Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers (A Review/Interview)

Caption photo from Marissa Guggiana

Photo from Marissa Guggiana.

If a book about nose-to-tail butchery seems a little hard core, even for the most committed foodie, then you have yet to be introduced to Marissa Guggiana's passionate and inclusive world of locally driven, compassionately produced, "righteous food." Look no further than her new book's introduction to be utterly charmed and intrigued. Marissa, a meat purveyor from northern California, writes the way people should flip pancakes - lightly, skillfully, joyfully - and you can't help but be inspired by her portraits of the new culinary superstars.

A uniquely visual cookbook, Primal Cuts offers great stories, inventive recipes and helpful cooking techniques. Before long, readers will find themselves dreaming of duck breast and pining for pork rillettes and luckily, the book provides guidance in sourcing, cooking, even saving and storing. To boot, Primal Cuts offers a look into the philosophies of the food artisans who are leading the modern food renaissance.

I don't think anyone was better positioned than you to capture the modern meat scene in all its passionate, complex glory. With your combined experiences as a meat purveyor, local food leader and long-time writer do you sometimes think that your marrying of nourishment and narrative was inevitable?

I had always sort of bristled against food writing, after years of playwriting. I sequestered writing into this box of art that felt different than my work in the nitty-gritty of food production. At some point I became so engrossed in food culture that it got harder and harder to step out of that and into theatre. And I just started writing what I know (yes, that old chestnut). To my surprise, I found I had a lot to say!

What are your hopes for the sustainable food community and, specifically, local and sustainable meat production and consumption?

Well, we need local food systems that are viable for all participants. Which means, everyone in production needs to make a living and consumers need to be able to access and afford the food. We've figured out some solutions but we are a long way from the finish line. As anyone who goes to farmer's markets can attest, small scale animal husbandry yields delicious, expensive meat.

Over the years you've done dozens of events that have brought people together to celebrate real food and the people who produce it. Do you envision an evolution for the holidays in terms of how people source and prepare their food?

Food is an expression of who we are, as much as any other part of the holidays. The most important elements, to me, are that we make time to get together and that this coming together has meaning. Buying from farmers you know or from your community brings an element of story and place to the table. So does cooking everything by hand, preparing family favorites and having fun. I notice if I really present the food and I am excited about having made it, that excitement is contagious.
It's not about fancy, it's about pleasure and love.

Who do you look to for inspiration?

Mostly Boy George. No, truly, I have so many inspirations. Outside of my own circle (and I think it is so important to find inspiration from your loved ones), the first few that come to mind are: Vandana Shiva, Milan Kundera, Elvis Costello and Werner Herzog. Foodwise: Dan Barber, MFK Fisher, Weston Price, Carlo Petrini...

What would be the perfect dinner gathering?

Of course, it depends on the crowd, the occasion, the season. BUT, nothing that requires last minute fussing. My frequent guests are no strangers to stew because it is always comforting, expandable, simple and nourishing. I make many iterations of braised meat: carnitas, tagine, lamb stew, pot pie. Or a good old roasted chicken for a small group. And some salad or greens and crusty bread and lots and lots of wine.