When was the last time you picked up a piece of meat at the grocery store and knew where it came from and who butchered, cured, smoked and packaged it? Possibly never. That, says Mark Christian, the owner of Galesburg Meat Co., at 58 Mill St., is the advantage to buying your meat from him.
"Grocery stores basically open a box, take meat out and put it in on a shelf," he says. "We're buying live animals from local farms — choice beef cattle or hogs — and cutting it all up ourselves, starting right from the beginning and working all the way through to the end."
It's an old-fashioned tradition for customers to be able to go to a butcher shop for meat, but that's not the only tradition Christian's been maintaining. His father, Richard Christian, bought Galesburg Meat in the late 1970s, and he and Mark worked together in the store for about 35 years. Richard died in 2012 at the age of 81.
The front of the store is simple — a counter and three large refrigerated coolers filled with different cuts of meat, such as smoked ham, sausage links, jerky and bacon. The majority of the building is in the back and is dedicated to curing, smoking, processing and butchering. There's a large smokehouse that's operating "24 hours a day, seven days a week," and a dry-aging cooler, another of Christian's traditions.
Almost no one dry-ages meat anymore. The traditional way to age meat, dry aging uses the meat's natural enzymes to break down the connective tissue and keep the meat from spoiling. Given the money and time required to dry-age meat, most meat companies wet-age meat, meaning the meat is packaged in a vacuum-sealed bag for two to three days. One of the main reasons meat producers use wet aging is that the moisture stays in the meat. More water in the meat means more weight, and more weight brings a higher price for the meat. According to industry sources, almost 90 percent of beef is wet-aged.
"The faster you can get that animal vacuum-packed, the more moisture you can retain, so weight is definitely a consideration," Christian says.
Christian sticks to his traditions in other areas of meat production too. He uses only meat to make his lunch meats — no fillers or fats — even in bologna, the most notoriously processed meat. And Christian sticks to the old ways of curing and smoking too.
"Whole hams in the (grocery) store have a lot of unnecessary product added to them, like phosphates and water," he says. "This is a real cured ham, smoked in real smoke, not just run through a steam cooker or liquid-smoked. It makes a big difference for the flavor."
It makes such a big difference that people keep coming into Galesburg Meat instead of conveniently picking up their meat at the grocery store. In addition to single-serving cuts in the coolers, Galesburg Meat also offers meat "bundles" and "boxes" that range from $50 to $282. Each bundle has a mix of different meats in it, from hot dogs to country-style ribs.
"These bundles are a lot more accessible to most customers because they can come up with $100 for a month's worth of meat, where they might not have been able to come up with $800 before for a whole side of beef," Christian says. "And how many freezers do you have? Having more than one freezer is expensive, and most people just don't have the space for a lot of meat anymore."
Bundles, processed meats and even more cooked meats are some of the ways that Christian breaks tradition by "changing with the times," he says. Another way is by expanding his catering business to include weddings. Catering by GMC is a division of Galesburg Meat run by longtime friend Jerry VanderWeele and his wife, Tammy. Tammy explains that even though the company has been catering for more than 20 years, it wasn't until the last five years that she and her husband approached Christian about doing weddings. Since then, business has exploded, something she attributes almost completely to the food.
"Our food is good, and it's all made from scratch," she says. "But the No. 1 thing that gives us an edge over other catering companies is the meat. It's fresh and it's smoked, which is the craze right now. But no one can smoke as good as us. Mark has an amazing touch. There's not one meat we put out that isn't phenomenal."
In fact, the meat is so good that VanderWeele says she's spoiled — she tries bacon whenever she dines out and has almost always been disappointed. Except on one occasion. "I went to a restaurant I'd never been to in Comstock not long ago," she says. "When I tried the bacon, I told my husband, 'Oh, my God, this is good bacon!' I didn't know where they got it from until I asked. They got it from us."
The ability to produce the best of something is exactly what keeps Christian interested in his business year after year. "If you're great at something, you want to do it," he says. "This is about starting something from the beginning and taking it to the end. I know the farms I'm getting the animals from — every single one is going to be the best. That bacon — I made that bacon, and I know it's the best. That's why I do this."