Bloody Backlash: While Veganism Thrives, Meat Lovers Are Establishing a Hardcore Carnivore Underground in Israel

From 'Barbarian meals' to 'meat carnivals,' carnivores are setting up forums to exchange tips and eat meat – in all shapes and sizes. But how much does the trend really have to do with an interest in cuts and cooking methods?

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The owner of a grill restaurant slices meat. On his arm: tattoos of two cows and a rooster.
The owner of a grill restaurant slices meat. On his arm: tattoos of two cows and a rooster.Credit: Rami Chelouche
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert

Knights’ festivals in which the diners devour meat with their hands, meals over the campfire in the style of the Wild West, workshops for dismembering a buffalo and home meat smokers that produce 100 kilograms of meat over a weekend. While Israel is becoming famous worldwide as a vegan stronghold, in the underground, there are thriving communities of carnivores numbering tens of thousands of people, Israelis who get inspired thinking about devouring an entire cowshed.

The transparent meat refrigerator that stands proudly in the center of the living room in the home of Ido and Tzukit Levy in Moshav Menuha in the south tells the entire story. Not the huge chunks of meat, which are aging there for all to see, but the equanimity with which it is received by those who come to the meat fests they hold twice a week. Nobody expresses surprise at the choice of displaying – in the heart of the living room, next to the television – a collection of parts of dead animals, which are waiting for the ideal time for roasting.

Gili Ben Shahar slices meat.Credit: Omer Schubert

Instead they all busy with diagnoses and professional questions about aging times, how the ribs were cut and the various shades of red in the cuts of meat. Even Tzukit, who barely eats meat and was dragged into her husband’s hobby, has become accustomed to the changing display of animal organs. “He spoke to me about a small refrigerator, and suddenly this thing arrived. When we sit in the living room, I watch television and he watches the meat,” she says. But what really bothers her now are the 30 people in the backyard waiting for a meal consisting of 14 different meat dishes. They were promised over a kilo of meat per person, and they are on the prowl.

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It’s strange to treat meat as a trendy issue. And still, it’s hard to ignore the reappearance of the carnivores, which seems to be reaching a kind of peak at present. Barbarian meals, knights’ feasts, circuses on coals, meat carnivals, smoking workshops, cutting workshops, even a “buffalo dismembering evening.” Add the bustling Facebook groups, the entrepreneurs who have begun to import smoking machines and “backyard kitchens” (because an ordinary barbecue is for amateurs), paleo fairs (ancient meat-based nutrition), the attempts to raise exclusive types of cows in Israel, the public auctions of select cuts of meat, and you’ll almost forget the vegan tsunami that has taken place here in recent years.

A carnivore mans the barbecue.Credit: Omer Schubert

There are some who see a connection between the two phenomena. “Ironically, vegetarians and vegans play a large part in all the craziness now surrounding meat. People are tired of being defensive, and a counter-movement has been created, people who eat as many animals as possible in as many variations as possible,” says one of the meat people interviewed in the article, who later won’t forget to ask not to attribute the quotation to him. Maybe he’s afraid that vegan and animal rights activist Tal Gilboa will sit him down to see some film. Or he simply doesn’t want to become an easy target on the social networks.

According to a comprehensive report published by the Agriculture Ministry last year, there has been a steady, significant increase in the sale of meat for consumption in Israel. In 2016, 138,000 tons of beef were sold, compared to 111,0000 in 2015. Another figure reveals an even more significant increase in the quantities of local meat: 51,000 tons of beef were slaughtered in Israel in 2016, compared to 31,000 tons in 2014. The new meat lovers are well aware of the figures, which fuel their activity and are pulled out when necessary.

A carnivore shows his tattoos.Credit: Omer Schubert

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On Thursday evening, in an interior courtyard in Savyon, a “Carnival of Meat” took place. No tables, plates or cutlery. You eat with your hands, standing, in front of the platforms where the meats are prepared. No spoilers allowed: You don’t know what you put into your mouth until the point of no return. And when someone realizes that the white, rubbery chunk she has just eaten is not overdone gnocchi but the spine of a cow, you can see the dilemma on her face: Should she be shocked, or ask for more?

Organizers of the evening, which was hatched a year and a half ago, are Gili Ben Shahar (an entrepreneur and cook who returned to Israel after 10 years in Bangkok, where he worked in high-tech) and Ohad Kiviti, who worked as Yoram Nitzan’s sous chef in the Mul Yam restaurant in Tel Aviv. They’re not happy about being interviewed or filmed. They describe themselves as the “fight club” of the meat scene, and prefer not to appear in articles for the news media. The official excuse is their desire to protect the clientele, to continue to exist as an evening that people learn about through word of mouth. The real reason: There are closed events until next July. Quite a few young people come, but most of the clientele looks older and well-to-do. People whose closest connection is that they gave up watching the Maccabi basketball games.

