Since there have been meat-eaters ~forever~ butchers have been important. Of course, butchery as a craft and expertise had been undervalued for decades in the wake of industrialization and corporatization. But since the re-emergence of local, green, slow and all-things related to smarter eating in Brooklyn, Lena Diaz, head butcher and fishmonger at Greene Grape Provisions in Fort Greene, has been a leader in its practice and culture. Known in her neighborhood as the “Meat Mayor,” Diaz draws a devout following, and eager students, as she helps to provide not just healthier food for Fort Greene and surrounding neighborhoods, but an entire community that cares about supporting sustainable systems of healthier and more thoughtful lifestyles.
Tell us a little bit about how you got into this line of work. What drew you to it in the first place?
I can trace my love for butchery back to when I was a child, going to butcher shops with my mom and great grandmother. Then, I lived in Spain for 10 years, where butchery is a craft that is part of the food community. It’s there where I rediscovered my love for butchers and also the community of small, specialized grocers in general. I began to see the value of a fishmonger, a cheese monger, a produce provider, and a butcher, all as separate and equally important entities. In Spain, as in many other parts of Europe and the world, these food specialists provide a certain sense of community. I became really interested in learning about where food comes from and how it’s truly more than something that just sustains your body. Ideally, healthy food should sustain a neighborhood. Moreover, in a big city like this (and especially these days), it’s so important to feel supported by the people and places that make up your community.
Explain what a typical day looks like for you at Greene Grape Provisions? What takes up the majority of your time?
Every day is different. Some days, we receive huge deliveries, and we spend a good portion of the morning loading in hogs, steers, or lambs. These are “breaking days,” and they’re very physical. We break down the whole animals and cut for the case. We’ll decide then and there what goes where: what goes into the case, what we’ll need for house made bacon, ham, sausages, and charcuterie, and what we’ll use for pet treats and dog food. A lot of my time is spent teaching new members of the team how to cut, fill, and merchandise the case.
Happily, the majority of my time is spent with customers. It’s a huge part of our business, and what we pride ourselves in most. Our customers are what keeps things interesting—they’re our lifeline, not only to the marketplace and what people are craving (in terms of season and trends), but also to the pulse of the neighborhood. We do a lot of custom tailoring for our customers, so I often find myself menu planning and devising meal strategies for parties or even just a nice weekday dinner. We know the names of our customers’s pets, mother-in-laws, and children. We know their due dates, their vacation plans, the books they’re reading (and writing), and of course, we know their favorite cuts of meat.
Can you talk about where you source your meat/poultry/fish from, and what is most important to you when selecting the farms that you work with, and why? How much control do you have over the products that you sell?
I put a lot of emphasis on maintaining a high level of control, and that’s what’s so great about this job. I speak directly to my farmers on a regular basis, and I pay visits to the farms and their abattoirs. Our product comes from Vermont, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Everything comes from within a 250 mile radius. All of the farms are considered small, family farms. They raise their animals with supreme care and consideration. That’s the most important thing. It’s pretty simple when you break down what matters most. I also go to Fulton fish market at Hunts Point to visit my purveyors to assess the quality of our fish. When choosing fish I consider traceability, just as I do with meat, and I aim to support the most local fish. When it comes to seafood, I spend a lot of time talking to my customers about sustainability, traceability, and the merits of invasive fish species (they’re some of the most sustainable!).
When it comes to your work—the hands-on butchering and seasoning and preparing of your meats and fish—how long does it take to learn that craft, at the level that you practice it now?
I’m constantly learning, though I’d say that it took a good 3 years of intensive, high-volume work to get where I am now. The physical part of my job is surely the most difficult. It’s hard on the body! We carry in animals 4 days out of the week. That’s over 3,000 pounds of product weekly, not including poultry and fish.
Word on the street is that you are called the “Meat Mayor.” When people come to work with and buy from you, and given the community that has formed around you, what do you think they value in particular with your work? And what are you most proud of?
