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My Butcher, Norman


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Back in the second half of the 70s and first half of the 80s, I was living in London bringing up two kids with my partner (not their birth mother). We both worked long hours, but Saturdays were sacrosanct. We had a routine.

We would skip breakfast apart from a coffee and a cigarette for me (I stopped long ago!) and head out shopping. First to the bakery. A real bakery where they baked stuff. We bought bread  - wonderful proper bread five minutes from home. Then we would head to meet with Norman.

Norman was a butcher from a long line of butchers. Two of his brothers were butchers; another was a farmer. Lovely man. He looked like a proper butcher. Not fat, but healthy and with shining eyes. He knew meat and taught me a lot. He always had time to answer my dumb questions.

As the years went by, I think he began to respect me for my discerning attitude to meat purchasing. When I went into his shop, where he butchered everything himself, no one else, not his apprentices, were allowed to serve me. His elder brother retired from his shop, but would help Norman out at busy times. Even, he was not allowed to serve me.

One Christmas season he made a bunch of beef chipolata sausages, some of which I bought and loved. No one else did, so he didn't make them again, except for making a batch every Christmas just for me!

He taught me the delights of breast of lamb, which I had never considered before, but now ranks among my favourite meats.


He would be delighted when I asked him to bone a duck for me or perform other knife skills that were beyond me. He would grin when I asked for bits of animals that no one else would ask for, then send one of his confused apprentices to either find it in the fridge or, more likely, dig it out of carcase.


He happily supplied me with caul - impossible to find in the "super"markets.


His younger brother, the farmer, would occasionally shoot wild rabbits and send to Norman, who would immediately call me to tell me. Yes, we had exchanged phone numbers.

Some time in the mid-80s, Tesco's opened a supermarket a few yards from his shop and the rot set in. Plastic wrapped unidentifiable meat and untrained staff on minimum wage became the norm.

Norman battled on for a year or two, but in the end had to give up and retire early.  A year later he died.

His old shop is now a tanning studio.

I weep.



Edited by liuzhou
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Nice story.  I, too, once had a butcher who came from a long line of butchers on the lower east side of New York City; the shop was a fixture in the Essex Street Market for 70 years. 


Jeffrey taught me much and sold me much. I never knew how good a hamburger could be, until he ground some eye of chuck for me, the same stuff he was selling to restaurants for their burgers. Makes for a great steak, too. Or the steak that became chi chi - the teres major, aka beef clod. 


Jeffrey taught people how a pig is butchered. He gave out roses to women. He often, for first time customers, gifted free meat/poultry/ whatever. But the restaurant business, who were his major customers, suffered during the great recession, and his business suffered greatly.  He had to close. And then, a few years later, he had to pass on. 





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Great stories.  The image below hangs in our garage. Dad managed a wholesale meat packing plant. Gone now. Transit authority eminent domained them for a new freeway (they made out).  Aside from occasional visits he kept my sister and I away. We were expected to become "professionals". He had apprenticed in Croatia (pre Tito) and was a sought out sausage maker in Austria. He knows nothing of my butcher relations. When husband and I moved out of our apartment to another distant part of LA my hardest good-bye was to the butcher at my local Safeway. Fairly young,  shy, gentle eyes -- always willing to special order me what I needed in my early cooking life. Like breast of veal. I think I amused him. 


I ran into one of the former owners of the packing plant in a retail outlet they still had open. I was going to do veal shank at  nearby friend's house. Lloyd was working behind the counter catering to the little old ladies from the Fairfax district who had him turning pieces of meat over for inspection, setting it on butcher paper for the to closer inspect/sniff/poke. They had no clue he was a retired businessman from Beverly Hills. He did it for fun because he enjoyed the interaction.  


The fishmongers at Grand Central in downtown were on my day off Friday route. They taught me how to pick fish, bone and fillet - very missed, the place is hyper gentrified now - think EggSlut et al.  The fish and meat guys at my local upscale market are wonderful. They take time, they explain, they save carcasses and bones for me (!) as they still break down meat in store. 


