The Butcher

The beauty of meat

Leopold Hödl got up at one-thirty this morning to personally select “his animals,” from which he will later make sausages, steak, and schnitzel. He isn’t bothered by killing them or the smell of blood. As a little boy he was already helping out his parents Leopold and Leopoldine. Now in its second generation, the butcher’s shop in the 23rd district is the last in Vienna to still slaughter its own animals. His greatest passions are butchering and his wife.

“Come by for a Leberkäsesemmel sometime!” 

Lisa Lugerbauer: How old were you the first time you slaughtered an animal?  

Leopold Hödl: I was still a little boy at the time, maybe eight or nine years old. Definitely no older. It was a suckling pig. 

And what was it like for you?

It was an experience! My grandfather said: “Here, take the knife,” and then he showed me how.

Have you ever not had the heart to slaughter an animal? 

No. Because if I don’t do it, someone else will. And I do it right! When we humans die, I’m sure we feel more pain than the animals do with me. Better I do it than someone who has only knows there’s a knife and just sticks it in.

“Cows were petted.” 

Why is your business the last in Vienna to still slaughter its own animals? 

We’re butchers, body and soul, and have always lived up to the strict regulations. I don’t want normal meat. I need to know what farmer the animals come from and how they were fed. I don’t buy veal that’s been driven 15,000 kilometers. I don’t buy meat in Vienna that was driven to Styria to be slaughtered. That’s not what I consider quality meat. I don’t want stressed bulls that get chased around until they’re slaughtered. If you ask me, that’s inferior meat.  

What do you do to keep the animals from becoming stressed?

The animals are picked up and slaughtered right away. Otherwise, they get too worked up. With the industrial farming nowadays, the animals don’t know the farmers anymore. Used to be, the cow knew them all her life and was quiet. Cows were petted. You can see it’s not like that anymore in the way they’re handled during milking. Used to be, they’d bring the milking stool, and the animal knew that the farmer’s wife would always come back and not hurt them. Today, they stick pumps on their udders, the milk comes down, and then they drive the cow out again. That’s it. Humanity is to blame for all of this.

“They come out and bang.”

What animals do you slaughter?  

Everything but poultry. 

Do the animals know they’re going to die?

No, I don’t think so. Not with us, it goes too fast for that. They’re picked up, spend the night in the pen, come out, and bang. We do it very quickly.

What is beautiful about meat?

The beauty is when I buy the animals and slaughter them. Then they’re hung up in the cooler downstairs, and when I sell them and a few days later the customers come back and say: “Hey, that meat was really good. It tasted great,” then I’m happy with everything. That’s how you know that it’s the right way. I really appreciate being in constant contact with the animals and the people. I like working with animals. I also enjoy selling meat.

“People’s habits have turned upside down, the meat, the meat hasn’t changed.”

Let’s go through your work routine, what happens day-to-day? 

Today I got up at one-thirty in the morning to get the animals. At six o’clock the veterinarian comes by and does a live inspection—a meat inspection. Then he clears the animals for slaughter. Afterwards, we make sausages and prepare the meat for the customers. At twelve-thirty we take lunch, and at three-thirty we reopen the store. But only the store, we don’t do any other work.

Do you eat the meat you slaughter yourself? 

Yeah! And only my own!  

“I don’t mind the smell of blood.“

There is a trend toward eating less meat. Do you think it’s right that people eat so much meat? 

No, no. I’d put it like this: Used to be, we had Sunday clothes and only one set of clothes for all the other days. Used to be, there was Sunday dinner and weekday dinner. During the week there were mostly vegetables, and on Sunday the mother would make roast pork or schnitzel. Today, people eat a veal cutlet on Monday, blood sausage on Sunday, or stew with vegetables on Wednesday. People’s habits have turned upside down, the meat, the meat hasn’t changed. Meat is something special, something to look forward to. You don’t go to restaurants every day, or to the movies or the theater. And if you do, you put on nice clothes. But today people go to the theater with jeans or fucked-up pants. That’s really not the way things should be.

Do you worry sometimes that if people eat less meat it could endanger your business? 

No, not really. If you make good meat, make an effort, then you don’t need to worry. If someone sells junk, well, they’ve all quit already anyway. 

How often do you consume meat products? 

I eat sausage every day. It’s healthy and nutritious after all. 

Do you take “veggie days” sometimes?  

Vegetarian days? No. No way. I don’t eat meat every day, but that doesn’t make me a vegetarian. I’m always up to try a piece of sausage or ham. But that also means you’re not a vegetarian. You don’t have to eat a lot of sausage, you can just eat two or three slices. 

Have you ever tried vegan meat substitutes? 

No! No way. I can eat mushrooms the way they are, thanks. 

“Vegetarian days? No. No way.” 

Can you understand why people hold vigils for animals? 

I always say that I don’t want to talk bad about vegans. But vegans should use their brains. If there were no hunters, for example, there would be millions of deer, and we would have nothing to eat because they'd strip our fields bare.

So you can’t understand it? Have you ever been to a vigil? 

No, I’d kick the vegans out right away. That’s how it is. They all have to start thinking. Because they all want leather shoes, leather bags, and leather belts—but without any animals dying for it, right? I have a low opinion of people like that. What they eat isn’t nutritious either. But it’s also none of my business.

