria, 1944. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

A butcher at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, 1944. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Edge Grain is much more common however – particularly as a home counter top material. Also, utilizing a hardwood maple – the manufacture of  Edge Grain involves wood fiber glued parallel – a look similar to a wood floor. Edge Grain is much less expensive to produce and still creates a durable surface which will work just fine for your every day cooking and cutting.

Both End and Edge Grain butcher block can be kept looking pretty (and functioning properly) by a good rub with natural mineral oil every 3 months of so, depending on amount of use.

A little off subject, but I couldn’t resist to show you these pieces of meat art. They’re just too good (I guess only if you’re not a vegetarian).

Victoria Reynolds "Fight of the Reindeer."

“Fight of the Reindeer” by Victoria Reynolds.

And here two more ads from the good people of the American Meat Institute, who helped to bring Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (with all its great side effects of hormone and antibiotic infested meat as well as and polluted runoffs) to this country.

American Meat Institute advertising from 1949.

Meet Your Meat Team: American Meat Institute advertising, 1949.

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