At 16, Jessica Wragg applied for a job at the farm shop in her hometown of Chesterfield, England, in order to earn money for clothes, movie tickets and underage piña coladas. And when she was placed behind the all-male butcher counter, she had never held a knife, let alone broken down a lamb carcass. She certainly didn’t expect, then, that this would set into motion a lifelong career in the field of butchery.
This is the subject of Wragg’s debut memoir, Girl on the Block: A True Story of Coming of Age Behind the Counter.
After getting sick her first day on the job (triggered by a co-worker fishing a cow tongue out of a bucket of brine), Wragg nearly threw in the towel, maintaining, "I felt strange being in there: cold and afraid and uncomfortable."
But ultimately, she soldiered on, and over the next ten years Wragg worked her way up the ranks at various butcheries, while simultaneously getting a master's degree in creative writing. But the most interesting learnings came not from sausage or pork crackling, but from the toxic masculinity and sexual harassment that’s all too rampant in the restaurant world. “For a woman in the meat industry,” she writes, “feeling like an outsider is just par for the course.” Indeed, butcher shops are dominated by men who have inherited their jobs from their fathers and grandfathers, and they’re often reluctant, Wragg notes, to give any kind of help to an outsider.
Fortunately, Wragg reports that things are slowly shifting for the better. “Five years into my career, I heard that there were only twenty female butchers working in the U.K. Today, I can easily name thirty of us off the top of my head,” she says. And she credits this shift to the rise of ethical eating; as more people seek to know what’s going into their bodies, women, who have long been the curators of recipes and culinary how-tos, are entrusted with more steps of the food process.
Wragg intersperses her personal history with tips and tricks she’s picked up along the way, from basic techniques (how to tie a butcher’s knot, “the essential cuts from nose to tail”) to carnivorous recipes (like a particularly mouthwatering rib eye with duck-fat chips and creamed spinach). She also provides a list of female-fronted butcheries around the world, including Melissa Cortina at Bavette Meat & Provisions in Pasadena, California, and Cara Nicoletti at Foster Sundry in Brooklyn.
For fans of Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter, Girl on the Block is a fascinating and grisly look at a profession you probably haven’t given much thought to.
At the very least, it’ll inspire you to whip up a nice Sunday roast.