At 11:30 on an overcast Friday morning, Donald Smith’s countertop gleamed with clean knives. By 11:45, a whole pig had taken residence there. And at noon, only segments of pork remained.
Such fast-paced craft is routine at Harlem Shambles, a butcher shop located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 115th and 116th Streets. A pendulous triptych of beef greeted visitors to Shambles that morning, two shoulders and a hefty chunk of hindquarter each suspended from a meat hook. The back half of a lamb occupied a tabletop, obscured by display cases laden with various cuts of meat and house-cured sausages.
Shambles prides itself on its “whole animal” ethos. “We try to make a profit out of everything,” explained Smith, an employee of Shambles for four years. “Nothing goes to waste.” Accordingly, the shop sells beef kidneys, livers, and hearts alongside the more popular end cuts, steaks, and ribs. The butchers make no exception for trimmings, melting down beef fat to make tallow candles.
After heaving the pig onto his workspace, Smith seamed it, a process yielding a few pieces which he later broke down into individual cuts. His handiwork revealed stratified layers of flesh, fat, and muscle, the latter marbled with white striations. Lacerating off a three-to-four-inch wedge, Smith began to separate meat from scrap, wielding his knife with the dexterous fluidity of a painter. His fingers seldom sat still for more than five seconds as they maneuvered around the meat to find optimal tension. After a few minutes of work, he set aside his finished round next to a splayed-out leg of palest pink.
What implements did he need to get this far? Smith probed around his workspace, taking inventory of his lethal-looking array: “A scimitar and boning knife…and a handsaw.” He looked up in triumph. “That’s it.”
Established by brothers Tim and Mark Forrester in late 2011, Shambles represents a recent wave of development around Frederick Douglass Boulevard. To its left sits L Lounge, a black-lacquered nightclub that hosts Thirsty Thursdays and Grown and Sexy Saturdays. Blujeen lies on its right, a comfort food-made-cool eatery that accompanies their cornbread with chipotle scallion butter. Two blocks away, Levain Bakery sells fresh-baked cookies and brioche.
Community-oriented, the butchery values local sourcing: Shambles obtains all its cows, pigs, lambs, and chickens from farmers upstate. As well as meat, it offers New York-made milk, yogurt, eggs, bread, pasta, granola, and more.
According to Jason Wachtelhausen, a butcher at Shambles since 2012, the shop primarily serves individuals. He approximated that restaurants comprise a mere 2% of their business. One such restaurant is the neighboring Blujeen, which prepares its burgers with Shambles beef.
Customers meandered around the varnished hardwood floors, some gawking at the carnivorous spectacle. After placing his order, a patron in a Canada Goose parka took a photo of his two companions by the dangling hunks of beef.
A mélange of Seventies and Eighties hits rang throughout the butchery. His knife entrenched in the pig’s belly, Smith hummed along to The Jackson 5’s “ABC.” Wachtelhausen shimmied to the beat as he walked over to check the progress on the pig.
Outside, a woman with cherry-red hair sprinted across the street in pursuit of the bus, cackling that her legs were too short. Passerby stopped to chat with a man panhandling beside the nearby subway entrance.
A few blocks away, construction continued on a Whole Foods set to open this summer: soon Frederick Douglass Boulevard will welcome another vendor of fresh meat.