The Literate Chef

Where Have All the Butchers Gone?

In General Articles on January 4, 2012 at 4:25 PM

While attending high school, I held a number of after-school and summer jobs. It was easy to find work growing up in Inwood in the 1950’s, as there were many stores that needed delivery boys;  the drug stores, the florists, the dry cleaners, the fruit & vegetable stores, the deli’s, the fish markets and the butchers. There were not many cars in the neighborhood then, so we delivery boys either hoofed it, or made our runs on delivery bikes.

My delivery boy career included a cleaner, a fruit & vegetable store and a butcher; the latter was located on the corner of 207th Street and Sherman Avenue and was called Wal-Fred’s. I don’t recall either a Walter or a Fred, but think I remember a Tommy and a Patsy (Pasquale), both Italian-Americans, who were either brothers or cousins.  I’m lucky I can recall even that, but one thing I will never forget is the smell.

The delivery boy was also the one who cleaned the store after his delivery rounds were completed. There were chicken cases to be scrubbed and display trays to be washed; there were butcher blocks to be scraped with a steel brush; there were fat /offal cans to be washed out and deodorized and there was the floor to be swept and covered with fresh sawdust before the store was closed for the night at 6:00 pm. Aside from the tips, one of the best aspects of the job, was on a hot summer’s day being able to walk into the meat locker to cool down before heading home to my non air-conditioned apartment.

One by one, in most neighborhoods and towns, the little stores that provided these jobs disappeared as supermarkets and mega-markets made their appearance. And with the proliferation of cars and vans, deliveries are more often made by motor vehicle rather than on foot and bike. Of all of these businesses that have disappeared, the loss of butcher shops strikes me as the saddest.

Buying meat wrapped in plastic and placed on a Styrofoam tray is a far cry from asking the butcher to cut you a steak to a particular size, or to slice the veal cutlets and pound them into scaloppine or even to find certain specialty cuts like Osso Buco on the day you want to make it, rather than wait for the next warehouse delivery.

On a recent trip to New York, we visited our favorite butcher, Vincent’s Meat Market, on Arthur Avenue in The Bronx. At Vincent’s you are able to get the type of service that was standard back when there were butcher shops in every town and neighborhood. On this latest trip we brought back with us both 2 pounds of Veal Scaloppine and 4 lbs. of Osso Buco. The Osso Buco, which were two inches thick, were too large for one person, so at our request the butcher cut them in half horizontally with his electric band saw. Try getting that done in your local supermarket, even if you can find Osso Buco.

The veal cutlets, having been rolled and stuffed with Prosciutto and Fontina cheese, served six as Veal Rollatini for dinner last week. The Osso Buco was prepared Milanese style (without tomatoes, which in my opinion detract from the intense veal flavor) and served four for dinner on New Year’s Eve.

  1. I realize I’m responding to a year old post, but I was doing a search on why butchers are disappearing and stumbled here.

    Approximately twenty-five years or so ago I remember my mother going to local butchers and getting her meats. They’ve all vanished, and I found myself perplexed as someone who has became interested in cooking approximately nine or so years ago. I am sad and disappointed. It makes me want to open up my own butcher shop in this area.

    I think people are intimidated by a real butchers knowledge. To this day I still might not know what to ask for. My local grocery store will in fact cut/grind/etc. meats that you request, but they do so with an awful attitude and offer up no knowledge/education at all about the product.

    It’s a real shame.

    I enjoyed the read. Thanks.

  2. In the 1960’s and 70’s my father owned a butcher shop in New Jersey. This post brought back many wonderful memories of my sister and brother and I working with my Dad, making his special Italian cheese sausage and nightly deliveries. It is sad that the butcher shops are a thing of the past.

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