Now starring in the off-off-Broadway production of How To Succeed in Cooking Without Really Trying ... me. Yes, critics agree that I recently stole the suppertime show with my confident portrayal of Mother Preparing Dinner for Family. I admit the role was a stretch for me, after being typecast in lesser parts, such as Person Ordering Takeout and Woman Defrosting Pizza, but I dug down deep and accessed some culinary emotion that empowered me to prepare a casual weeknight meal worthy of a standing ovation. I don't mean to be immodest when I tell you what the audience said of my repertoire of pâté and Italian-style sausages from local pork; cream of celery soup; cheeses from Vermont and Tennessee; and honey butter from an apiary in Hendersonville. Comments included "This is delicious" and "Is there more?"
To be honest, the triumph was not really my own. I was something of a Lina Lamont from Singin' in the Rain, taking credit for the vocal performance when really it's the melodious Kathy Selden behind the curtain belting out beautiful music while Lamont lip-syncs.
In this case, the backstage talents behind my exquisite locally sourced meal were the team at Porter Road Butcher. Located at the corner of Gallatin Road and Calvin Avenue, Porter Road Butcher is the locavorous brainchild of native Nashvillian Chris Carter and St. Louis transplant James Peisker. The two chefs teamed up after working together at Capitol Grille under local food advocate Chef Tyler Brown. They now oversee a whole-animal butchering operation that transforms locally raised meats — from tip to tail — into steaks, chops, ribs, stocks, sausages, pâtés and other specialties.
The men of meat are joined by cheesemonger Kathleen Cotter, who relocated her Bloomy Rind selections from the Farmers' Market to take up permanent residence at PRB.
At any given moment in the sunlit showroom, Cotter is carving up wheels of cheese from across the region and the country, Carter is preparing beef-barley soup or lamb pot pie, and a scimitar-wielding Peisker is elbow-deep in the carcass of a grass-fed cow.
Meanwhile, East Nashville-based pastry chef Nicole Wolfe is stopping by with an order of King Cakes. Or Twin Forks Farm artisan baker David Tannen from Primm Springs, Tenn., is handing out slices of his new heritage bread made with heirloom wheat. Or Rod Trusler is dropping off chickens from Rolling Hills Farm in Duck River, Tenn. There is the distinct feeling that the characters in the growing local food movement have found their playhouse at Porter Road Butcher.
In the gleaming stainless-steel workroom, outfitted with little more than cutting counter, band saw and Peisker's favorite German knives, no part of the animal goes to waste. When he breaks down the midsection of a hog, for example, the chops and ribs go into the refrigerator case; belly gets smoked into an exquisite, faintly sweet bacon; fat finds its way into rustic rillettes; pork scraps get tossed with eggs, cream and nutmeg and stuffed into a bratwurst casing, or laced with herbs and whiskey in Tennessee pâté; bones simmer in stock; and the skin — oh, the skin — gets packed into an Italian sausage known as cotechino.
I was lucky enough to arrive when a few coils of the cotechino special remained in the refrigerator. Having never seen anything quite so unabashedly loaded with lipids, I asked the butchers about it, and they launched into a vaguely grotesque description that gave me a sudden sense of job security in my role as a food writer. When they unleashed a vocabulary of unvarnished words such as "fatty" and "gelatinous," not to mention "skin," Cotter jumped in to soften the language, using euphemisms, such as "unctuous" and "caramelized." Whatever words you choose to describe it, the cotechino, which is precooked and requires only a brief turn in the oven at high heat, was a showstopper. The skin burst open to reveal a lightly packed medley of minced meat and sizzling oven-crisped rind; meanwhile, the resulting golden drippings added a new dimension to sautéed vegetables.
Twelve bucks a pound is a splurge for sausage, especially sausage that loses much of its fatty volume in the heating process. (Most PRB sausages are $9 a pound.) But the servings that remained were so remarkable as to open a family discussion about whether we want to be the kind of people who eat a lot of mediocre food or a little exquisite food. We haven't reached consensus yet, but after a meal from Porter Road Butcher, we're heading in the right direction.
When it comes to opening the dialog about where, what and how much we eat, there's little more provocative than the sight of a whole pig — head and all — dusted with cracked pepper and salt in advance of smoking, or a headless, hoofless calf dangling from a hook waiting to be dismembered. Porter Road Butcher doesn't smack you in the head with these sights, so if you're squeamish, don't hesitate to stop by. The bulk of such reality is concealed in the walk-in cooler out back, along with whole beef livers, aging pancetta and a ham that will finish curing in time for summer 2013. But for diners and cooks who take comfort in connecting their food with its origins, Porter Road Butcher offers muscular evidence that pork comes from pigs and beef comes from cows.
And in the skilled culinary hands of Peisker and Carter, so much more than chops and steaks come from those animals. The store's Facebook page offers an ever-changing array of delectables, such as pork cottage pie; kielbasa and housemade sauerkraut; and sausage, eggs and cheddar wrapped in puff pastry.
This spring, the Porter Road team will plant a garden out back, by the smoker and the cooler, where they will plant herbs for the sausages, as well as tomatoes for canning sauces and cucumbers for pickling. As the nascent meat market gets its feet, it's likely to expand its tightly edited repertoire of groceries and prepared foods. But when it comes to meat, there's just about anything you can think of. Brandishing a scimitar in a hand tattooed with a chef's knife, Peisker says, "I will cut it any way you want it."
Porter Road Butcher is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
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