Once upon a time, I lived in a full-sized city. There were shops everywhere, drug stores and diners that stayed open 24 hours a day, and if you wanted to find a leg of lamb or a fresh duck, you could do it. Just jump on the freeway and hit up your local butcher, even your local grocery store (one not entirely run by bumbling college students), and you can come home with live lobster, or fresh kidneys, or veal.
There is no butcher in my town. I've asked for special cuts of meat at the grocery store and been greeted with blank stares. The meat isn't actually butchered there; it's pulled out of a box, defrosted, and put on display.
There's no butcher in the next town over, either. There's a Rosauer's that actually sells whole legs of lamb, but once again, the meat department does no butchery.
The closest I can come: the University of Idaho has a big agricultural and livestock department. They raise the animals, butcher them, freeze them, and sell them to the community.
I did say freeze, right? Yes--Vandal Meats (UI's mascot is a Vandal, don't ask me why) does freeze its meats, but at least it chops them into various pieces first. You don't have to buy a leg of lamb or nothing. According to their menu, you can buy it in various forms, though it can be a little touch-and-go. Because it is run by students, the level of professionalism ebbs and flows with the semesters. The best time to go is at the end of a semester, when the students have finally figured out the different cuts of meat and honed their customer service skills. At the beginning of the semester, forget about it. You're going to get a lot of wide, confused eyes, and you might just have to compromise on your cuts.
Knowing this, I am still one of their best customers. Ian is addicted to lamb--it is most definitely his meat of choice--and about once a month I make him one of his favorite dishes: a lamb curry called Rogan Josh. I'm making it again tonight.
Today's visit to Vandal Meats was remarkably the easiest I've ever had. It's not easy to get to--the road is filled with canyon-sized potholes and tucked into the back end of the campus. Once inside, the whole place smells vaguely of death and refrigeration. The walls are lined with fridges, labeled by the type of animal carcass in contained therein, and although I've never had any luck with the lamb fridge, today there were quite a few packages of meat waiting for me. I wondered for a moment if these were things reserved in advance by other customers, but since there was no one at the register, I scooped up all the stew meat they had.
I had no sooner placed my meat on the counter than a girl in a gauzy hairnet came out of the back room. Her apron and the sleeve of her pink sweater were faintly smeared with blood--disturbing, perhaps, but part of the trade--and when she didn't protest to my picking the packages out of the freezer, I figured it was OK. I recognized the girl as having served me before--she had become inexplicably confused when I asked for two pounds of lamb for kebabs and brought me stew meat instead. The stew meat was fine--it just required more cooking--and it was certainly cheaper, so that worked for me.
The girl rang up my purchases and chatted with me about the box full of beef bones--a somewhat eerie display of carnage, but I am a carnivore so I can't complain too much--and I was on my way, making sure not to total my car on their gouged-out driveway.
Now all I have to do is wait for the meat to defrost. I've got it in the sink at the moment, getting a cold water bath. It's still not going to be thawed in time. The stew takes two hours to make. Fun, fun, fun.
Ian tells me there is a real butcher somewhere in the area, but I've never been able to find it. Perhaps when I start going to school in Spokane I can bring a cooler with me and hit up a real butcher there.
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