First Look

Knives, jokes and hunks of meat fly at MCA Denver's bison-butchering bash

It wasn't bloody, it wasn't smelly and it didn't attract flies.

But then, the bison had already been slaughtered and quartered at a Nebraska ranch, separated from its head, hide and organs and hung up to age for two weeks. Anything more grisly might have been too much for the audience of scarf-and-boot-clad urbanites who turned out at MCA Denver last night to watch the art of butchery.

While Pete Marczyk, owner of Marczyk Fine Foods, entertained the crowd of about a hundred with tales of meat, butchering and descriptions of animal body parts, Jimmy "the Butcher" Cross was the star of the show, adeptly dismantling what had been a 600-pound bison into recognizable cuts of meat.

This performance art, which took place in the museum's unheated flower garage, was part of MCA's outstandingly creative three-day production, Art Meets Beast, which also included a Mixed Tastes event on Tuesday, a series of lectures on what meat means to the city of Denver, and a bison feast that will begin tonight at 7 p.m.

"I know you have a lot of opportunities to go to beast roasts and bison butcherings," MCA director Adam Lerner joked with the crowd. "So thank you for choosing ours.

"There is not much difference between a painting on the walls of a gallery and the way we eat food. Both describe who we are," he added. "And the more we understand the food we eat and the paintings on the wall, the more of a relationship we have with both."

A hindquarter of the beast hung above a circle of sawdust, suspended by a chain and illuminated by huge lights that threw macabre shadows against the painted brick walls. A chorus of flugelhorns kicked off the evening, and vegetarian guitarist Roger Green played Pawnee tribal music in the background while Cross worked.

"Gravity makes things easier," Cross said about the chain. "Things fall by themselves."

And most of the "things" were heavy. Each bison quarter weighed about 150 pounds, meaning Cross has to be in shape to rip them apart, which he did with jaw-dropping ease and speed, using only a hacksaw, a hook and a six-inch boner. Yes, a six-inch boner, one of several sharp knives hanging in the metal butcher's scabbard around his waist. And while Cross had never done a bison before, he said it was similar to a cow.

It was also his first time working in front of an audience, not counting the bums and "walk-of-shamers" who peek inside Marczyk's at 4 a.m., when Cross starts his shift.

Asked by an audience member if he himself had a relationship with the animals he butchers or sees them when he works, Cross said no. "I see meat. I stopped having nightmares six or seven years ago," he explained. It was hard to tell if he was joking.

And while MCA Denver's Sarah Baie thought the evening's provocative nature might attract vegetarian protesters, none showed up, leaving the off-duty officer there with little to do. "We are open to protest," Baie said. "And our intent was to listen to whatever they might have to say."

Nor was it offensive to Green, who has worked with the MCA before and provided the musical accompaniment. "I see it as a spiritual thing, even religious," he said. "And I'm pleased at the ability of people to be aware of where stuff comes from. Our lives don't exist without things that are dead."

When the cutting was done, the bison hunks were doled out to seven star chefs -- Jamey Fader, Joe Beggs, Troy Guard, Goose Sorensen, Tyler Wiard, Brian Laird and Sean Yontz --- who were given 24 hours to cook them into something delicious.

There was no fighting. Guard and Jensen Cummings of TAG grabbed the loin and kidneys while Solera's Sorensen took a scapula, the hump and a leg bone so big it would have scared the fiercest dog. Other chefs got the roasts, ribeyes, ribs, trim and other cuts.

Tonight they will turn these hunks of meat into meatballs and tacos, chili, carnitas and soup at the Beast Roast 500, a dinner that will be accompanied by performances by the Machine Project L.A., an artists' collective that will use bison horns, bison masks and the recorded sounds of a bison stampede rumbling through the room.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes