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61°North

Meat Lovers: The butchers behind Alaska's prime cuts

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  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2016

In a back room at Mat-Valley Meats a mammoth beef cow is suspended from the ceiling.

Nate Burris dances around the carcass, deftly slicing through skin, muscle and tissues to remove the largest sections of meat from bone first, then moving to the smaller sections with just a few cuts of his knife. First the front quarter, then the chuck, then the prime rib. There's a rhythm to it. A cadence. A flow. For Burris, it's a song he knows well after 30 years of working as a butcher.

Later in the day the tune changes. If "breaking" meat were classical music—thoughtful, rich and time-tested—then creating signature sausages would be jazz—improvised and sultry.

The lazy sensuality of a mongrel blend of spices hangs heavy in the air, tantalizing the tastebuds as heavy sausages are hung to dry. Some are a riot of flavors, mating ingredients like kale and cranberries, or blueberries and birch syrup, or chicken, feta and spinach. Others keep it simple: a pinch of salt, a dash of sugar, a smidgen of garlic put the superior quality of the meat at the forefront.

Burris is a maestro of meat and Mat-Valley Meats is his symphony.

Butchering—of the real, old-world variety—is scientific process bound with a dying art form, a topic Burris can rhapsodize about for hours.

After the advent of the uniform supermarket chains and pre-packaged, freezer-stored meat, the mom-and-pop butcher stores of yesteryear saw a steady decline. Now, Burris maintains one of the few independent butcher shops in Alaska.

He's also one of the few who can call themselves a "journeyman" in the truest sense of the word. Burris explained that in the old world a journeyman was someone who was hired on as an apprentice for a master. After several years of studying the trade from top to bottom—whether it be blacksmithing, woodworking, or in his case, butchering—and understanding everything the trade encompasses, they would be considered a journeyman.

"It's a term that has since become very watered-down," Burris said. "If I hired a grocery store journeyman and asked them to completely break down a cow, they'd probably be like, 'I don't know how to do that.' Forty years ago everyone would have had to have been a journeyman, because they'd have to know this, but boxed beef has really changed the meat business."

Unlike supermarkets, butchers like Burris sell only top-tier meat, a task that is particularly challenging in Alaska, where there just isn't as much livestock as in the Lower 48.

For Burris to produce world class pastrami, prosciutto and sausages, it's essential that he buy the freshest meat possible. It's also imperative that the animal has been raised properly. Luckily, much of the pork raised in Alaska is fed barley—unlike the Midwest, where pigs are fed corn—because it's generally easier to grow here. While the difference between corn and barley might not seem like much, it makes a world of difference in the fat make-up of the pork.

"The fat of corn-fed pork tends to be greasier and that's a game changer when you try to make salami, because grease is your enemy," Burris said. "You want animals with very hard fat, so when you touch it, it doesn't leave residue on your finger. Because that residue gets on your palate and makes it taste differently. It distinguishes what makes a well-made salami from a poorly-made one. It's the ingredients. No matter how good you are at this, the quality of your ingredients makes it."

Temperature, humidity, time, the introduction of cultures and a whole host of other influences are the other x factors that can warp the taste of your meat, said Burris.

But Burris is a food scientist and he just gets it.

He gets what's going to happen to the meat during its processing time and he gets what Alaskans want.

In recent years, they've wanted a connection to their meat, something that Burris has championed for years.

"We're seeing a huge nationwide trend of people wanting to know where their meat is coming from," Burris said. "So for small butchers who know the business, we're seeing a boom."

Heather Muzzana, the owner of Mr. Prime Beef in Anchorage, said her business has also seen that explosion of locals interested in knowing more about their meat.

"I think people are definitely wanting to become more aware of where their food is coming from," Muzzana said. "Our natural meat is one of our biggest sellers. People want to know what they're putting in their bodies and feeding their families."

Like Burris, Muzzana is also challenged by getting fresh products up here and finding meat cutters with real experience—if she's lucky, she's able to find cutters with game experience and she's able to help fine tune their skills.

But Burris and Muzzana have very different reasons for loving their jobs. For Burris, it's about getting to be inventive and discovering new flavor combinations that create more "grand slams." For Muzzana, it's that her store and her meat have consistently acted as catalysts for conversation.

"I've gotten to watch so many people interact with each other here," Muzzana said. "They'll be having a conversation about how they each cook their prime rib and that conversation will move to, 'Oh, what school does your kid go to?' It's really cool to see strangers bond over something like meat. That's why I love my job."

This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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