What can’t you live without? Ribs, roast pork, schnitzel, or boiled beef? 

I like to eat everything, I’ll be honest with you. Everything except turkey. 

Why not turkey?

Turkey is the cheapest meat on the market. On turkey farms, they leave the lights on night and day and the animals eat themselves silly. They don’t get any peace and quiet. Every second person wants to buy cheap meat and cheap vegetables. But nobody cares where it comes from and what it looks like there. Nobody thinks about that. That’s why I don’t eat turkey, I’ll be honest with you.

“I can’t watch when someone gets a shot either.“

Do you think it’s good for people to see how animals are slaughtered? 

No, they shouldn’t see that so much. Some people can’t stand it. Some can, some can’t. I’ll be honest with you. My kids can take it, they grew up with it. But everybody? No. I don’t want to be there during an operation either, when they cut open a belly and a baby comes out. I wasn’t there in the hospital when my children were born either. I can’t watch when someone gets a shot either. 

What defines a good butcher and what defines a bad one? 

A good butcher slaughters in a way that kills the animals right away. A bad one slaughters in a way that makes the animals suffer. Unfortunately, there are more and more bad ones because there’s no good training anymore. Not many people in Austria are learning the butcher’s trade anymore.

Is there a rite of passage in the training to become a master butcher?  

Yeah, there is one thing. But they only have it in Salzburg. It’s called “Metzgersprung.” When you’ve finished your apprenticeship, you jump—I think that’s how it is—into a big tub of ice-cold water in front of the cathedral.

What do you hate about your job? 

Hate? I love all of it! There isn’t anything I hate about it. But what I don’t like doing is gutting hares. They’re always ice-cold. That grosses me out.

Do you like the smell of blood? 

I don’t mind the smell of blood. I think it’s great. 

Should meat be more expensive? 

Yeah, meat should be more expensive. Meat has cost the same for thirty years. Especially compared to what a kilogram of apples or a kilogram of rolls costs. A lot of the time the bread is twice as expensive as schnitzel. But that’s not the farmers’ fault, it’s the supermarkets’. They lure people with cheap meat.

What would you hope for from the government? 

The government should step in more seriously and pass real laws. Politicians are always talking about animal transport and that you shouldn’t do this or that—but they should make it the law! Then we’d have to stop exporting calves to Spain and importing them from Holland. Then we could only use our calves, and that’s plenty. We need subsidies instead of exporting them to third countries. But nobody has the nerve to touch it.

“My wife is my first and foremost passion.“

Is there an animal that you wouldn’t slaughter? 

I would never slaughter pets, that’s obvious. We don’t have pets. We only have the ones we buy and slaughter—cattle, pigs, etcetera.

Is there something aesthetic to the act of slaughtering? 

Not to me, to me it’s normal. But other people are into SM, is that aesthetic? They hang each other up until someone starts bleeding too. That’s not aesthetic. Why should it be any different with animals? It is the way it is.

When you look at animals, can you tell if they have had a happy life? 

I can see if an animal was happy or unhappy. That’s why I buy and slaughter all my livestock myself. If a farmer calls to say he has some lambs and calves for me and then asks, “What’ll you give me for them?” then I don’t know what the animal looks like. Whether it’s fat, ugly, beautiful, or potbellied. You have to go there yourself and look at the animal. A lot of the time I go look at the animals on Saturday or Sunday because I want to see for myself how they are doing. It’s the only way for me.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that butcher’s shops are closing every day; about 1,400 are said to be left in Austria, are you worried? 

In a few years there won’t be any left. And how come? I have a son who will take over the business—hopefully. But someone who doesn’t have children? If someone wants to open a new business today, they won’t be able to afford it. They would have to invest so much, it’s better not to bother. In a few years there won’t be any bakers, innkeepers, or tailors either. I mean, who still has a suit sewn these days? Nowadays people go to the supermarket. They don’t care where anything comes from. A few might be worried. It’s a sad development. Of course, we can all shop online at the supermarket, and the person who delivers it dumps your groceries at your door without a word. But people want to talk, part of the reason they come to our store is to chat.

Apart from your job, do you have a passion that you like to “waste” your time with?

My wife is my first and foremost passion. She’s my passion. But apart from her it’s butchering.

What do you think about the origin of the coronavirus? About the video of the animal market in Wuhan where they slaughter dogs and bats? 

I never saw that. But I don’t want to see it either! Bats and dogs, that’s not right.

If there was a time machine and you could choose another scenario for the future, what would it look like? 

Everything is great just the way it is, if you ask me. I was talking to my wife just a few weeks ago, long before the virus. We’re so lucky! Our grandparents went through the Second World War, my parents did too. And us? We don’t have to go through anything like that. But now there’s the virus, which could kill huge numbers of people—and nobody can do anything about it. When I see the Syrian children on television, I always think how lucky we are to be living here. You can’t choose where you’re born, after all. But so many people are dissatisfied, want more vacations, want to do this and that, and I always say: “Get a grip and think a little.” 

Any parting words for us? 

Yeah, come by for a Leberkäsesemmel sometime! 

With pleasure!