Camas Davis: On a Quest to Change the Way We Think About Meat

Camas Davis
Courtesy of Shawn Linehan

Ever wonder about the provenance of your pork chops or how that juicy steak got from Farmer Fred’s field to your plate on a Friday night? Are you conflicted? Having guilty thoughts? Well don’t worry, you’re not alone. Camas Davis understands. She’s been there and now she wants to help others get intimate with meat as she once did. Seriously though, it’s not as kinky as it sounds. Davis is on a mission.

“Ninety-nine percent of the animals raised for food are factory farmed. An increasing number of people want to eat that other one percent but don’t know how to access it and are afraid of the processes by which it ends up on their tables. We teach people about factory-farmed meat and then we teach them how to source and utilize meat that isn’t factory farmed. By making the whole process transparent, putting knives in people’s hands and showing them what it takes to get good meat, we’re bringing more choice to the table, we’re creating a more informed consumer base, one that wants to eat good meat, and, often, less of it.”

Davis started her career as a journalist in New York City working for National Geographic Adventure and then Saveur before returning to her roots in Oregon to take a position as food editor at Portland Monthly Magazine. At the height of the recession in 2009, the then 33-year-old Davis lost her job.

When considering her next act, she thought about staying in food writing but was somewhat disenchanted with the industry. In more than a decade of thinking and writing about food, she had never gotten her hands dirty. She considered culinary school or working in a restaurant, but she kept coming back to meat (yes, really, meat).

Camas Davis
Courtesy of Shawn Linehan

“I’d always found meat to be the most mysterious part of the food world. When I had a question about a vegetable, I could always discover its provenance, but with meat, the further I dug, the harder it was to find the answers. Personally, I also increasingly felt like the sources of my meat were suspicious or unknown, potentially problematic. So I decided to get intimate with meat and study butchery,” Davis explains.

She tracked across Oregon, talking to culinary schools and places that did whole-animal butchery, but it wasn’t a skill that anyone was prepared to teach seriously. There were no classes beyond breaking down a chicken or two or a once-off demonstration.

Forced to look farther afield, Davis found an American in Southwest France, Kate Hill, who has made it her life work to help people understand the artisanal process by which food makes it from the farm to the table.

Davis spent two months living with a pig-farming family, the Chapolards, who raised 400 pigs annually, a small operation by industrial standards. “They were responsible for the whole process. They raised the grain to feed their pigs, had a share in a cooperative slaughterhouse, did all the butchery and curing themselves, and sold at outdoor markets to the end consumer.”

Camas Davis
Courtesy of Shawn Linehan

She was amazed to see the Chapolards had a model where they used every part of the animal, from the pig head that was converted to head cheese to the blood that was processed into sausages. “It helped that they had a consumer base that was not afraid of all the parts and understood how to turn this into delicious food for the table.”

Still floundering somewhat when she returned to the US, Davis got a job in a butcher shop with the intention of promoting whole animal butchery. “Within a few weeks, it became very clear we didn’t have consumer interest and were losing money on it.”

Knowing that she couldn’t just transplant what she had seen in France to Portland, Oregon, she decided to keep learning until she figured out how a similar approach might work. “I knew I wanted to master the art of butchery but at the same time try and bring the ethics and economic principles that I had learned in France to my community. I also knew that if anyone was ever going to start doing something about how you raise animals for meat in a more sustainable and humane way, then they would need to create a consumer base that would support that.”

Her education began by talking to some farmers in the Willamette Valley who were not going the factory-farmed, boxed meat route but rather trying to sell whole animals to restaurants or to consumers.

“I thought, wow, this is great. The animals don’t have to travel a long way to be slaughtered, and a lot of the middle men are cut out of the process. These are clearly farmers who care about animal welfare, so why wouldn’t I buy from these folks? Especially when the quality is so much higher. I knew there was a demand from the community for a more cost-effective way to buy meat directly from small ranchers and farmers, but I also knew people needed help to transform those sides of pork into chops, bacon and ham roasts.”

So still on unemployment benefits and with no savings left, Davis launched the Portland Meat Collective (PMC). “My goal was to create connections between responsible local farms and consumers while teaching the latter how good meat gets to their table.”

Camas Davis
Courtesy of Shawn Linehan

The first class–which sold out and paid for itself–was held at an urban farm in early 2010. Encouraged, Davis began planning for additional classes on a variety of topics. One class, for example, might demonstrate the butchering of a pig, where the farmer supplying the pig is invited and the instructor is a butcher, a slaughterhouse worker, or even a meat science professor. PMC also offers charcuterie classes where students can learn how to make pâté or salami, among other things. Today, Davis teaches many of the classes herself. “It’s like a meat CSA (community-supported agriculture), but hands-on. We’re an educational organization. People either want to learn how to raise and butcher animals themselves or just learn more about the farm-to-table-process.”

So many people loved the idea and were willing to pitch in for free or barter. “That’s how I got my website and logo! Everything was done in a grassroots, DIY way. I was lucky because I had been a restaurant critic in Portland, and people knew my name, so when word got out, people were curious. After I handed out our first flyers, 500 people signed up for the mailing list. It was a magical moment in my life where I had nothing and was able to build this dream so quickly. The great thing about the model is I get paid to learn. Every time there is a new instructor, I learn something new.”

Camas Davis
Courtesy of Shawn Linehan

When asked what kind of impact she felt PMC has had, Davis is unequivocal: “We’ve taught about 4000 students in the past four years and created a whole new economy of local meat sourcing. Many people are eating less meat because we teach them how to stretch what they buy, they use meat as an accent to the meal as opposed to the main course. We’ve also seen a big rise in the number of whole-animal restaurants and we are helping other meat collectives launch around the country through our non-profit, the Meat Collective Alliance. There are six collectives along the west coast due to these efforts and more to come. But most interestingly, we’ve created a space for dialog around meat-eating to happen in a less divisive way.”

As a Chase Mission Main Street Grant winner this year, Davis has used the funds to bring others on board, freeing up her time to focus on bigger ideas. “I’ve worked hard for a long time so it was a nice gift to get. I can hand over the reins and concentrate on the bigger picture.”

And as a welcome sign of things to come, Davis is looking into introducing more serious professional education to help bring back a trade that was once a main staple of every thriving community: the local butcher shop.

Where local bakeries have paved the way, hopefully butchers are not far behind.

Watch Camas Davis TEDxSitka talk on lessons in transparency

Leave a Reply