USING THE WHOLE ANIMAL is a hot topic in chef circles these days. Almost everything from the tongue to the bladder finds its way onto a dinner plate somewhere, sometime. But when it comes to cows and sheep and goats, there’s one organ that just can’t be eaten, no matter how you slice it— the animal’s skin.
Traditionally, of course, the hides from butchered animals were shipped to a tannery, from there finding their way onto our feet, our backs or our furniture. Vegetarianism aside, making use of the skin at least ensured that the largest organ of the animal did not go to waste. In fact, cow, sheep, goat or deer skin, treated differently, has played a major role in human history, and it’s still being played out in a nondescript corner of Montgomery (Orange County).
For years, Jesse Meyer worked in his family’s tanning business. Richard E. Meyer and Sons Artisanal Leathers has been producing leather in America since 1850, and the Meyer family was tanning in Germany as far back as 1550, so tanning and working with animal skins is hardcoded into Jesse’s DNA. “I grew up working here,” he says. “I worked here during summer vacation, in high school, and even middle school. So I started tinkering around with the raw material that my father was using and came up with parchment.”
True parchment, often used for writing and bookbinding, is a stretched material made from animal skin (not to be mistaken for craft-shop “parchment” that’s actually made from wood pulp). Parchment is sometimes called vellum, though historically these two materials were more distinct from one another. “If there is any difference,” Meyer says, “it is that vellum is a slightly more refined version of parchment. All vellum is parchment, but not all parchment is vellum.”
Parchment has been made for thousands of years— there are records of its use dating back to the Roman and Egyptian empires. “Before 1600 or so, they often bound books in parchment. Before the advent of paper in the 1500s, they all wrote on parchment. They printed on it,” Meyer notes. Many original copies of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) were printed on parchment (the remainder on paper), as was the original Declaration of Independence.
“While I was using it as an art material for some of my sculptures, I ran into a few people who tipped me off to the fact that this is a material that has been in use for very unique, very specific applications for thousands of years,” Meyer explains. “That’s when I realized this is a unique thing I’ve got here. And all those people who were coaxing me on said that no one else really does it.” Thus, Meyer’s company, Pergamena, was born.
When Pergamena opened its doors in 1999, it was one of the few parchment producers in North America, and, in fact, it may be the last remaining manufacturer in the United States. “A lot of people who came to me said ‘Wow. Before you came along I had to get it from England or Germany or France,’” he says.
Taking its name from the city of Pergamon, an ancient Greek city located on the west coast of modern-day Turkey (where parchment was first perfected in the second century BC), Meyer runs his new business out of the same building as his family’s tanning business. This arrangement suits his father just fine. Karl Meyer is the grandson of Richard E. Meyer, the company’s namesake, and has been tanning all his life. He recognized the potential of parchment right away. “I was interested in it, too,” Karl says. “It fits perfectly with what we do here.”
The crafts of parchment making and tanning both begin with the same raw materials—animal skins. Like Richard E. Meyer and Sons, Pergamena is committed to environmentally sound manufacturing practices and obtains all of its skins from slaughterhouses and area hunters—taking the leftover parts of the animal that would otherwise go to waste. (No skin comes from an animal that has been singled out just for use as parchment, and never will be, says Karl Meyer. “It’s never the case where you kill a cow just to get a piece of leather—it’s always [killed] for the meat.”) The companies also use natural and biodegradable dyes and pigments whenever possible.
Pergamena makes parchment out of goat, sheep, calf and deer skin—all of it sourced locally when possible. (Meyer has coined the term “leather miles” to describe the quality and freshness of the end product, in much the same way the term “food miles” is used in the organic agriculture industry.) “It’s a raw skin when it comes to us,” says Jesse. “If it’s coming from far away, that’s an awful lot of time—and a lot of opportunity for it to spoil, rot, and go bad.”
Since Richard E. Meyer and Sons has been operating out of the same nondescript barn in Montgomery since 1981, area hunters have learned to just bring skins to their doors, especially deer skin. “They’ll just bring us hides,” Jesse says. “Sometimes they’ll leave the heads on.” Waking up to find a bloody deer hide on your doorstep with hair and innards still attached might be more than most people could handle, but for the Meyers, it’s just another day at the office. “At this point I feel like it doesn’t really affect my stomach, but that’s because I’ve had many years to build up immunity. It doesn’t really bother me anymore, but occasionally the smell can get to me.”
