The day before this year’s annual back-to-school lobster bake, Michael Rodrigue single-handedly cut and trimmed 440 steaks for the meal.
Rodrigue is Bowdoin’s designated meat cutter, responsible for ordering and preparing the pork, beef, chicken breasts, and sausage served at Thorne and Moulton dining halls.
He works alone, operating out of a narrow room in the basement of Thorne. The door is locked and unmarked from the outside; inside, the white concrete walls are lit by florescent light and kept cool by the building’s only air-conditioning unit.
“We call him the lighthouse keeper,” said Darin Poulin, head chef and production manager of Thorne Hall. “He’s by himself, which is unusual in food service, and he takes care of his own little spot.”
From what Poulin has inferred from visiting other colleges, Bowdoin’s meat shop is an anomaly.
“The meat cutter that I replaced was here for twenty years,” said Rodrigue, who arrived at Bowdoin in 2005.
“It’s one of those institutions that a lot of schools probably got away from because it’s easier, less labor-intensive to just buy it, but that’s one of the things about Bowdoin,” adds Poulin. “We just kept it going. It’s coming full circle because now we believe it’s cheaper.”
According to Rodrigue, the College saves 30 to 40 percent on meat prices by cutting it on-site.
With three kitchens on campus—Moulton Union, Thorne Hall, and Jack Magee’s Pub and Grill—Rodrigue receives three weekly meat orders at the beginning of the week, detailing what they each need and when they need it. In turn, he schedules deliveries from the meat companies, usually three times a week.
The turn-around time is quick. Rodrigue often cuts meat the day it is served; sometimes it is stored in the coolers for a few days. Every day at 10:30 a.m., the Smith Union and Moulton Hall kitchens receive their deliveries from him.
“I’m like a vendor. They order from me, and then they forget about it. They get the delivery when they’re supposed to,” said Rodrigue. “They expect good quality, and if it’s not, they speak to me.” Bowdoin’s bakeshop, located on the ground floor of Thorne, operates in much the same way.
Rodrigue specializes in huge numbers. In an average week, Moulton and Thorne use 300 to 500 pounds of thinly-sliced “fajita” chicken strips.
The only things he freezes are the sausage and lunchtime chicken filets, which he prepares during the summer and winter breaks because they are so labor-intensive. The College uses 20,000 of these chicken breasts between September and June.
I watched Rodrigue rhythmically trim the steak, collecting the trimmings into a separate bag that he would later grind into hamburger.
“It’s a real sensitive subject in most food institutions—hamburger is very dangerous,” he said, referring to the mix of trimmings that often go into industrial production. “We don’t buy anything from outdoor sources that is pre-ground.”
Rodrigue holds the knife like it is an extension of his hand. I asked him if he ever cut himself, and he smiled and told me it happens once a year.
He has worked with meat since the early 1980s, at Hannaford—then called Coddle’s—and at wholesale shops.
“It’s pretty much all I’ve done since the early ’80s other than a few years I took off to drive an eighteen-wheeler,” he said with a grin.
Rodrigue said he has worked in slaughterhouses twice, ten years apart, for one day each. And he has no plan to try it again.
“I couldn’t handle it. We did sixteen pigs and I didn’t go back the next day,” he said of his first job. “Ten years later, I needed a job, so I went to a different slaughterhouse for one day. It was a meat-cutting job so I thought I could handle it, but on the other side of the wall was the slaughterhouse, and they were doing lambs that day. They sounded just like little babies, little kids.”
In his basement room, it is quiet except for quiet oldies coming from a corner radio, and the rhythmic beat of Rodrigue’s knife against the cutting board.
“I like red meat. I think any meat-cutter likes red meat. Chicken is the thing we hate to cut the most, and I bet every meat cutter out there would say the same thing,” he said.
The tempo of Rodrigue’s day is regulated by both the type of meat and the cleaning each requires.
“I can’t start the day off with something that’s going to cross-contaminate something behind it,” he said. “You’ve got to soap, rinse, and sanitize,” he adds. “Sanitizer doesn’t work till its dry, it takes time.” He said that many butchers have at least two metal benches for preparing, but he works with one.
The grinding machine is in the corner, a large, nondescript boxy appliance.
“One day it’s dedicated to hamburger, the next, it’s sausage,” he said. For the latter, Rodrigue uses Darin’s recipes, incorporating spices like Bowdoin Organic Garden oregano and cilantro.
“There’s no cereal, no fillers, it’s just meat and spice,” he said.
According to Rodrigue, the meat orders increase every year.
“There are a lot of athletes here that are always wanting more protein, more protein,” said Poulin. “The vegan and vegetarian orders are also getting higher too,” he adds. “The people that eat meat are eating more of it.”
Both Poulin and Rodrigue question whether students know the route the meat on their plate has taken.
“We try to put ‘homemade sausage,’ on the signs, but you don’t connect it,” said Poulin. “Our buffalo chicken, which is probably one of the most popular things we have—we make it here. But I don’t think anybody realizes it.”