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Have knife, will travel: Take a stab at butchery tourism

Nothing says vacation like getting elbow deep in a bloody pig carcass. At least not for the growing number of travelers looking to add butchery to the repertoire of culinary skills they've picked up around the country (or globe).

While cooking classes and farm tours are long-time staples of foodie vacation activities, butchery workshops are picking up steam.

The visceral, hands-on, seriously know-where-your-meat-comes-from aspect isn't for everyone. But the thought of donning chainmail and wielding a knife appeals to enough people that classes with master butchers are popping up from coast to coast.

Avedano's in San Francisco says they've seen the number of students in their classes grow by 25 percent a year for the last five years. Farmstead Meatsmith in the South Puget Sound of Washington only offered one type of class two-and-a-half years ago and now offers four today. In 2011, Bolzano Meats in Milwaukee offered four classes; last year they more than doubled that to 10. Classes sell out five months ahead of time with students traveling from as far away as Missouri.

Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats in New York has had to triple the number of classes they offer in the last year. They offer one and three day classes for beginners in Hudson Valley. The hands-on sessions include a slaughter.

“It's a pretty bonding experience. It's very emotional,” says Jessica Applestone, who owns Fleisher's with her husband Joshua. “People are really struck by the slaughter. You made that choice to participate in how your food arrived on your plate. You'll never really look at meat the same way."

Christine Huang, who works in marketing in New York City, and traveled to Hudson Valley for the three-day class, agrees. “It does give you a new-found respect for the meat you put on your table,” she says. “There was that moment when you know the pig is dead and it turns from being a pig into being pork."

What draws home cooks to tackle this new level of cooking class? “I think people are concerned about mystery meat and factory farming and pink slime,” says Marissa Guggiana, co-founder of The Butcher's Guild and author of Primal Cuts. “They want to be more connected.”

Angela Wilson, another founder of The Butchers Guild, and one of the three female owners of Avedano's (which also offers classes) in San Francisco, adds that part of the allure of butchery is its DIY-appeal. “People are canning, meat-cutting, candle-making. People in a bad economy have less money and want to get back to basics," she said. "They want to know where their meat comes from.”

And people are willing to travel for the experience, Wilson says, rattling off names of other destination butchers who offer classes, like 4505 Meats in San Francisco, Portland Meat Collective, and Farmstead Meatsmith in Washington.

Though much of the action takes place on the coasts – the Bay area, Portland, and Brooklyn are the epicenters, according to Guggiana – the trend can be spotted nationwide. She cited Austin as a food hub, and noted Jesse Griffith's classes there on hunting and butchering wild game. Meanwhile, in Denver, a man named Mark DeNittis has started an organization called The Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat.

The Butcher & Larder in Chicago offers demonstrations; all things heritage pig will be celebrated at Slo Pig in Milwaukee in April; and though "all this meat stuff is still kind of a guy's thing," according to Wilson, there's even an April workshop in Napoleon, Kentucky, called Grrls Meat Camp, teaching butchery skills to women.

Many students come away not only transformed, but equipped to tackle new projects. Huang plans to make bacon. John Long, who traveled from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, for the Fleisher's class, says he is going process a pig with a friend in his garage. Some take it a step further, making plans to permanently swap pinstripes for chainmail.

“We get tons of people from Wall Street,” says Fleisher's Emily Bonilla. "We're working with two money men who want to become meat men."