Originally published April 15, 2011 in Just Out.
By Erin Rook, Just Out
In a city full of bacon-loving former vegans, queer Portlander Berlin Reed is giving more than lip service to the idea that eating meat can be ethical, too. His labor of love, The Ethical Butcher, serves as an umbrella for a multitude of meaty projects aimed at revolutionizing the way animals end up on menus.
What started as an odd job behind the butcher counter of a small New York grocer—odd given that Reed was expecting to work with cheese, and also because he didn’t even eat meat at the time—has turned into a passion that allows Reed to incorporate his food politics into his renewed respect for meat eating.
“Being a vegetarian for most of my conscious life meant that I came to butchery with a very different background than most butchers,” Reed, 28, explains. “I’d say the way my veg days show up is that I am always interested in talking [about] politicizing my food, a very veg person thing to do.”
Hailing from San Francisco, Reed had been a vegetarian for 14 years when he started working as a butcher in 2008. While his abstention from meat began as an act of preteen rebellion, it persisted because of a sense of compassion for the way animals suffer in factory farms. When he realized it was possible to ensure that meat came from animals that lived and died well, Reed figured it was safe to step off the wagon.
After biting off a baptismal hunk of rib-eye on the job, Reed was converted, eventually setting out to share The Bacon Gospel with communities across the country. In each city, he found local heritage breed pork and combined it with a rich assortment of other local flavors, allowing him to highlight hometown purveyors of produce, spirits and coffee.
Drawing inspiration from “favorite cocktails, dominant spices in certain regional cuisines and crackpot flavor combos,” Reed has compiled a little black book of more than 80 bacon varieties.
There are the “fruity and floral,” such as Tea and Cake (candied spiced orange and lemon preserves and jasmine and chamomile teas); the “spiked and spicy,” including I’ll Love You Until My Veins Explode (guajillo, pasilla, ancho, habanero and Scotch bonnet chiles, cherry preserves and espresso); and the “deep, dense and dark,” with such indulgent varieties as Box of Chocolates (raw cocoa nibs, dark chocolate and amaretto with a coconut-almond crust).
“I play with bacon because it’s fun. I get to take this common yet beloved food, spin it around and do crazy new things with it and then bring it back to blow minds and palates and guess what? It’s still just bacon,” Reed says. “That’s the fun, stretching the limits of this very traditional and essentially unchangeable food. Each of my now 80-plus flavors taste unlike any bacon you’ve ever tasted, yet each one tastes just like bacon should.”
In addition to creating specialty cured meats, Reed organizes whole animal dinners, helps run The Butcher’s Guild and writes about ethical butchery. He even has a book in the works, part memoir of his transition from vegetarian to butcher and part how-to-eat-meat guide, and he’s currently working on a film project.
“My drive right now is in working for this movement for a sustainable meat system,” Reed explains. “My work, my events and writing, these are my contributions to the movement and to my community. Putting on events like Primal Cuts at the Ace back in November, where over 100 queer artists and DJs were mixing it up with food bloggers and farmers over a table brimming with insanely decadent local meaty goodness and a wall of photos of animals from many of the farms I’ve visited—that is what my work is about.”
To learn more about The Ethical Butcher, visit theethicalbutcher.com, and read the full interview with Berlin Reed at justout.com.