Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Butcher’s Granddaughter

I am something of a walking-talking ethnic stereotype. My Irish grandfather was a saloon-keeper, proprietor with his brother Jim of the Rogers Brothers Saloon. My German grandfather was a butcher, who owned his own grocery store. (My cousin Ellen it locked in a tie here: her Irish grandfather was a Chicago cop.)

My mother was definitely the butcher’s daughter. The Norman Rockwell family gathering scenario of the father gravely carving the turkey didn’t exist in our family. My mother knew how to carve meat, and generally did so, wherever the family gathering was held. A man carve meat? Not in our house. That was women’s work.

(As an aside, my mother’s favorite kitchen tool was a fabulous utility knife that her father had given her when she got married. After 50+ years of daily use, a chunk fell off the by-then thinned blade. My mother was crushed. She was never going to replace that honey of a knife.)

I’m only the butcher’s granddaughter in name only. I wasn’t even two when Grandpa Wolf died, so I have no recall of him at all. I mostly buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts. When necessary, I don’t so much carve as hack. My Grandfather Rogers died when my father was 11, so he’s always been a mystery man to me. Yet, heritage-wise, I probably do a better job handling alcohol than handling meat.

(And speaking of professions that went out of business. Before my grandfather opened his saloon, he was a blacksmith. He was smart enough to go with a sure thing for his next business. Too bad about all those Carrie Nation do-gooders.)

Anyway, although I could probably live quite happily as a vegetarian, I sorta/kinda have a soft spot in my non-eviscerated heart for butchers.

So I was interested in an article I saw a while back in the Boston Globe on the shortage of butchers.

While foodies, chefs, and everyday shoppers increasingly want to trace their meat back to the farmer and town where the animals were raised, slaughterhouses and supermarkets are having trouble finding enough workers who are willing or able to cut meat for a living.

“It’s very hard to get someone to butcher,” said Richard Blood, a seventh-generation butcher who works at his family’s Groton slaughterhouse, Blood Farm. They’ve been looking for six months to fill an opening for a butcher and in the fall will need another. Finding help “is always a headache,” he said. (Source: Boston Globe)

Blood? Blood! I always thought that Wolf was a pretty good name for a butcher. But Blood! It doesn’t get much better than that. Well, actually it does. In the article, there’s a quote from Paul Butcher, a meat cutter at my very own Roche Bros. (Names can, of course, get a lot worse. The mother of a friend of mine once saw a surgeon named Dr. Klutz.)

Anyway, whether you’re looking at butchers – who work on the entire animal – or meat cutters, who work on smaller pieces of meat – the numbers are going down. The number of “slaughterhouse butchers” in the state are down 82% since 2012; when butchers and meat cutters are combined, there were 150 fewer in Massachusetts in 2015 than there were in 2000. Across the country, the numbers have declined by 9,000 over the past two decades.

It’s really no wonder that it’s hard to find someone willing to be a butcher. There’s the blood. There’s the gore. There are the guts. (Who wants to disembowel?) And for short money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, slaughterhouse butchers and grocery store meat cutters make about $30K a year.

Here’s what Richard Blood has to say:

“You’re working with blood, you’re working with all kinds of fluids,” he said. “And they don’t give a hog a towel bath before you butcher it.”

And, in the words of Roche Bros.’ Paul Butcher: “a lot of people are just grossed out by it.”

I did mention that I could be a vegetarian, did I not?

So, it’s a crappy (sometimes literally) job, and ill-paid, to boot. And the need for it is, given that many grocery stores only carry meat that is fully packaged already. All the butchering and meat cutting is done at a central facility and distributed ready-to-go.

What you can do to increase the supply is to – Econ 101 – raise the wages. But if you raise the wages, there’s even more incentive to go with the cheaper (and probably at least partially automated) centralized Walmart meat facility route.

And speaking of professions that went out of business. Before my grandfather opened his saloon, he was a blacksmith. He was smart enough to go with a sure thing for his next business. Too bad about all those Carrie Nation do-gooders.

Anyway, I don’t miss walking around the North End and seeing partially skinned rabbits hanging in butcher store windows. I don’t ever care to see a calf or pig head sitting there on chipped ice, surrounded by fake grass. (In Ireland, the butcher store ‘ick’ is the little lamb tongues.) And, while I’m at it, I’m not all that fond of seeing a blank white fish-eye staring at me when I order trout or some other fish that comes with its head still attached.

Still, I’m not the butcher’s granddaughter for nothing. So it’s sad to see the profession on the wane. I’m guessing that, unless there’s another call (hah!) for Prohibition, which is what did in the Rogers Brothers Saloon, there’ll always be bars.

No comments: