Inside California's Rugged, Rebellious 'Meat Camp' For Women
It's 2015. Women are mastering meat.
Later this summer, about a dozen women will travel to the idyllic Shasta Valley of northern California to learn a series of ostensibly "masculine" skills: knife sharpening, butchering, sausage making, and open-fire grilling.
This unconventional apprenticeship will take place at Belcampo Farms, a 10,000-acre estate that raises sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle in a sustainable way. Its first Women’s Meat Camp, which begins on August 6, is a three-day affair filled with mountain hikes, picnic lunches, sunset cocktails, and workshops about culinary crafts usually associated with sweaty, hirsute men. But this stereotype may soon become as quaint as a horse-drawn plow. Belcampo’s event is just one example of women’s shifting roles in the food world and, more specifically, their growing influence at the grill and at the butcher shop.
“I decided to offer the grilling camp for women because I love to grill, and many women who have seen me do it, especially over an open wood fire, asked me how I learned,” says Belcampo CEO Anya Fernald, a tireless entrepreneur whose company includes the California ranch, a series of butcher shops and restaurants, and an eco-lodge in Belize.
Before founding Belcampo in 2012, Fernald would often buy a whole pig and take it apart in her house, mostly because she couldn’t find good sausages elsewhere. This sort of determination and gumption helped her thrive in a male-dominated business. “I sometimes get the feeling of being perceived as a bit of a freak of nature around my colleagues from this sector,” she says. “I wonder if that is as much due to the scale of what Belcampo is trying to achieve as to the fact that I am a woman.”
Either way, her peers in the meat trade should get used to dealing with ladies. Fernald may be a pioneer, but she’s not alone.
Elizabeth Karmel is a North Carolinian who’s been professionally involved with meat and grilling for more than a decade. She’s the former executive chef of Hill Country Barbecue in New York and Washington, D.C., she runs a website called Girls at the Grill, and less than a year ago she launched Carolina Cue To-Go, an online barbecue shack that sells hickory-smoked pulled pork nationwide.
In the early years of her quest to become an expert in outdoor cooking, Karmel found that being a woman was a surprising advantage. “I was inquisitive and would go up to these old barbecue masters and they didn’t think I’d do anything with the information, so they told me the truth,” she remembers. “If I were a man they would’ve sent me on my way.”
She’s now a barbecue guru, the author of cookbooks including Taming the Flame: Secrets for Hot-and-Quick Grilling and Low-and-Slow BBQ, and a guest speaker on TV shows like Late Night with Seth Meyers. “I didn’t set out to be the grill girl, but everything that I ever cooked on an outdoor grill tasted better, and I fell in love with it,” she says.
By Karmel’s estimate, women who grill are no longer a minority, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this claim.
Take Alessandra Ghini, a marketer from San Francisco who cooks on a gas grill every week. “I just grilled a piece of pork secreto for lunch,” she mentions offhandedly, speaking about a hard-to-find, incredibly tender cut of meat. Though her husband thinks it’s fantastic that she knows how to grill, Ghini is often met with testosterone-fueled resistance at barbecue parties. “I expect to cook the meat that I bring, and then I get this attitude that grilling is for men. It’s like walking into a locker room,” she jokes. “Sometimes I ask to have a grill-off.”
Skeptical men should head immediately to St. Anselm, a Brooklyn steakhouse with a massive open-fire grill and a mostly female staff, including head chef Katrina Zito. “It wasn’t by design, but women have been the strongest candidates,” says St. Anselm’s owner, Joe Carroll.
“Historically, this has been an extremely male-dominated world,” he continues. “So all of these ideas that we have are based on the fact that there were no opportunities for women. Now all that bull is gone.”
Speaking of bull, next time you visit a local butcher shop, you might see an adept dame having her way with a bovine. Female butchers are on the rise, chopping multiple antiquated notions with one swing of their cleavers. Professionals like Julia Poplawski, head butcher at Dai Due in Austin, Texas, and Sara Bigelow, on staff at the Meat Hook in New York City, have shown us that femininity is not antithetical to handling an electric saw.
“Women are more suited to butchering than people think,” says Cara Nicoletti, a food writer and butcher. “We might lack brute strength—although I don’t feel like I do—but we are really good at looking at an entire animal and treating it carefully and methodically.”
This doesn’t have to be a battle of the sexes, of course. As in so many other areas of life today, grilling and butchering are perfect examples of male strongholds in the midst of irrevocable change.