Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Camas Davis

The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.

Camas Davis was born in Eugene, Oregon, but spent most of her childhood in the tiny farming community of Alvadore, about 30 minutes to the west. She went to high school in Eugene, then studied at Antioch College in Ohio before returning home to get her bachelor's degree in comparative literature at the University of Oregon. She went on to earn a master's degree in performance studies at New York University. From 2000 to 2009, Davis was a staff editor and writer for such publications as National Geographic Adventure, Saveur, and Portland Monthly Magazine. In 2009, Davis traveled to southwestern France to study whole animal butchery and charcuterie. Upon her return to Portland, she founded the Portland Meat Collective, a traveling butchery school that has become a local and national resource for meat education. In 2014, she launched the Meat Collective Alliance, a nonprofit corporation whose mission it is to spread similar meat education programs across the country. Davis and the Portland Meat Collective have been covered in the New York Times Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, Dark Rye, and many other national media outlets. She lives in Portland, where, in addition to running PMC and MCA, she is working on a book.

What's your earliest food memory?
I have lots of early food memories I'd rather not talk about, because they weren't good. I mean who wants to talk about spoonfuls of smooshed peas? My first good food memory is simply wandering down the dirt road I grew up on and picking fresh Italian plums, blackberries warmed by the sun, Bing cherries, and strawberries from the orchards and gardens and u-pick croplands that surrounded our house growing up. That's a close tie with tasting my great Aunt Helen's chicken-fried venison for the first time, though.

When did you first decide that you wanted to be pursue a career in food, and why?
I was still in high school when Saveur launched. I remember flipping through the beautiful photographs and thinking, huh, people do this for a living? Then I started working in restaurants, and while I loved cooking, I knew it wasn't a lifelong goal of mine to work in restaurants. Plus, my writer side was a little stronger. When I moved to New York to work for magazines in 1999, my first job was at National Geographic Adventure. Whenever they needed someone to write the occasional "Camp Cooking" blurb, I always volunteered. When a job came up at Saveur, I remembered seeing those photos when I was still a teenager and thought: if other people do this for a living, so can I. I applied for the job and got it. I knew then that I had landed on a topic and a lens through which I wanted to explore the world.

Who was your most important culinary influence?
My mom was the main cook growing up, so she is probably my earliest culinary influence. I didn't always like what she cooked, but she taught me the basics. At my first real job cooking in a restaurant I worked under Maria, a talented Venezuelan cook. We were mostly cooking bad hippy Mexican food in Eugene, Ore., but she taught me about ratios and flavors and spices that I had never heard of before. After that, the entire staff at Saveur became my most important culinary influence as an adult.

What are the most important lessons you learned from that culinary influence?
From Mom: Keep it simple. From Maria: The incredible power of an onion. From the Saveur staff: All food has a story. 

What drew you to the butcher's craft?
I'd been working as a magazine writer for 10 years and had started to feel like writing about food was starting to get in the way of me really experiencing food, if that makes sense. When I lost my job in 2009, I decided I wanted to stop writing for a while and get my hands dirty. I wanted to experience a part of the food world that I knew little to nothing about, a part of the food world that for many people was an enigma. For me, that was meat. I'd grown up hunting and fishing as a child, then I became a vegetarian, then I started eating meat again, but I'd never really given much thought to everything that goes into getting meat to my table. I wanted to start thinking about that in a meaningful way.

How do you answer those who maintain that eating meat is (a) inhumane, (b) bad for the environment, and/or (c) bad for your health?
I think the way we currently produce and consume meat in America is inhumane, unsustainable, and unhealthy. I have no argument against that. I do also think that there are definite ways to raise meat, slaughter it, process it, and eat it that are humane, sustainable, good for the environment, and good for our health. On a very basic level this means that we need to eat less meat all around, we need to eat better meat, and we need to rethink our entire agricultural system in relation to animals. No small feat. I could write pages and pages on this but I won't. When I set out to learn butchery I did so because I felt that our current debate about eating meat or not was too black and white, and I was convinced that there was a more nuanced answer to the question of meat eating. As it turns out, there is. Setting out to learn whole animal butchery led me to that more nuanced answer. [pullquote:left]

How has the Portland food scene evolved in the years you've been living there?
Tremendously. When I moved there in 2006, Portland was still in the 1990s dining scene for the most part. Then, the food cart craze happened and suddenly we had this incredibly diverse food landscape. Underground supper clubs started to happen. Young people with few resources and great palates basically decided to get creative with whatever they had at hand. This has created a unique Portland food scene that is scrappy, resourceful, and inspired by the food that is grown around us.  

What's the most surprising or rewarding thing that has happened to you since you embarked on your career in meat?
Learning how to raise an animal for food, slaughter it, butcher it, and use every part has changed the way I think about the world in ways I could have never imagined when I flew to France five years ago, wide-eyed, with little idea of what I was actually getting into. It has changed how I value the food on my table. It has also changed my relationship to my community. It has inspired a profound philosophical shift for me, one that has created meaning in my life as an eater, as a cook, as a citizen of the world. I had no idea learning how to butcher a whole animal would have that effect on me. It has also forced me to really articulate for myself and others what it means (for me) to kill dinner. The dialogue and debate that this inspires has surprised me. That I have, thus, become a spokesperson for this kind of reimagining and rethinking of the meat world has surprised me most, though. Also, just a few runners-up: I was really surprised when the folks at Martha Stewart called. And when the New York Times asked me to pose with a pig head for them. I also had no idea how hard it would be to explain what I do at parties. 

Do those involved in the food industry, whether as farmers, artisans, chefs or restaurateurs, or anything else, have social responsibility beyond simply helping to feed people honestly and well?

I think everyone in the food industry should start with that simple premise: Feed people honestly and well. It can be harder to do this than one might think, however. If you actaully achieve it, you have done something excellent for the world: Inspiring others to live honestly and well too. Everything else beyond that is just pure entertainment.

What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?

I just launched a nonprofit, the Meat Collective Alliance, that will help other individuals and communities across the country start their own Meat Collective-style meat education and buying program. I'm excited to see this model that I created five years ago spread to others and inspire a new approach to producing and consuming meat. Also, I'm writing again. I couldn't stay away for long. There's a book in my future, and let's just say it's way more complicated than a hundred ways to cook a pig.