From Veg Head to Meat Maven: Butcher Ben Runkle

By Megan Giller  |  October 24, 2013

As our meaty burger week continues, we'd like to highlight a few local chefs who ditched their vegetarian ways in favor of carnivorous pursuits. On Tuesday we highlighted Sonya Cote, the force behind Hillside Farmacy and Eden East, who grew up in a vegetarian commune, and yesterday it was Parind Vora, the chef and owner of Restaurant Jezebel and recently launched Tapasitas. Today we’re talking to Ben Runkle, who was not only vegetarian but also vegan for almost nine years. He now owns Salt and Time Butcher Shop and Salumeria on East Seventh Street. Here’s what he has to say about his big switch,

“I was a vegan from the time I was 19 until 28. It was a social thing as much as an ideological thing, since I was hanging out with punk rockers who were already vegan or vegetarian. But I never stopped craving or liking meat, so I ate a lot of heavily processed fake meat. I was eating stuff like fake chicken drumsticks that were imported from Taiwan that were insanely processed, so that you could feel like you were holding onto a little bone. I have a distinct memory of thinking about what I was actually eating and whether it lined up with my rational for why I was vegan. My body wanted meat and was craving it. Something was going on that wasn’t unnatural or wrong. I reconsidered when I knew I could get high-quality meat from the farmers near where I was living in Northern California. Even when I’d come to the intellectual decision, it was an identity crisis of sorts.

“The very first time I ate meat protein, I was with my family at a reunion on the Oregon coast. We went to a crab boil, and they had freshly caught crabs that they were pulling out of the water and cooking them right there. That was like the dam breaking. I quickly ate chicken and fish but I didn’t eat dairy for a while. Then I ate pizza every day for the next few weeks because it was so good.

“I had never learned how to cook until I was living on my own, and that coincided with becoming a vegetarian. It took me a while to get comfortable cooking meat. My fiancé at the time joined a CSA, and we were getting nine pounds of meat a month, which seemed like so much. That led to me experimenting with making sausages and charcuterie at home. It’s a strange coincidence that I got an apprenticeship with the same CSA, which started my career as a butcher.

“Part of coming to terms with not being a vegan anymore and eating meat was being OK with the idea of eating a dead animal. Because I spent so long being grossed out by all meat, I’m not grossed out about things like organ meat. I didn’t change my mind about things like factory farming, but I changed the conclusions I drew from them. Now I support small farmers that provide an alternative to horrible factory farming. There is a sense of feeling like, yes, an animal gave its life, but it’s feeding all these people and we’re using all of it. I’m obsessed with using all of it and taking every bit to make something delicious out of it, out of respect that it is an animal that died, and we take that seriously.”