25 things vanishing in America, part 2: Butcher shops

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When was the last time you went to a butcher? Not the person stashed at the back of the grocery store, far from the light of day, but an honest-to-goodness butcher in his own storefront, who shoots the breeze and can gauge with his hand the exact weight of a cut before it hits the scale? If you're living in America, chances are you've never been to one at all. They've become as antiquated as five-and-dimes and general stores.

There's an old-fashioned butcher, Anthony, near my house, and I know full well that I'm lucky to have him. I make a point of patronizing places that I want to see stick around. I know I could get my meat cheaper at the supermarket, but I also know that every dollar I spend with my butcher makes it possible for him to be my butcher.


Stepping into Anthony's shop is like stepping into another world, and he's the only food seller I frequent who will actually ask me how I plan to cook what I buy from him. He asks because he knows his trade well, and he does it because he has time to listen to the answer and help me out, the way neighbors do. He keeps an extra chair by the window for elderly neighbors who want to come in and chat. It's usually occupied.

In generations past, butchers stocked kitchen tables around the neighborhood, and because families were the main market, butchers did their most brisk trade in cheaper cuts of meats, like kidneys. Once meat started showing up cling-wrapped at the supermarket, people started looking to professional butchers as artisans. That brought volume down and wiped most of them off the map.

Now, much of a butcher's business has shifted from family fare to high-quality, expensive cuts like racks of lamb and prime rib. You'll pick up chuck when you're at the Kroger, but you turn to a butcher for special occasions. Ultimately, that makes him a fringe vendor or a party caterer, not a guy who delivers your staples, and it means his days are numbered.

When I cook something from my supermarket, I simply eat it. When I cook something from my butcher shop, I can't shake the feeling that I could never do it justice. Recently, I went in my butcher shop for bacon. Before my eyes, he pulled out a whole side of pig, literally yanked the skin off the slab of meat, and sliced off the freshest stuff imaginable. (It was delicious. It also made me feel a little guilty--when we buy stuff on a foam tray from the Safeway, we don't have to deal with the connection that it actually came from a living thing.)

My butcher has been working with meat since he was 9 years old. His grandfather ran a butcher shop, and the tradition was passed down. His place -- gleaming white counters, a chopping block the size of a table, an old-fashioned clanging cash register -- has been running for more than 50 years. His own kids, though, aren't interested in continuing with such a blue-collar trade. When Anthony retires, the trade will die with him.

I'm hoping that the recession will help butchers. More Americans are scaling back our restaurant patronage and cooking instead, so more of us are starting to realize the true quality of some of the over-preserved stuff we've been putting in our shopping carts. Maybe we'll turn to butchers because we'll be able to trust the quality and freshness of what we're eating. I know I'm probably fooling myself.

It's a good thing Alice found Sam the Butcher when she did. Do you think they'd have hooked up if he was punching the clock in the hind end of Wal-Mart? He'd probably have been fired for chatting her up.

UPDATE: I am saddened to report that the butcher shop I described so lovingly in this post suddenly closed on April 18 after 49 years in business. Vanished, just as I warned. Now I have to get my meat at the supermarket, where they've never even heard of capicolla.



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