I debated with myself between a 5 and a 4 star rating, deciding on 5 because while it's not a perfect book, my dissatisfactions are fairly abstract - voice, structure, intended audience - and this is in itself a very practical book. To understand what I don't here like requires first understanding what this book is - and isn't - and it's probably easiest to explain that by way of what I do like.
Written by Joshua and Jessica Applestone, proprietors of Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats (a butcher shop in Kingston, NY), with help from Alexandra Zissu, the book itself is divided into several sections, including a memoir-ish opening, a butchering and agriculture background section. Following is a section each on aspects of raising and butchering lamb, pork, beef, and poultry. Each of these sections has some basic info on the animal including cute pictures and nice descriptions of heritage breeds, what to think about when buying it and how one might go about cutting it up. The book winds down with sections on sourcing meat and listings of resources. Each of these sections had enough information for me, more than a brief introduction but not so exhaustive that I felt overwhelmed.
Reading the book, there are lots of things to like, including an easy-reading style, ample humor, consistent vitriolic condemnation of factory-farming techniques, and good illustrations and photography. Beyond this, the book addresses several themes, including the history and current state of traditional agriculture, the (lost) art and science of butchery, and sustainable agriculture emphasizing meat production but also the place for humans in the food chain, e.g. sustainable jobs. All this is approached from the very practical position of butcher shop owners trying to make a living. For example, there is a discussion of a spectrum of chicken raising techniques from conventional (i.e. factory farm) to organic to completely pasture raised, and the considerations they had in choosing which they would sell in their store, including a steady supply, processing opportunities, distance of the chickens from their shop, and so on.
The information on butchering was wonderful. It was not intended to turn the audience into expert butchers, and in fact expresses strongly the reasonable limitations of home butchering. The instruction on butchering serves to help understand the processes, the multitudinous ways an animal can be carved to suit various tastes and purposes, and of course the value of the traditional butcher. There is also a wealth of information on terms like `organic,' `grass fed,' and `natural,' some of which have defined meanings and some of which are empty marketing slogans with no set meaning whatsoever. In addition there is discussion of how some terms like `organic' can be used deceptively.
That's what the book is. There are several things this book is not. It's not a cookbook, although it has some recipes. It's not a butcher's manual, although it has extensive information on cutting up meat. Despite what it says on the back cover it's really neither a memoir nor a manifesto, but it does tell stories from the authors' lives and endorse a strong viewpoint. It's not groundbreaking news reporting on the state of agriculture. And, it doesn't pretend to be any of these things. Instead it recommends books exploring the problems of modern agricultural practices, as well as books on butchering, cooking, and charcuterie (the making of prepared meat products like sausage - I had to look it up) to pick up where it leaves off.
Inasmuch as these aspects are in the book, they tie to other major themes and topics. So, for instance there is a recipe for cooking a butterflied chicken (essentially put in hot pan, press with heavy weights, flip, fry, finish in oven) that comes after the explanation of how to butterfly a chicken and arguing that chicken is one of the things the novice `butcher' can cut up easily at home. There are recipes on using beef shanks (make chili) and tongue (make tacos) and marrow bones (make a make-shift roasting rack) and other wrongfully neglected cuts of meat, which tie to the theme of sustainable agriculture and using all (most) parts of an animal, which in turn ties to the information on the craft of butchery. There are recipes for a spice rub and a sausage they use in their shop, which ties into the book's practical approach. One nice aspect of the book is how all these different aspects augment and inform each other in these ways. As a final example, the information on terms like `organic' mentioned above leads to a (small) section on questions to ask one's own butcher / farmer / farmer's market seller, and again ties back to the memoir aspect of their personal experiences starting out.
That said, other than the info on butchering - for which it is well worth reading the book - there isn't much new or revolutionary here. If you are well versed in the `new agriculture' movement - e.g. Food, Inc., King Corn, or the works Mike Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Mark Bitman (Food Matters), Roger Doiron (at Roger Doiron dot com) and many others - there won't be much new here for you. (If you're not familiar, I suggest you look at these last three authors' TED talks on TED dot com for nice, succinct introductions). And the recipes are for the most part simple and straightforward; good but they probably won't wow you. For example, as a cook who seldom follows recipes exactly, I looked at the much-touted spice rub recipe and thought, `yeah, that's about what I'd expect. not much pepper for that much oregano. huh.' Another Amazon reviewer exclaimed in anguish about the large amount of spices in the sausage recipe, but the authors did point out their preference for highly spices sausage in the text, and again the practical aspect - this is what they are making (and selling lots of) in the shop.
With all this goodness, there is still room for some critique. Where I am in Iowa, I have ready access to good organic, humanely treated, grass fed beef and pork by way of local buying clubs, CSAs, direct purchases from farmers, and at least some local supermarkets (e.g. the New Pioneer Coop in Iowa City). I have no doubt that the butchery described in the book exceeds what I can get around here, and I bet that if Fleisher's was nearby I'd shop there. Maybe my sustainable meat situation is better than other folks' and maybe I've taken more time to educate myself to my options, but I'm not sure the quality meat access situation is as dire as the book presents. At least, I'd like more discussion of the differences between Fleisher's full-service shop and the some-service meat departments dealing in good meats.
Next, although Jessica is given co-author credit, she barely exists as a character in the book, and her voice exists not at all. The book is written in a strong first person that one assumes to be Joshua, but at the same time I wonder how much that is Alexandra Zissu, the ghostwriter. This ties to one of my critiques: that after reading the whole thing, I don't have a very robust picture of who these people are. After an intriguing introduction and backstory the book drops all pretense to memoir in the later chapters which seems somewhat incongruous given the tale-of-hardship narrative early on that (on presumes) is resolved in the years the butcher shop has been profitable. Yes, I've argued to take this book for what it is and it's not a memoir... so why am I complaining? Partly because the memoir section is what drew me in, but then it was dropped. Partly because the book doesn't really have a center; it goes too many places but stays for too short a time and I think the memoir aspect could have held it all together better.
The same lack of follow-up could be said for the butcher shop itself - I never really get a feeling for what it's like there. After much talk of the display cases, for instance, there isn't a picture of them, or the rotisserie chicken either. They talk of sustainable jobs... but how many folks work at the shop. They categorize their customers in very broad strokes, but only tease with details or perspectives from any of them. They hint at their role in the community, but don't define what that is. And so on.
Like I said at the beginning, my concerns are largely of the ephemeral variety. I recommend this book highly so long as the reader knows what it is and what it doesn't pretend to be.