By Bonnie S. Benwick
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 6:42 PM
When a couple is composed of one beach lover and one who sunburns easily, a vacation by the ocean needs something more than comfy lounge chairs. Not too long after the United States invaded Grenada, for example, my military-historian husband mapped out a trip to the island. He provided diagrams and battle synopses as in-flight reading material, and we stayed in a hotel that was a sandy stroll from where American medical students had been rescued in 1983.
So when we got the chance to spend a winter weekend on the Outer Banks, witness artisanal butchering and eat the results, my farm-to-table interest was piqued. It was another perfect union of relaxation and education, I reckoned.
The butchery class is called Meet Your Meat, I read to him on the drive down. We get two nights at the Sanderling Resort and Spa in Duck, N.C.; a workshop with local, organic beef and pork; lunch and a dress-up dinner. I couldn't quite imagine what "hands-on" could mean. My husband was thinking: nap, with a possible excursion to Kitty Hawk.
The evening before the all-day Saturday program, we checked out the resort. The inn property is immaculate and low-key at this time of year. Accommodations are gracious, offering views of both Currituck Sound and the ocean. The spa isn't the fanciest I've seen, but it did offer a treatment I'd never had: a full-length, horizontal, multi-headed shower. The technician swung it into place several feet above the table where I lay face down after hydrotherapy and an herbal salt scrub ($160). An hour of all that certainly erased memories of the hassle of heading southbound on Interstate 95.
The class was held at the Weeping Radish, a farm/brewery/pub/smokehouse/organic meat processor in Jarvisburg, about 22 miles from the resort. From the outside, the Radish is a muraled metal warehouse with a gravel parking lot, goats and vegetable beds out front.
Founder Uli Bennewitz, the brains behind this Meet Your Meat, was away for the day, so his 25-year-old daughter, Sophie, stood in as host. She had facts and costs at her fingertips and didn't hesitate to explain the difference between mass-produced hot dogs and the dozens made each day at the Radish. (Tip: Avoid eating anything from a package that lists "mechanically separated meat" among its ingredients.)
When Uli Bennewitz opened his original Weeping Radish in Manteo, N.C., in 1986, it was one of the country's first microbreweries - and perhaps the first to house a pub on the premises. Bennewitz came to the United States from Germany to manage farmland for foreign investors more than a few decades ago and soon began to strategize about transplanting his native food and beer culture. His butcher-in-residence operation encapsulates those efforts. He is revealing the farm-to-fork experience to food professionals and anyone else who's interested.
The five of us were shuffled into "the cold room" (about 55 degrees; next time, I'll take them up on the offer of a jacket) where 53-year-old German master butcher Frank Meusel and his assistant butcher, Maria Griffin, were waiting in knee-length white coats. It soon became clear that Griffin would be interpreting for Meusel, whose English is limited. It didn't take long, though, before we thought we understood at least half of what he was saying.
Meusel and Griffin stood next to a table covered with a hill of beautifully fresh, sweet-smelling pork shoulder, already cut into boneless slabs and strips. The pig came from a farm in Ayden, N.C., and was slaughtered not far from the Radish. The meat was bloodless, the color of rose veal and mixed in with chunks of creamy white fat.
"You cannot make good sausage out of bad meat," Meusel relayed.
A table of industrial-size spice containers stood at the back of the room. Tangles of natural sheep casings floated in the water held in large square Lexan bins. Our semi-circle stood a respectful distance from the grinder, a bowl cutter and a sausage stuffer, each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, precision-built and spotlessly clean.
We watched as Meusel put the meat through its paces, adding spices, water, celery juice and phosphates to bind it all. His hands moved awfully close to 300-mph blades, sensing when the mixture was at the right consistency for andouille sausage, and later for nitrate-free hot dogs. The third and fourth fingers of his left hand were all he needed to guide links that came shooting through the stuffer. When one of us had a go at it, the expertness of Meusel's touch became clearer still. Griffin efficiently packed the connected links onto poles that fit in a great rolling rack.
We followed them down the hall to a German-manufactured smoker large enough to roll the rack into. I mistakenly stuck my head halfway across the threshold to take in the aroma and spent the next 20 minutes with watery eyes.
While lunch in the pub warmed us up, technology and hickory chips cooked the andouille and hot dogs to a moist, smoky doneness.
Back in the cold room, the lesson in pork continued, as the half-steer that Meusel would have broken down for us was not ready for prime time. Using what looked to be a seven- or eight-inch boning knife, he placed the tip of it on whatever he was aiming to separate, and then dispatched it in seconds. Sure-handed, steady cuts. The loin, flat and oblong. The part of the ham from which real German schnitzel is carved. The neck, whose two chunks are often tied together to form a roast. The Sanderling's Left Bank chef de cuisine, Mark McCleary, who had appeared for the after-lunch session, told us that we'd be seeing some of the meat on our dinner table later on.
Meusel retrieved the links after two hours in the smoker. Mugging for the camera, he suggested that if he'd done his job right, the hot dogs should audibly snap when broken in two. A sample one did. They were the best dogs any of us had ever tasted.
Back at the Sanderling, we cleaned up and ambled over to the resort's white-tablecloth Left Bank restaurant, where we were served family-style: house-made duck ham and trout fritters and small pots of Weeping Radish sweet potato liverwurst pate; lentil gnocchi and a red wine sauce and meltingly tender braised short ribs from a farm 21/2 hours away; Meusel's fine-cut pork loin, roasted with pickled apples and a porcini thyme jus. Dessert seemed insurmountable, yet when it arrived, we swooned and dug in: canning jars filled with layers of sour cream cheesecake, bacon-infused maple syrup, buttermilk ice cream and house-made graham crackers.
The dinner conversation replayed the master butcher's greatest feats of the day. We shared food stories (aren't they the most telling and intimate?) and agreed that we'd seen an artist at work. We wanted to come back for that half-steer. Sophie and the Sanderling staff said that we were welcome to do so.
And my husband said he was in for the full ride.