February 01, 2011

The Butcher

One of my earliest memories is of the local butcher’s shop. I’d press my nose on the refrigerated glass and look at what to me was a smorgasbord of delight. Black pudding, lambs' kidneys, fresh sausages, streaky bacon and back, pigs’ trotters and sows’ ears, and so on and so on. I never was much of a one for sweets or toy soldiers. These cuts were my heart’s desire but, much like the child who never owns the toy of his dreams, it was the visit to the shop that I cherished more than the things themselves. On the back wall, which was covered in shiny blue and white tiles, was a row of meat hooks upon which hung a variety of larger carcases. In those days things weren’t pre-cut and packaged; the butcher waited for you to order your joint before hauling down the whole hunk on his shoulder and pouring it out onto the block. He sharpened a gloriously large knife with a long steel that was kept in a leather belt, moving with such speed but miraculously never cutting off his hand. The joint was cut to size, but still attached by the bone. Out came the clever: the moment I always anticipated most. My local butcher was a wiry, tall man with glasses. He’d raise the cleaver right above his head – a good seven feet above my gaze – and bring it down with clinical accuracy upon the bone, making the most delicious crack, immediately followed by the dull thud of blade in block. For many years as a child I really wanted to own a cleaver. All of this took place in a uniquely cool atmosphere – like walking into the fridge to choose your dinner – but with a warmth of conversation that taught me to recognise that butchers are (sadly, were) pillars of the community.

The butcher used to know everyone and, in all probability, everyone’s business too. The single-most important quality for a butcher was discretion, and that made him a great listener. Yet history has been unkind to them. By precedent they did not serve on juries because their work was thought to harden their hearts. I never could work out how a butcher was any more likely to be callous than a surgeon, a veterinarian, or a funeral director – those pillars of middle-class life who might have been thought ideal candidates for duty at court. But butchers were working class, and concomitantly thought to be unrefined, unpredictable, and already somewhat hardened by life. Their singular quality of being able to listen without prejudice was overlooked because of other doubts.

Gillray, The British Butcher supplying John Bull with a Substitute for Bread, 1795

Still, not everyone maligned these men. Representations of John Bull, the stalwart freeborn Englishman, had a forerunner in the caricatured form of the butcher, and William Hogarth left no doubt about the importance of beef (and implicitly, those who provided it) in his idealization of a content and fulfilled society. He was the pivot point around which local life gathered, for everyone had to visit him, and most probably would meet each other at his shambles. In wartime the butcher became a man of great power, able to do unto his neighbours that which they had done unto him. It became a matter of great importance to respect the butcher if one was to feed a family in times of ration. Mr. Jones the butcher of Dad’s Army fame is the archetype: friendly, eager, courageous, and with a heightened sense of justice.

Hogarth, Beer Street, 1750 (hunk of beef to the left)

There aren’t many left. My mother still has a good one – actually a husband and wife team – but they are knocking on, and soon the supermarket will have won. My Hungarian butcher in Montreal is the salt of the earth, but he too is getting long in the tooth. In Berlin things are a little brighter, but I don’t quite yet have the hang of the experience yet. I’m working on it. In any case, I thought I’d share a thought or two on these rare men, for they are not long for this world, and we may not yet realise just how much we shall miss them.

 Rembrandt, Carcass of Beef, 1655


  1. Thankfully, we have 2 farmers markets near us and one in the city....each has a top-notch butcher stall with the meats and the skilled men you describe...great post!

  2. What a great post, our local butcher's shop been going for 100 years, it has been passed down from generation to generation and still gas the original old tiles through in the back shop. I would hate to see their passing in exchange for plastic wrapped supermarket meat

  3. In Carmel Indiana, we have butcher. He is young (about my age 47) and has been training younger men. Even though the cost is dear, the meat and cuts are better than any supermarket.


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