Jesse Meyer works in tandem with his father to better serve the raw material needs of both businesses. “We’ll pool our resources and buy 400 to 500 goats at the same time,” he says. “The initial part of the process for both end products is similar: You have a raw skin, you have to clean the flesh off the skin, you have to get rid of the hair, you have to get rid of the fat. All of that stuff. The initial refining process [for leather and parchment] is similar.” Once the skins are clean, but before they are prepared, Karl and Jesse divvy them up and get to work.
For a craft that is thousands of years old, the next phase of the parchment-making process—turning the clean skin into parchment—provided Jesse with a surprising challenge. There are no definitive instructions on how to actually make parchment, and no opportunities for apprenticeship. “It’s such a small niche and there are so few people that do it that I had a hard time finding research on it,” he says. “When it came to asking questions about process or anything, no one would share anything. [Other parchment makers were] very, very tight-lipped—the sort of old-style guild practice where information is your stock and trade, and you keep that stuff as trade secrets. I had to learn on my own.”
Meyer continues to hone his technique by combing through scholarly projects and research, or even old translations of medieval texts that include recipes in their brittle pages. “The process of making parchment is almost unchanged from what it was thousands of years ago,” he explains. “You take a skin and add a lot of physical labor to it to clean it—removing all of the hangers-on and nasty hair, flesh and fat. Once you have the skin clean, you immerse it in a solution of garden lime and water. Because of the high pH of the lime, it penetrates the skin over the course of a few days or weeks, depending on the temperature. The pH of the skin goes up because of the contact with the lime, which causes the skin to swell and helps to push out any of the excess fat, and any of the hair roots. Then you clean the skin off, remove the hair, shave some of the flesh off, then wash it as best as you can to remove the lime and bring the pH back down to neutral. Then you stretch it and dry it. From that point on, it’s just how you prepare the surface. It’s all manual.”
Along with perfecting his technique, Meyer had to find a customer base for his product—no simple task. “When I first learned about this as a material in 1995 and 1996 and started messing around with it, trying to refine it, I was told that book binders and book conservators [were possible customers]. Those were the first people I was tipped off to who use this stuff.” His customer base widened after he spoke with Karen Gorst, an expert in the field of manuscript illumination. “Because of her interest in medieval studies— she’s an excellent scribe—she basically opened the door and introduced me to a whole bunch of people.” Suddenly Pergamena was working with The Guild of Book Workers, The Society of Scribes, The American Calligraphy Association, and others.
Opening the door was one thing, but keeping it open requires talent, expertise and a quality product—three things at which Meyer excels. He takes great pride not only in the bulk product, but also in the special orders that come his way—those that challenge him to grow his craft, to make parchment as well as it was made thousands of years ago. “That’s the point, especially if you look at it from a museum or conservation point of view,” he says. “Whatever it is you make—[say] you’re looking to replace a binding on a book that is 1,500 years old—you want it to look as close to the original as you possibly can. While it’s not made in exactly the same way, my goal is to have it look as close to what was made back then as possible.”
Today, business is growing. In fact, Pergamena is now a bigger business than Richard E. Meyer and Sons, fielding inquiries from all over the U.S., as well as from South Africa, England, France, Hong Kong, Argentina and Canada. Meyer has expanded the business into conservation for parchment-paneled furniture, and he is experiment ing with ways to make his product more accessible to a mainstream audience. “Goat skin retails for about $14 a square foot,” he notes, “and a skin is probably on average seven or eight square feet.” His most expensive parchment is calf skin, which can cost upwards of $25 a square foot for a ten-foot skin. His solution is to cut skins into more manageable sheets. A set of four 8×11 sheets of goat skin, for example, can retail for $49—more accessible than putting up $112 for a full roll of goat skin parchment. Even though Pergamena has been working the parchment trade for over a decade, Meyer says he has yet to master the art. “I’m still learning. I’m in no way an expert.” It is his passion that keeps him going from one skin to the next, perfecting his methods and searching for his own, elusive formula. “I think it’s a beautiful material,” he says. “I feel fortunate to be able to do this sort of work. Everybody who comes into contact with us invariably says this is really amazing work.”