My neighborhood butcher gives lessons

"This or the stew meat or the ground meat — they have a lot more flavor than a filet."

  • Image by Laura Stokes

Go ahead. Take the ice man, the candlestick maker, the fruit and vegetable vendor, and even the neighborhood baker. Put them all under one well-lit supermarket roof and seal their wares in polyethylene. It's cheaper that way. More efficient. But whatever you do, don't do the same to my neighborhood butcher.

My neighborhood butcher is a nice, greying, stocky man named Blackie. His service is the only reason for the survival of our neighborhood mom and pop grocery store.

Every time I've gone in for a piece of meat, Blackie gives me another class in the anatomy of the cow. Blackie has taught me about what he calls the loin section of the cow, reaching behind and rubbing the middle of his back. "Below that's the sirloin and below that's the round, where the leg meets the rump of the cow. This here," Blackie points to the small strip of meat near the backbone in the piece of loin he's holding, "is the tenderloin. This where the real expensive tender filets come from. 'Course that's not my favorite piece. This here," he taps a shoulder pot roast in the showcase with his knife. "This or the stew meat or the ground meat — they have a lot more flavor than a filet."

What makes Blackie and the other butchers in the other neighborhood grocery stores around town so popular isn't just their friendliness. They take special pride in the meat's taste and general quality. Not a hard-sell merchant, Blackie smiles and the skin around his eyes folds into a thousand tiny wrinkles, "I age my meat a lot more than the big supermarkets. Usually, I get a side of beef in my locker here and keep it so it's aged three weeks to a month. Years ago, some of the big stores used to age meat locally. Safeway, for example. Now Safeway brings it down already cut up, packed in cardboard boxes at the cutting house in L.A. "Course these supermarkets can put the meat right on the shelf in clean plastic and the meat's bright red. It looks real good and there's no shrinkage. Why, when I put a hind quarter in my locker here to age it, it loses a pound and a half a day in shrinkage. The meat you get in the supermarkets shrinks when you cook it."

Blackie handles his instruments like an artist with his brush. Quickly, deliberately. He trims the fat and gristle from a piece of round steak and scrapes the waste into a container with a single stroke of his knife. He scoops a spoonful of ground beef and slaps it on a sheet of wax paper on his scale. Exactly a pound, not a hair off.

Another advantage over the big supermarket that Blackie offers is his ground beef. Blackie says every store's ground beef comes form all parts of the cow, anything that has muscle tissue (my mind skips back to a vegetarian friend who told me, "yeah, snouts and feet and ... everything.") Bu then Blackie comes closer, lowers his voice and glances from side to side. He gives a little laugh as if he has done something wrong himself. "They — uh — the big supermarkets — fudge a little on the ground beef, you know. Those three categories they use — regular, lean, super lean or whatever it is — well, the percentages are fudged. If they say 25 percent fat, well, it's probably 30 percent. But you can't catch 'em. It's too hard to figure the percentages out. My ground beef here is leaner than what they call their ground round."

Blackie doesn't put much stock in the cheaper alternatives to his ever more expensive beef. He said he tried horsemeat years ago, that it had a sweet but dry taste to it. "Real stringy, no fat on it." Even if he wanted to sell horsemeat, he is prohibited from doing so by state law. California law says horsemeat can't be sold in the same room as beef. He also pooh-poohs the virtues of Tijuana beef. "Some people tell me you can get filets in Tijuana for 80 or 90 cents a pound. But that's a filet from a Mexican range cow, not a steer. That meat's real tough, no fat on it. I've been everywhere in the world and you can't get beef anywhere in the world that's better than ours. I went to Argentina several years ago and that beef's supposed to be so good ... well, it's not."

Blackie hasn't had a real rush on the rock bottom parts of the cow, either. Some people buy kidneys, mostly for pet food; some English people like it for kidney stew. He doesn't sell any tripe, but some of the butchers down in heavily black Southeast San Diego do.

Blackie's chauvinism even extends to the state where the beef is better than California beef. They take their steer who's been out on the range and put him in the feed lot only the last month or so. I get my beef from the feed lots in El Centro. They keep that steer in the feed lot for as much as 120 days before slaughter. He is in a little stall and doesn't get much exercise. He just eats. So he gets real fat and his beef's real tender. You see, it's all that exercise they get on the range that makes the meat less tender."

Usually the lessons last until Blackie finishes wrapping the meat. He smiles and sets the white paper package on the counter, By then there are at least three or four customers waiting in line for their piece of meat and their anatomy lesson.

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