Don't Run from the Discussion with Camas Davis
Posted on 05 March 2016
We just kind of had a perfect relationship to food, and also being on the west coast, there’s just a spirit of rebellion and pioneering and a do-it-yourself approach to life. So I could capitalize on that and find people pretty easily that were like, ‘Oh, butcher a pig on my kitchen counter? No problem.’ - Camas Davis
It’s 2009. Camas Davis finds herself jobless, at a crossroads, and with a lot (but not enough) food knowledge bouncing around in her head. So she moves to France to study butchery.
It’s 2016. And Davis runs a nonprofit, has a book deal with Penguin, and remains the head of a band of butchers that have started a national movement, the Portland Meat Collective. She sat down with me at Elder Hall and our conversation ran the gamut: books, food ethics, the title of "lady butcher," and our culture's pattern of avoiding tough emotions.
What’s developing for you? Maybe some work on this book we’ve been hearing about?
When I went to France, six or seven years ago, I thought, ‘I’m never going to write again. I’m going to have this experience and I’m never going to write about it.’ And that proved to be very wrong. In the back of my head, as things kept unfolding, I kept thinking, ‘This is a really great story, and it would be a really fun story to write.’
I got a book deal with Penguin and Picador in the UK, and I have to turn in a draft at the end of this year. It’s been good. It’s nice to be writing whatever I want. And to not be hemmed in by a certain formula like in magazines, which is what I used to do.
Is the book more narrative? Or more focused on the ethics and morals of what you do?
It’s pure narrative non-fiction. No recipes or anything like that, which I’m relieved about. It’s basically about me starting to ask the question, ‘Is responsible meat possible?’ and then the question, ‘What does that require of me?’ But it’s also personal so it’s about me losing my job after ten years of working in magazines, ending a major relationship, and everything shifting all at once and running away to France to figure it all out. It’s personal, professional, and political I guess. No small feat.
You probably would never have imagined a book deal or writing a book about your life.
No. I mean, maybe when I was five. And once I started working in magazines I never thought in terms of book-length stories anyway. So it’s great that it sort of happened out of this experience, that this experience has written the book for me, if that makes sense, without me seeking it out as a book.
Your idea, just the core of Portland Meat Collective, is so smart. When you look at it, it’s one those things where you think, 'How did this not already exist?'
Right. It’s almost so obvious. Like, ‘Why did we not see this before?’ And now there are other people in town doing it because I’ve now shown that it can be done, which is great.
I do think that when I thought of it, it was the exact right time in Portland, Oregon to think about it. If I had waited two years or thought of it two years earlier, I don’t know that it would have worked. It was the right time and the right place for sure.
What is it about Portland and it’s people that made you think this could work?
There was all this knowledge that was only being tapped in so far as, ‘I order food from your menu’ or ‘I go to your store and buy ingredients from you’ but I knew that they (the butchers, chefs, producers) knew more. And as a restaurant reviewer, I also knew that people in Portland are incredibly opinionated and would rather be the restaurant reviewer than me. So you have this consumer base that is clearly obsessed with food, are very opinionated, and at the same time support a thriving farmers market and support local businesses. I think that Portland just had a perfect storm of food obsession and a perfect storm of food knowledge and the two weren’t coming together.
One part of what you’re doing is based on actual knowledge of the animal. And the other is the more ethical, hands-on stuff...
You know, when I first got into this, and I might go back and retell my story and say, ‘I was on a mission to discover responsible meat’ which is true but probably when I went into this I was just curious about ‘Where does this cut come from on the animal and why does it taste good?’ And when you learn that in a hands-on way, you automatically start asking other questions…once you enter that black hole, you have to ask questions and then the whole “responsible meat” thing starting occurring to me. So it was cool. I mean, it started with me picking up a knife and doing something with my hands, and then that forced me to ask all these other important questions. And I see that happening with my students.
You’ve said you don’t exactly look the part of a butcher, and while you might not really use “butcher” as an identifier now, is this something you still come up against?
I come up against it and it’s also helped me tremendously. I think because I’m a woman and women traditionally don’t want to do this, people were kind of intrigued at the beginning like, ‘Who is this lady?’ And I think that in some ways that gave me some entree into the world of meat that I might not otherwise have gotten. I don’t know that for sure, but I’m going to guess that’s the case. I did find that because I was such an anomaly, people very early on wanted to see me as a lady butcher before I even knew how to butcher. And so there was no room for me just be a woman learning how to butcher. I suddenly had to play the part of a lady butcher…because it was “so crazy.” I don’t think I understood that when it was happening, but in retrospect, I think it forced me to do things in front of crowds and in front of cameras that I wasn’t ready for, but I kind of just had to figure it out. So it was sort of a blessing and sort of annoying at the same time.
So the idea was outrunning what you were really even able to teach?
Yes. But I ran with it. I was like, ‘Fine if you want to write about me, write about me, great.’ But I never knew if they were writing about me because I’m a weirdo or is it the PMC? I was sort of weary. Am I being written about because it’s just funny and weird? Or are people taking this idea seriously? And I think in the end, for whatever reason they were writing about, it helped the idea grow in a really great way. And it brought it to the forefront of people’s minds in a way that is really rewarding.
Right. I mean, when you Google your name…Martha Stewart, NPR, New York Times Magazine. There are some big players out there that have been interested in telling your story. Was all that sort of surreal?
Especially since I worked for magazines, being in magazines was super weird. And there were points in which I wanted to tell the reporter which questions to ask and make sure they fact-checked it right. So that was weird. And I continue to be surprised by that level of interest. But it’s really great because it means the issues I’m raising have a national level kind of interest and not just a local one.
I’ve heard you talk about the emotional component of what you do. Why is that important?
For me, it’s a metaphor for how are culture deals with most difficult emotions. We just don’t want to have them. So we’ve built our world in such a way that we don’t have to have them. I totally get that. Difficult emotions are hard. But it’s at the cost of being thinking people who make informed choices. So to me, when people say, ‘Well we just shouldn’t eat meat because it’s so hard to kill animals.’ I don’t know. It is hard to kill animals, absolutely. If someone says it isn’t, I’m sort of freaked out by them. But I’m not sure that’s a reason why we shouldn’t do it.
If there’s a balance to be struck, that’s not going to happen without a certain level of being uncomfortable. And as a country, I think we ought to think harder about which of those uncomfortable things are okay to have in our lives and which aren’t. And I feel like the debate has been pretty, “Anything uncomfortable: don’t do it, don’t talk about it, don’t think about it.”
Just the other day, I opened one of those cartons of coconut milk or something and next to the top it said, “No more pull tabs!” And I was like, ‘Were pull tabs hard? I didn’t know that.’ And I opened it up, and I sat there for like an hour like, ‘Holy shit.’ We can’t handle pull tabs anymore. Whoa. I feel like everything is that now. And I think it’s a mistake.
Should we always do things that are hard and uncomfortable? No. But I just don’t believe that running away from the discussion is the answer.
I think the pull tab is now some sort of metaphor.
Totally. I’m going to use that in my book. It’s the opening chapter.