I really value my relationships with my customers. They feel more like friends than buyers to me. I’m invested in their daily dinners and I care that they are eating well. We all know that the best stuff happens around a table with good food, and I feel proud to be a part of that. I’m genuinely interested in people and I think they notice my authenticity. I love connecting people in an informal way. The meat counter inspires a lot of conversations, and I’ll find myself recommending labor lawyers, accountants, DP’s to producers for films, circus performance artists, floral arrangers, personal chefs, restaurant’s in Barcelona, and nannys. My customers have become my friends, to the point where I now socialize with them outside of work on a regular basis.
What am I proud of? Without a doubt, it’s my team. They’re the backbone of the operation. They hold me up when I’m (literally) falling down. They’re totally devoted to doing the best job possible, and they do pretty well working under my exacting standards. We all come from very different backgrounds and this diversity adds tremendous value to our team. I suppose I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of my own meticulousness. I care a lot about keeping a beautiful case, because you never know when my mom might be lurking around the corner. She has the highest standards of them all! (Perhaps due to many decades of meticulous butchery shopping, herself.)
Do you hold classes or events that people can come to and be a part of, in order to learn more about your specific field?
I teach private classes. We’re working on an education program. Stay tuned.
What is the future of farm to table/locally-fed/grass-fed meat? Is it something that will grow and spread? Is it sustainable? Is it in danger, especially with this new administration?
All of the farmers we work with practice holistic farming. They practice rotational grazing, which promotes sustainability of the land. I believe that education is important and I’m educating Fort Greene bit by bit. People are more interested now in grass-fed meat and sustainability than ever before. Customers should continue to ask their questions about sourcing and sustainability, because these queries provoke transparency and accountability on the part of the purveyor, and by extension, the producer.
At the end of the Obama administration, new regulations were passed to protect small animal farmers from mistreatment and domination by larger meat facilities. In the past couple of years, there were several improvements to standards of animal welfare, mostly due to consumer demand. It’s hard to know what’s to come, and that’s scary.
When people are buying their meat/poultry/fish, what is the most important thing for them to know and ask about and look for when making their choices? What are the factors that matter most?
First of all, know your butcher! And ask questions about where the shop sources their meat or fish. The greater your relationship with your butcher, the more likely you’ll be engaged in a continual conversation about food and meat, which will only expand your meat repertoire. Ask them what they’re liking right now, or ask for a suggestion for a new cut to experiment with. Be upfront about your budget! There is something for everyone, and that’s the beauty of whole-animal butchery.
For example, we air-chill a select line of birds, which we recommend for grilling and roasting, because a dry bird makes for a crispier roast. Sure, we have signs to explain why our chickens’s skins look so dry, but it’s our regular customers who know about this trick, because they engage with us and we talk about it.
Some quick pointers on fish and meat: Fish should never smell fishy, and eyes should be clear and unclouded. Flesh should be firm, not mushy. Realize that 100% grass-fed meat is different than grain-finished. The 100% GF will never be as marbled, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different. Experiment! Taste everything and try new things! And be flexible. If your butcher doesn’t have what you want, look to him or her for other great suggestions. It’ll likely open your palate to a new favorite cut.
What is your favorite cut of meat and why? What is your favorite preparation of it?
This cut of meat question is never easy to answer. I can say that I prefer my beef and lamb seared/grilled and my pork braised/roasted. And I guess I’d say that my favorite cut of beef is the Denver steak (boneless chuck short ribs). For pork, I love a rib chop (shoulder end), and for lamb, I love the sirloin—untied. My customers know that, wink wink.
Who would you nominate for this list?
Konstance Patton IG: icecreamdreamin She’s an artist and educator, CEO of Woolly & Sable, and a resident at Brooklyn Theater Arts High School. She has led community murals and has been painting murals with the same kids for 4 years, and owns her own art production company employing woman and students.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.
Photo by Daniel Dorsa