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Lee Meisel On Butchering Whole Animals And Being A 'Success Story' For His Tribe

Paul Andrews

Lee Meisel starts his days by slinging whole pig carcasses over his shoulder and carrying them on his back into the kitchen of his own small restaurant in Lawerence, Kansas. 

He's a slender guy and the pigs weigh about 200 pounds each. "The pigs might have a few pounds on me," he admits.

Perhaps it's not clear, but this is the picture of a man living his dream.

Meat is a fascination that started early for Meisel, who grew up bouncing around the state of North Dakota with his single dad and two brothers. He guesses he was just three when he had his first memorable meat encounter on a trip to the grocery store.

"I remember looking at the meat cases and seeing the guys in white coats and I remember being fascinated with the way the liver looked. It looked like this shiny, blobby, kind of deep red purply thing. And when you're a kid, you instinctively want to play with something like that."

Meisel's father, who raised him alone, came from three generations of cattle ranchers in what he calls "Indian Country" in North Dakota; his estranged mother was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and growing up outside the tribe doing things like playing hockey and fishing, the young Lee wasn't sure what to make of that part of his heritage.

"Growing up mixed race, especially if you're part Indian in North Dakota, and there's some racism there, a lot of me as a child was wanting to escape that, thinking, 'Maybe I'm different, or what will they think about me if they know that I'm Indian?'"

He says there's a stigma against people on reservations in the northern Midwest, and that he was sensitive to that growing up. 

"When you see a rundown car that's rusted out, that's a res-runner," he explains. "There is a stigma attached to that. I think there's this idea that most Indians are just sitting around getting wasted and collecting their government checks, but that's not the truth."

By high school, Meisel was feeling lost and confused. He credits two experiences with setting him on a clearer path: a job at Butcher Block Meats, and later, an education at Haskell Indian Nations University.

As a teenager, he hated working at the butcher shop so much that he thought of himself as the butt of a cruel joke. Being the new kid, he did a lot of the dirty work. He'd go home covered in meat, and smelling of the thick smoky tar he'd just cleaned out of a smoker.

But the old-timers he worked for changed his life.

"They were tough on me. They made me show up. As a teenager, I was just a flake. I would say I was going to go somewhere, meet you there in an hour, and then I'd just flake out. I don't know what it was about my life at that time, but I couldn't get my act together. So that was the first thing. You have to show up and you have to work hard. I needed that, needed to get some sort of routine going, some balance in my life."

Credit Paul Andrews
Lee Meisl at work.

He also just loved the characters of these guys, with big hands like catcher's mitts, who were quick with knives and lived in insulated flannel all winter long and told him stories about their younger days hitting the bars, sleeping drunk in the back of the shop and getting back to work bright and early the next morning. Not the most traditional role-models, perhaps, but they inspired Lee, because he knew they'd do anything for him.

The owner, in particular, gave him ideas about a possible future. 

"Here's a guy who started his own business," he thought. "It requires a lot of work, and some of it's dirty work, but it's possible for someone like me to do that."

That lesson would really hit home at Haskell, many years later. 

After living and working without much direction in his early 20s, he heard about this school in Lawrence, Kansas, from his brother, who was on a search for something more. Eventually, Lee followed his brother to Haskell, where he realized that there was more than one way to be Indian, and that his way was valid.

"Everyone carries their own story with them," he says of the people he met at Haskell. "Part of it was being able to embrace that and saying, 'Maybe I don't know as much about my tribe, and maybe I wasn't brought up in this, but I have a different perspective. I have my own story, too.'"

He studied in the business school, where entrepreneurial impulses were encouraged. 

"People there were always pushing you to go out and do your own thing," he says. "It made me realize there are people who are pulling for you. They want you to go out and succeed, and you realize how much that could mean to your tribe, to have that success story. That's so important."

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com
In a kitchen of his own.

Meisel crunched the numbers and he didn't think an old-school, whole-animal butcher shop like the one where he worked growing up could be profitable today, even with how trendy it's become to connect with your food. That's still not the norm, he says, and there are lots of cuts of meat that people don't have the time or the knowledge to use at home.

So he decided to butcher whole animals in the kitchen of a snack shop, a place reminiscent of the concession stands he'd visit in North Dakota and Canada as a kid on fishing trips. Places in the middle of nowhere that had fries with gravy, some hot chocolate, someone's grandmother making chicken noodle soup. He thought of them as oases. 

Even if his customers don't know how to use shanks or bones to make stock for gravy, Lee does.

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.