Cindy Marlene Garcia signed up for a class at the UC Davis Meat Laboratory as a freshman with no expectations. She just needed to fill a requirement. When the pre-vet student arrived for class on the first day, she could barely stand to look down at the table in front of her.
The class was handling lamb carcasses. Garcia said there was blood everywhere. “I was like ‘Oh my god, what the heck did I just do,’” Garcia said. “I am in the wrong place!”
Ten years later, Garcia laughs at the memory. She is now a full-time butcher working at the Davis Food Co-op, and she also works with students at the Meat Lab who are going through exactly what she did as a freshman. She’s worked previously at Sacramento shops Corti Brothers and V. Miller Meats.
Garcia, 28, is now taking her butchering career to the next level. She has begun competing in international butchering contests and she will be the first woman on the U.S. team going for the gold in the “Olympics of Meat,” otherwise known as the World Butchers’ Challenge.
The challenge will take place in Sacramento at the Golden 1 Center in September 2020. An official date is to be announced. Garcia will also appear on a reality TV competition show called “The Butcher,” which debuts on the History Channel on Wednesday. She will appear on the third episode.
Competitive butchering is meant to showcase the technique and workmanship of professional butchers. In a competition, butchers are given an assortment of meats which they must transform into a themed display.
Butchers are time-limited, but can bring their own seasonings or garnishes, according to the World Butchers’ Challenge. Meats must be presentable but still cookable. The contest will bring teams from all over the world, including Australia, France, New Zealand, Ireland and more.
Garcia joins Sacramento-area butchers Danny Johnson and Paul Carras of Taylor’s Market on the Butchers of America 2020 team, but she will compete individually in the Young Butcher part of the contest, which is for competitors under the age of 31.
Garcia took part in her first international competition in Perth, Australia in April, where she created a Sacramento-themed display with a blue ribbon to represent the river delta and gold motifs to represent the gold rush. She brought home a gold medal for her display.
“Sacramento is really how it all happened,” Garcia said. “That’s where I first saw a cow ... that was the place that allowed me to get into this field.”
Garcia has come a long way since her first day at the UC Davis Meat Lab. She never intended to make her living breaking down 450 pound beef carcasses in a cold fridge. But she did what every college counselor hopes will happen to their students: She followed her passion.
After that first day of class, Garcia slowly grew more comfortable. She describes herself as a very hands-on person, so she enjoyed understanding the texture of different meats. Because she wanted to become a veterinary surgeon, she was also interested in the anatomy of the animals.
But what kept her coming back to butchering was its meditative quality. It sounds strange; blood, knives and a cold fridge seem like the opposite of zen. Watching Garcia go from exuberant to quiet and focused as she describes what its like to break down different meats, though, makes it clear that there is a focused art to her work.
“Eventually it was my escape from school,” Garcia said. “Like, I’m here, I got my board, I’m cutting, hands are moving. I could just forget all the stress and it became my place to meditate.”
UC Davis is also where Garcia got her first taste of the competitive butchery scene. As a student, she participated in sausage competitions, where judges evaluate sausages based on traits like size, particle definition and uniformity.
Garcia started participating in international competitions after one of her former coworkers from V Miller Meats told her that Butchers of America, the national team that will compete at the Golden 1 Center, was hosting tryouts. She made the team and then got invited to the competition in Perth.
“Lately, the flow has been coming from competing,” Garcia said. “When you’re in a competition, they’re like you have this much time, you’re competing against these people, go ... suddenly, snap, your hands know what to do after all the nerves.”
While Garcia is looking forward to cutting at the World Butchers’ Challenge and wants to continue competing as a hobby, she is not sure she will continue with butchering forever. It’s hard physical labor and Garcia is still interested in continuing her studies in the field. Or she may just open a shop of her own.
“It’s like I can go do what I’ve set my whole life to be, or I can keep kind of playing around and do something that doesn’t feel like work,” Garcia said. “It’s kind of like I’m still playing around but eventually I’m going to have to grow up.”
Still, Garcia is going to see where butchery takes her first. And there’s one path she knows she won’t take. After an opportunity with a new butcher shop fell through, Garcia took a job doing food safety. It was an office job. There was no working with her hands. She lasted six months.
“I was at my desk – I had a desk! – I was like I hate sitting down, I’m way too active. My mind was just spiraling,” Garcia said.
For now, sharpening knives in the morning and spending the day behind the meat counter talking to customers about sustainable practices keep her going.