When dangerously underemployed vegetarian Berlin Reed agreed to temporarily work the meat counter at Brooklyn’s The Greene Grape, he never expected that butchery would become his new career. Yet by the time temp turned to perm, Reed had found an unexpected new calling. By providing customers with meats from more humane and local sources, Reed saw that he could address the toxicity of the meat industry by changing it rather than just avoiding it.
I talked with the 27-year-old one evening at his girlfriend’s apartment in Bed Stuy. He was chatty and animated while cooking up a batch of Maine steamer clams from his store for the two of them (“Shellfish are great, very sustainable. A lot of variety and no guilt!”). He also graciously provided a delicious plate of pasta with zucchini and garlic to vegan me.
In addition to his work at The Greene Grape, Reed is currently writing a book that details his journey from vegetarianism to ethical omnivorism and theorizes an environmentally friendly future for meat. He also plans to begin teaching waste-reducing meat-cutting classes to both home and professional chefs, which is only one of many ideas Reed has for spreading the word of ethical butchery.
Reed initially became a vegetarian at age 12 “to piss my mom off,” but that vintage 1990s act of preteen rebellion soon deepened into a politicized stance. He stayed a vegetarian because didn’t want to support an industry that was based on cruelty to animals and destroying the earth.
There also were health reasons. “Being a black male, I wanted to alleviate the risk of the heart disease and diabetes,” he explains. “Much as I love, love, love meat now, I still think that having that many formative years without a lot of fats or cholesterol or any of those things in my body maybe will help me? (laughs) It gives me a little boost.”
Reed was even vegan for several years. He made that transition when he was 20, but went back to eating dairy while backpacking across Europe.
It took two weeks behind the meat counter for Reed to fall off the veggie wagon. Although he had cooked meat while working the grill at a previous job, he had no idea what it tasted like. Now customers were asking for all kinds of advice on a food Reed hadn’t eaten since he was a child, and he found himself at a total loss. Uncomfortable with this knowledge gap, he wrestled with the concept of eating meat again. After all, Reed acknowledged, he was already cutting, cooking and doing everything shy of actually ingesting the stuff.
Reed has no regrets and is now an enthusiastic meat eater who wants to shift meat consumption to a model that’s sustainable. While he enjoys beef from time to time, he’s quick to point out that large-scale beef production is impossible to maintain without causing vast environmental damage. He argues that people need to begin viewing beef as an occasional delicacy rather than a staple.
Reed also bemoans the reputation seafood has achieved of being somehow less “bad” than other meat. “In so many ways, it’s worse than industrial farming could ever be,” he explains, spinning his cap intently around on his index finger. “The fish industry is ruining the entire planet.
“For hundreds of years now, it’s been dredging and trolling the bottoms of our oceans, over fishing and causing the extinction of populations and messing with entire eco systems. This is literally changing the earth.” There is hope for conscientious seafood lovers, though. Reed points to the work of groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Blue Ocean Institute who make a variety of seafood guides for consumers who want know how their fish came to them.
With the market for healthier and more sustainably produced meats on the rise, Reed hopes that consumers of conscience will turn their dollars toward eating seasonally from local farms rather than focusing on “organic” or other such green-seeming labels. He explains that with organic certification now under the USDA’s jurisdiction, most small farmers are left out as they can’t afford the fees involved.
Meanwhile, multinational corporations that continue to wreak environmental havoc offer specialty organic lines of products that likely left an enormous carbon footprint on their way to your plate. When a consumer buys such things, “you’re supporting their green front,” Reed sighs. “Corporations have gotten hip to the market, that people want to see these labels, people want to see organic Tyson’s chicken nuggets and will buy it for their kids thinking that they’re doing the right thing, no matter what else [destructive] the company is doing.”
Until there’s a serious global shift in how we produce foodstuffs, Reed continues to network like-minded professionals and amateur connoisseurs from the grassroots up, which is only one rewarding aspect of his now year-old, unlikely career. Butchery, he says with intensity and slight awe, contains “everything I’m passionate about. It’s anatomy and physiology, it’s art, it’s athletic, it’s demanding and physical ... it’s cooking, it’s food, it’s something I get to talk to people about, and it’s also political.”
Additional photos: Michael Schnepf