It's Monday morning in Eastern Market's Shed 5 and the kitchen is filled with men and women crowded around a rolling metal table. At the center chef and butcher Larissa Popa stands over a side of Mangalitsa pork — a three-year-old female heritage breed from a farm in Belleville, Michigan. Popa prepares to make her first incision to remove the leaf lard with a sharp, curved knife held in "butcher's grip." People in the room lean in closer to observe each controlled cut and slice as she deconstructs the chilled, marbled pork.
The event is part a whole-animal butchery and charcuterie series Popa launched earlier this year under the title The Meatstress. For a fee, chefs and home cooks can participate in the program, which teaches students the basics of butchery, home curing, and sausage making. It's one of — if not — the first of it's kind in the Detroit area and part of a growing collection of programs around the country devoted to teaching people about ethical meat and meat processing. The first part of the class is mainly observation watching Popa make the cuts, but she eventually hands off the knife to give students more first-hand experience.
"I want to eat better meat. I want to make it more affordable and more accessible."
Today's course is a lesson in seam butchery, a process by which the butcher uses the natural anatomy where the muscles meat the soft tissues and connect to bones to guide knife cuts and break the animal into primals. "You're literally listening to what the animal is telling you," Popa explains. These primals are then processed into the particular cuts of meat one might find in their neighborhood grocery store or butcher shop. The animal Popa sourced for Monday's class is particularly challenging. At three-years-old and over 300 pounds, the pig is much larger than most that Popa deals with and older than average. This makes the meat and soft tissues tougher to cut through, she explains.
Popa has a large depth of knowledge for butchery that comes from a passion and respect for animals and meat. Still, she herself is relatively knew to the craft and still training. She first took up butchery two years ago, traveling to France to learn from a family that raised and butchered animals for sale. She's also trained under Brian Polcyn, lauded chef and instructor at Schoolcraft College who literally wrote the books on charcuterie and salumi. Since then she's gone on to work as an in-house butcher at Republic. These days, when she's not teaching classes or working pop-ups, the chef is on the farm learning more about animal husbandry.
"I want to eat better meat. I want to make it more affordable and more accessible," Popa says of The Meatstress. She's currently looking at ways to make the program more interactive for participants, possibly by developing a meat CSA. Eventually though, she'd like a space of her own. "I just want a little butcher and deli shop," she says, noting that she'd ideally like to open in Eastern Market. While she works on streamlining her business plan and developing avenues for funding, Popa is satisfied sharing her knowledge with people in the community and demonstrating what it really means to eat nose-to-tail.