Meat me at the farm

How Henri and Miss Marilyn satisfied their inner carnivores

CLEAVE TO ME Jim Holt knows his top sirloin from his ribeye. You can meet him at the University Farm Meat Lab.

CLEAVE TO ME Jim Holt knows his top sirloin from his ribeye. You can meet him at the University Farm Meat Lab.

When to meat:
The University Meat Lab--located off Hegan Lane just west of Otterson Drive--is open Thursdays and Fridays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You’ll have a far better choice if you come in Thursday or, better yet, call earlier in the week and have them prepare your order for pick-up. To order a smoked Thanksgiving turkey, call

Henri got a little lost the other day. I’d sold two of my porcelain Wizard of Oz plates on eBay, so I drove out to the UPS warehouse south of town and on the way home took a wrong turn. One minute I’m standing at a counter saying au revoir to Glinda and the Tin Man, and the next I’m surrounded by miles of fields and cows and pigs and tractors. All I could think of was the Scarecrow standing out in the middle of nowhere, looking one way down the Yellow Brick Road and then up the other and saying, “Well, some people do go both ways.”

Eventually, I approached a cluster of buildings, signs of civilization, sort of. The one marked Meat Lab caught my attention, so I parked, took Miss Marilyn under my arm, headed up the steps, and went inside. Immediately, she stiffened, terrified. I looked up to see why: A very big man—looking like Jesse Ventura with a walrus mustache, yellow rubber pants, suspenders and a blood-spattered white T-shirt—was walking toward us holding a cleaver in one hand and a slab of raw meat the size of Kansas in the other.

He smiled broadly and handed me a six-inch piece of beefstick. Miss Marilyn sniffed at it tentatively, took a small bite, then nearly inhaled the rest and almost immediately stopped shivering.

Jim Holt is a third-generation butcher and for more than 30 years has worked for the Chico State meat lab, where he oversees the intern program for the Animal Science Program at the University Farm. Students learn not only how to cut beef to sell to the public but also how to prepare a wide range of other meats, as well as how to run $50,000 state-of-the-art slicers and grinders. Additionally, they learn how to comply with strict USDA safety and cleanliness standards.

A relatively small operation—by Midwest standards, where slaughterhouses process up to 5,000 animals an hour—the Chico State meat lab processes four or five animals at a time. Mr. Holt does the killing himself, bopping each one at the base of its skull with a special “knocker” and severing its spinal cord. The animals are then butchered in the main processing room, in plain view of customers at the window where Mr. Holt or one of his interns takes orders.

Among the 50 or so products the lab offers for sale to the public—at far better prices than you’ll find in local stores—are ground beef, sliced pastrami, flank, porterhouse, New York and rib steaks, prime rib, oxtails, leg of lamb, pork loins, ribs and shoulders, and over 10 kinds of sausage, andouille, Cajun, and several different bratwurst.

We ended up buying two pounds of filet mignon steaks ($10/lb.), a pound of tri-tip ($4/lb.), some Louisiana hot sausages ($3/lb.) and a boneless sirloin ($3/lb.). Mr. Holt tossed in some more beefstick for free and was nice enough to give me directions back to Chico. When I got home, I grilled the sirloin and served it with a broccoli-and-orzo salad and a very nice Bordeaux. Très delicieux. That night, I dreamed Gray Davis was wearing my sparkly red pumps, frantically tapping the heels together and trying desperately to recall the way home.

Grilled Brandy-and-Lime Sirloin
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup cooking oil
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
juice from 4 limes
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. sugar
3 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
2- to 3-lb. boneless beef sirloin

Combine above ingredients to make marinade and pour into large, sealable plastic bag with the meat inside. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Grill on medium heat for about an hour or until internal temperature is 160 degrees. Baste marinade on meat several times while grilling. When done, let stand for 15 minutes before serving. Slice thinly at an angle, as you would a flank steak.