What Is a Buffalo Chopper?

We ask this question knowing that not everyone has had the good fortune to cut meat in a commercial kitchen, and noting that your immediate online resources might not be much help here. Pinterest, for example, punctuates a patchwork of the squat stainless-steel meat machines with Kid Rock photos (live at Sturgis!), recipes for tangy cheese dip, military aircraft, hunting knives, and motorcycles.

When we at KaTom say buffalo chopper, we tend to mean the free-standing motorized meat cutter, not so much the Harley. Next to a motor, a chopping bowl is mounted on a vertical shaft, over which a pair of blades rotate on a horizontal shaft and a protective cover with a front opening can be raised and lowered. As the bowl turns, food passes through the fast-spinning blades and is ground into ever smaller and more evenly sized pieces, yet stays more or less put in the bottom and sides of the shallow bowl, like so:


What makes a Buffalo chopper indispensable, especially for making sausage, is that unlike a meat grinder–or a helicopter–it can break stale bread down to crumbs or emulsify a moose. Change the blades and it can slice root vegetables–all this in quantities as big as you can reasonably imagine and, this is important: safely. Manufacturers boast that food can easily be removed through the “safety cover”–just not with your hands, they advise. (For that, you have to go to one of countless “hands in the Hobart” videos we came across.)

But Wait! There’s More!

Turnips, venison, muskellunge: this bad boy can take it all down to pink slime. But even though it theoretically could chop buffalo, the Buffalo chopper probably didn’t get its name that way. For one thing, at the time the machine was invented the entire 3-4 million North American bison of the southern herd and much of the northern had been slaughtered. Bison wouldn’t be raised for food for another hundred years. In other words, even if your lady went downtown, from the 1880s till the 1980s she’d have a heck of a time buying some bison, much less bringing it home, never mind choppin’ buffalo, choppin’ buffa-la.

It was a very different American abattoir back then. If you think we live in interesting times now, what with butchers being treated like rock stars and fast-food giants reversing their orders for meat at the drop of a Tweet, go back to 1905.

Breaking the ‘Buffalo Silent’

The John E. Smith’s Sons Company of Buffalo, N.Y., had been flogging its pig foot splitter and “Buffalo Meat Grinder” to the meatpacking trade and institutional kitchens throughout the sausage-eating world for at least a decade by then. The first steam-driven meat choppers had been invented in the 1890s. Sausage wasn’t new, of course, but commercial sausage was a breakthrough, full of byproducts like blood, bones, and worse, that used to be inedible. In a ten-hour workday, a machine like Smith’s “Buffalo Silent” cutter (or chopper) could economically mince 24,000 pounds of meat, trimmings,  and filler into emulsion for funneling into automated sausage stuffing machines, ultimately earning fortunes for the meatpacking barons of Chicago and other Midwestern cities.

The Smith Buffalo chopper might have been manufactured elsewhere, but evidently its iron support pieces were stamped with the Smith name and company location, so the latter became part of what we would today call the “brand identity.” How silent the cutter was is even harder to ascertain; it didn’t have to be very quiet in the context of the appalling meatpacking operations of the time, or clean, or safe. Workers were constantly re-sharpening hot blades that had been sawing through connective tissue; they and the rest of the machine–perhaps like Kid Rock live at Sturgis–needed regular ice-downs to keep from actually cooking the meat.

Whining, shooting sparks, and hissing steam clouds on the slaughterhouse floor of 1905, the Buffalo chopper seems an implicit actor in the writer Upton Sinclair’s famous muckraking of the packing industry. His novel set there, The Jungle, came out the next year amid national hysteria over food contamination, and, it is rumored, incited President Theodore Roosevelt to throw his breakfast sausage out a window on reading it.

The report President Roosevelt subsequently commissioned on the meatpacking industry helped compel Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, part of which would be renamed the Food and Drug Administration in 1930. Let us just restate this: In the United States of America, before 1906, there was no regulation of how food was produced.

Take a look at this 1929 Buffalo chopper we found on eBay.

green hobart buffalo chopper

It might be smaller, and probably wouldn’t need icing down to function, but 15 years clearly didn’t change much about Smith’s machine.

Now take a look at this current-model Univex bowl cutter. Also markedly similar, no?


Barbeque season is right around the corner, and maybe you’re doing some hipster charcuterie with friends or planning to put rillettes of wild hog on your restaurant dinner menu. While you might not think you need something as serious as the Buffalo chopper, we hope you’ll look at KaTom’s spectacular small army of choppers, slicers, cutters and stuff. The Buffalo chopper’s the big one with the herd-animal-like outline. You might want to give one a home.

Elaine Evans
Elaine Evans Elaine Evans is thrilled to blog for KaTom, where her work in restaurants, bars, catering, and artisanal food has caught up at last with her career in journalism and public relations writing. Connect with Elaine Evans on Google+