By Andy Radtke | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Just six steps into 811 Williamson Street, viably the birthplace of Madison’s red-blooded east side, bring me belly-to-belly with a heavily marbled, split steer carcass on a stainless steel table, and I feel a primordial buzz coming on. Or at least its paleo descendant.
The two sinewy butchers carefully addressing the prone flesh and bones with medieval caliber knives and an oversized hacksaw hardly notice I’m here. They’re focused on their task, which is also testing the strength of the table below. My host, the proprietor of this irresistible den, Jonny Hunter, tells me it’s Thursday. Beef day.
This is Underground Butcher, a one-room butcher shop that’s engaged in a premodern, whole-carcass business in the restored 1872 blacksmith shop of Geiger & Williamson (yes, that Williamson). I am flanked by shelves and coolers packed with the finest in food, wine, booze, meat, cheese, and a rabbit or two, dealing out a savory scent that’s ringing the bells of my inner lunchtime.
Underground Butcher is a key connector business in Madison’s Underground Food Collective (UFC). “It’s all born out of a solid, vertically integrated system,” Hunter says, describing the culinary network of sibling businesses that swap and share many moving parts (and sometimes employees) that Hunter and his business partner, Melinda Trudeau, have created over the past 14 years. It’s a constellation employing 150 on the cutting edge of Madison’s extraordinary food cosmos.
With an undergraduate degree in English from UW-Madison and a master’s degree in Public Policy from UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, Hunter finds himself riding an unexpected life arc. “I did food the whole time in school, but I never thought it would be my career.” While pursuing his studies and following his heart toward a life in politics, Hunter learned to cook, and from that perspective took interest in the more elemental aspects of sustainable, local food systems.
In 2006, he taught himself how to butcher whole animals, relying for guidance on then-scant online resources. A 2014 piece on Underground Butcher in the online magazine Eater described the scenario from those early days. “There just wasn’t much information out there. YouTube didn’t have any of the upwards of 40,000 butchery-related videos that populate the site today. YouTube barely even existed itself.” Still, Hunter persisted that first year, and along with his brother and the one instructional online video they could find, they hit the pause button a lot on their way toward perfecting the art of reducing whole animals into the primal and sub-primal cuts we all recognize when we see them.
Except the cuts at Underground Butcher aren’t exactly what we all recognize. Unlike the majority of conventional meat cuts we encounter in big boxes and elsewhere, Underground Butcher “dry ages” the cuts it creates, a process that controls temperature and humidity and reduces reliance on salt to gently extract moisture and induce a sort of flavor ferment in the meat over time—at least 28 days after slaughter and cleaning, and up to 80 days.
Fifty-two times every year—every Thursday—the little butcher that could applies its sharpened artisans to the age-old work of reducing a whole cow to manageable size and shape and dry aging for cooks of all stripes. More often but on different weekdays, they tackle whole pigs, and less frequently but just as weekly, whole sheep. Twenty chickens per week and a varying number of turkeys come in farmercut and ready for sale. All the animals are sourced from local, grassbased farmers, slaughtered at nearby USDA-accredited facilities, and delivered whole to a UFC facility where the process begins its loop toward Madison’s luckiest tables.
All of these varieties as well as a full offering of enticing charcuterie, made by UFC specialist Underground Meats, are for sale in the Williamson Street retail space of Underground Butcher. But it’s the vertical integration that creates a wider market while building the community and economic viability Hunter aims for.
Underground Butcher provides meat-cutting services and custom cuts from the whole animal to a handful of Madison’s like-minded restaurants, including UFC’s Forequarter restaurant east of the square on Johnson. The creations of Underground Meats have top billing on the menu of Forequarter, and it distributes its salami and other handmade sausages to many more restaurants in Madison and beyond.
Still, there’s much more to the family of businesses that make up Underground Food Collective.
Underground Catering does just that on a small scale, while Food Truck caters larger events, Collective Goods manages the processing of vegetables (focusing on fresh peppers) from local farms, manages a baking partnership, and markets the essentials of a full table: jams, crackers, pickles, and more. Lowry Hill Meats is their retail store in Uptown Minneapolis, and coming to Allen Street on Madison’s near west side this September is The Heights, a retail café serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Like its founder, Underground Butcher is pioneering, dynamic and best served with a chopped cup of anarchy. Hunter has never lost his affinity for public policy and politics, an interest that includes a fascination with anarchy. “I believe through and through in the benefits to society of government work,” he says, followed immediately by, “I believe in the organizing principles of anarchy.” Which, I have learned partly as witness to the gorgeously productive bustle of Underground Butcher, and partly from Mr. Google, is an actual, formal political philosophy that seeks to avoid the potential tyrannies of hierarchy in favor of organized volunteer associations.
“Underground Food Collective has a hierarchy,” Hunter says, smiling, “but it’s a very confusing hierarchy.” Confusing maybe for staff, but there’s a real, beneficent wizardry for patrons, as my time at Underground Butcher made clear. A constant flow of walk-in customers, many obviously regulars, judging from the casual interplay with those behind the counters, came and went away holding packages like treasures. I noticed this weird thing; in each bag there seemed to be value of a higher nature. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s the throwback atmosphere of exposed, aged rock and brickwork that ties this place in time to raw Madison, when industrial craft and artistry were performed face-to-face by neighbors you knew, specifically to delight you.
I had to try it, so I purchased a thick, dry-aged pork chop for my upcoming bachelor weekend. It was a delight to have it in hand. It seemed so different coming from this history-seasoned Willy-Street-level butchery. After I drove it back to my distant home in the hills, I learned exactly why.
Never have I tasted this taste before, and I’ve eaten many pork chops prepared by many expert, loving hands. I’m no cook, but I can work a grill, so I did my thing: briefly sear on each side, then low and slow to the finish. A pinch or two of Himalayan pink salt once off the grill.
Since there are no words, I’ll spare you the nuclear-scale hyperbole the taste of this pork chop ignited in me. But I will tell you that Mr. Jonny Hunter and his team of knife-wielding pirate anarchists at Underground Butcher are onto something near-perfect. He can talk all he wants about how we ought to take meat into our bodies and our lives more thoroughly, at a slower pace. He can localize his sourcing to ensure partnership with the rural economy that surrounds what he sees as Madison’s unexpectedly super-excellent food culture. He can fight the uphill battle to offer an elegant alternative to the insanity behind America’s uncanny allegiance to its perceived birthright of cheap food forever.
But as Underground Butcher simply continues to do what it does, to start with and use the whole animal, and from it expertly cut and dry-age meat for our trip back to wholesome, all those other things will tag along, because we can’t dodge the truth once we taste it.