My list is much longer in history but will stop. Oh and we have all probably read about this guy  https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/italian-butcher-dario-cecchini-serving-steak-and-poetry



Edited by heidih (log)
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In my old town, I used to go to Alfredo. He would hand-slice mortadella with one hand and hand-cut gigantic steaks (this was Tuscany after all) with the other. If you forgot your wallet, he’d say, “That’s ok, just bring the money next time.” He knew the life stories of all his clients, of course, because they had all been coming for as long as he could remember. 


I wouldn’t say I learned anything from him, but he learned from me. Not that I know anything about butchering (I don’t!) but because I would go in asking for cuts they don’t (or didn’t) have in Italy. He’d always oblige: short ribs, skirt steak, hanger steak, flat pot roasts. I would buy the skirt steak off every cow he would get and it became such a thing that no matter when I went or for what, he would greet me by saying, “I don’t/do have your cut today.” (Coincidentally, skirt steak -- diaframma, here -- and a few other American cuts are starting to gain in popularity.)


Now, in Milan, I have two. I go directly to a farm a half hour or so out of Milan and there I buy in bulk when I have room in my freezer, But for everyday, I go to a guy who has the biggest chickens I’ve ever seen in Italy, but very little variety or flexibility (he has what he has and that’s that). So he never has “my” cuts and won’t do them for me and if I need a whole chicken, I have to order it two days in advance (!!). But the quality is good, the prices are fine and sooner or later, I’ll bring him around. :)

Edited by ambra
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18 hours ago, heidih said:


I meant to say I've been several times, especially for the burger because it's such a great deal. The place really feels very touristy though. But randomly, he has the best seasoning salt, which I think he calls "Sale di Chianti" or something similar, and I use it on salmon and chicken not beef. 😀

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In suburban NJ, in the 1960’s-70’s, my husband’s family had a butcher, Sid Miller. His parents were so friendly with Sid that he was invited to my husband’s Bar Mitzvah. Where apparently Sid and his wife put on a show on the dance floor.

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"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast" - Oscar Wilde

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Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a small neighborhood grocery that was renowned for its steaks. You'd go in and ask Mr. Barfield for a ribeye, a strip, a filet, a T-bone, whatever. He'd ask, "How thick y'want it?" and proceed to cut it, wrap it, weigh it and write the price in grease pencil on the butcher paper. If you ordered a filet, he'd wrap a strip of bacon around it and secure it with a skewer. I always thought I could see a twinkle in his eye (he was otherwise a dour older man) when I'd ask for my steaks two inches thick. I think he approved.


Before that, there was the country store within easy walking distance of my house. Not much of a meat counter, mostly lunch meats, a big wheel of cheddar cheese, and some hams, bacon and sausage. The best lunch in the world was a sandwich on white bread with a slab of "rag bologna" (so-called because it was wrapped in a cloth casing that had to be pulled off each slice) and "rat cheese" (the cheddar). 


A couple of years ago, I stopped at an Amish grocery while exploring a back road to get something to drink. And there was a meat counter, with folks dishing out sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper, the price written in grease pencil on the paper....And I was transported back.


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Don't ask. Eat it.


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  • 5 months later...

Years ago, I worked in the deli section of Bud's Meats, the best meat market in the Seattle area.

The manager, Roy, was an older man who was never happy unless he was unhappy about something. He had a shock of white hair that stood straight up on his head and a perpetual frown but Roy was a real sweetheart underneath. Years later I had a job delivering flowers. One of the best jobs I ever had because you usually make people happy. The one downside of the job was delivering flowers to families who had lost a loved one and when it was someone you knew it could turn into the worst job in the world. One of my worst days was the day that I had to deliver flowers to the funeral home for Roy. I asked if I could please go in and pay my respects because he was a friend of mine. I got quite a shock when I looked into the coffin and it wasn't Roy. I was just about to go ask the funeral director where he was when I realized what the problem was. They had combed down that shock of white hair flat to his head and they had put a smile on his face. My first thought was that it Roy had seen that he would have turned over in his grave.... oh wait, he isn't even in it yet. I think it was a reaction that Roy would have approved.


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