How I Became a New York Butcher — And Love It

No little girl grows up and says “I want to be a butcher.” I was no different, even though I was born to one. Growing up in Westchester County, my friends joked about my family’s fixation on all things meat, but they never complained when our family’s cow bell signaled that dinner was ready and there a place reserved for them at the table. Even my family name “Strassburger” hinted at the menu you’d be served — and they reminded me of this often. “Are you allowed to eat turkey on Thanksgiving?” they’d say. (And yes — we were.)

Like many young people, there was a time when I wanted to run from what seemed like my preordained fate. And after contemplating the possibilities of being a nun and a Peace Corps volunteer, I did a stint in Washington, DC, going to college and then working at a trendy café. But soon, New York and the business beckoned. Although meat packing has traditionally been “men’s work,” my father had only daughters to turn to as the next leaders of the company and with a mix of trepidation and obligation, I stepped up to the plate at the young age of 24.

As is typical in New York, fashion was of great interest among my 20-something friends, who dashed to jobs at magazines, ad agencies and PR firms. Their manicures were meticulous while mine were pointless given my work. Their skirts were short and attractive while my career clothes were sweatshirts, jeans, and shoes that would be swapped for waterproof boots on my arrival at work. When they rolled into their offices each morning, I’d been on the job for four hours unloading boxes, answering phones, taking orders and checking shipments. After work happy hours were impossible because I had to be up at 2 a.m.

While most days I was content among the hanging carcasses, there were moments of intense mental and physical exhaustion. At times I wondered if I had chosen the business or if the business had chosen me — and I just didn’t have the power to resist the “normalcy” of a life of meat. But they say people get older and wiser, and that proved true for me. As our father got older, I realized we had reached a make or break point: I was in or out. And if this multi-generational company was going to survive, I needed to be fully committed.

We needed a brand for our retail products and a friend once joked that my nickname should be Suzy Sirloin. With that off the cuff joke, a new product line was born and I was inspired to tell the world that I was part of an industry which is the largest part of agriculture, and that agriculture is the largest part of the economy, and our amazing efficiency made it possible for Americans to spend less on meat than any other nation in the world.

As I began to connect with the miracle of what goes on long before I cut carcasses into steaks, I came to appreciate the work of farmers and ranchers. It’s a job that a tiny fraction of our population wants to do, (and fewer than five percent of Americans today live on farms) but without them, we would starve — literally. To show my support, I decided I needed a hat. Not a Gucci’s or a Helen Kaminki, tempting as they were in the store windows, but a good old fashioned cowboy hat like the one JR wore on my favorite TV show Dallas. With some New York moxie and my Stetson, I headed into the streets and found both doors and conversations were opened. People seemed charmed by the American tradition the hat represented. They engaged me and expected to give directions to a tourist from Lubbock, not chat meat grades with a would-be cowgirl sporting a New York accent. I was energized by the exchanges.

That simple act of wearing a cowboy hat taught me that people are hungry not just for meat, but for information about meat. It seemed that every time I explained my occupation, I was peppered with 21 questions. Is grass fed better or grain fed? (They are both excellent). Are antibiotics used to produce meat? (Only when necessary). How about hormones? (There’s more in coleslaw than steak). Is meat safe? (Yes, and getting safer every day). Is local meat better? (The best kind is the kind you enjoy.) I was delighted about the business that I was born into. Everybody eats — and everybody cares about what they eat.

Soon, I adopted “Suzy Sirloin” as my Twitter handle and starting engaging online — and I never coveted a good manicure again. Since then, I’ve schooled myself on livestock production and meat science. I’ve tried to listen to people’s questions and concerns and while I don’t always have every answer consumers are seeking, I know where to find them. For me, there’s nothing so satisfying as helping empower someone with information they need to make an informed choice.

Growing up, the nuns used to say “Bloom where you are planted.” I could have been planted in a lot of places, but I got lucky enough to spend my life in something as basic as meat production, feeding people and experiencing the amazing miracle of our American food supply that delivers safe, affordable, nutritious and delicious products to families like mine.

The next time you see a woman in a cowboy hat walking 5th Avenue, don’t assume she’s from Lubbock. Yell “Hey Suzy” and if the cowgirl smiles and waves, it’s probably me. And If you’ve got the time, let’s sit down and have a burger and I can introduce you to some of the hardworking ranchers who help bring them to your plate.