The Barbarian Meal in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Here they don’t make do with an infinite collection of meats, but offer real culinary treats, with complex and surprising dishes: Asian rolls from poultry and unusual combinations of meats with fruits and vegetables. Kiviti’s marvelous hands makes watching him – whether he is assembling a portion of picanha (sirloin cap) tartare or dismembering an entire bird with his hands, without a knife, in order to display its softness – a sight that the guests can’t take their eyes off.

The chefs also do things with bones (including breaking the wishbone), are photographed with huge thighs of meat, and wait to explain about the dish that has just been digested. “Here was a membrane that actually connects the bones to the meat,” Ben Shahar will report with satisfaction. “It’s rubbery and doesn’t look good, and that’s why it isn’t served anywhere, but we’re not afraid of rubbery or of what doesn’t look good.”

Ido and Tzukit Levy.Credit: Sara Shaul

They serve a kilo per person, boast that “there’s almost no waste, because with us they eat everything,” as well as several traditional anecdotes about people, mainly women, who came here as consumers of chicken breasts only, and left as fans of spleen. Some professional discussion develops as well: about the types of wood in the smoker, the sources of meat and the size of the operation. Nothing too annoying. People come mainly to eat. And to take pictures. At exactly 11:15 P.M., after a dessert of caramelized marrow, everyone will politely be asked to leave to restore quiet to the neighborhood.

The scene’s main arena of activity is the closed Facebook page “Secrets of the smoker and the sous-vide” (sous-vide is a technique of cooking in a vacuum) with its 17,000 members. The group, formed about three years ago as a platform for exchanging tips on smoking meat, has become not only a source of information but a real community that shares meals, professional tours to beef growers and various events. The internet group has also become the terror of butchers. After a photo of an unsuitable piece of meat is posted, the butcher shop can expect an intense campaign of shaming.

“Once butchers could sell you a part that wasn’t even close to what you asked for, today that’s impossible,’ says Ido Levy, who serves as one of the group leaders. “People post pictures with pieces of meat, and if they sold you something wrong, someone will immediately see that, and the butcher will get an earful. In addition, an amazing community has been formed. If someone runs out of wood or is missing a meat thermometer, people immediately volunteer to bring it to him.”

A carnivore club's dinner table.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yoram Cohen, a butcher and former mentor to butchers, learned through the Facebook page that his professional knowledge has become more in demand than ever. “Suddenly they started to single me out and ask questions about cuts of meat,” he recalls. “Afterwards they started asking me to run a workshop and really teach people how to cut meat. It was hard to find a place to do that, because I insisted on a place that has all the permits. Half a year ago we managed to find a butcher shop in Ashdod and gave the first workshop. I dismembered a quarter of a calf there, showed people how to do it using the right method.”

What attracts people to a butchering workshop?

“Nobody ends up a butcher from this workshop, but people realized that they’re being deceived. Butchers always want to sell all the meat in any possible way, and anyone who doesn’t understand enough can be sold any cut of meat in 1,000 different ways.” I would think most people prefer not to dismember a calf, even if they eat it.

“It’s true that there are horror stories and there were also terrible things that happened in slaughterhouses. We shouldn’t pretend to be naïve. But that stems from the fact that there was a lack of awareness, on the part of consumers too. When you slaughter an animal that’s under pressure or has hematomas, it’s simply not tasty, not to mention that it makes the slaughter unkosher.”

The participants in the Barbarian Meal in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek wear antler helmets and white aprons and enthusiastically bang on the table as they receive the pieces of meat emerging from the kitchen. The meal, which has been held for over a decade at the start of every month at the veteran NG Meat Bar, has over the years become a type of mandatory waystation for the beginning carnivore. Once they would serve entire rabbits and piglets, now they make do with more conventional types of meat, despite a stubborn customer who makes sure to call every month to ask whether by chance some rabbit can be expected. Not at the moment, they keep telling him.

Carnivores dine in Neve Tzedek.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“We had a decline in demand for several years, because of veganism,” says restaurant manager Shira Yosef. “But now there’s a crazy increase. Suddenly we also have a large new clientele of young people, even soldiers, with a lot of knowledge about meat, who are willing to pay quite a lot of money for expensive cuts.”

Sitting in the restaurant is a close-knit group of employees of the Nesher cement factory. They introduce Steven, the factory’s paleo man, as the one who brings people to events of this kind. “I lost 60 kilos with paleo,” he announces, as he expertly slices a lamb thigh and throws slices of uniform thickness at those sitting on the other side of the table. You observe the enjoyment they derive from assaulting every piece of meat with a cleaver, the sense of vitality elicited by contact with the meat, and the joy of eating with their hands. You realize it has nothing to do with the quality of the meat or the methods of preparation, but something that looks like a primeval need that was only waiting to erupt.

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