The Way It Was: Remembering the local butcher shop

by John Straka Published:

I remember when my mother went to the local butcher shop almost every day. We had no refrigerator so she would buy meat and cook and serve it all in the same day. The butcher shop was like a gathering place where women could catch up on the local gossip and meet friends and even make new ones. Since most women went there at about the same time every day, they could talk to the same friends every day.

The butcher would buy large pieces of cows or pigs, and cut them to order little by little. Customers would specify exactly what piece they wanted, and what they wanted him to do with it. It could be ground, trimmed, trussed, or fitted with a pocket to hold stuffing. A small piece of beef, a bone and a slice of liver would make enough soup to feed a family.

You need to know that, in order to understand the jokes that were popular in those days. Here are five such stories as I remember them.

A lady came into the store late in the day and said she needed some lunchmeat. The butcher apologized and said he was almost all out of lunchmeat, and all he had left was some tongue balogna. The lady made a face and in a tone of disgust said she could never eat anything that came from an animal's mouth. Then after she thought about her choices for a moment, she told the butcher to give her a dozen eggs.

Another lady, who by the way must have been a lot like my Aunt Mary, asked the butcher what did he have that would be good for her supper. He showed her a place on the carcass that he could cut off but she said that had too much fat in it. He suggested another piece in a different part of the carcass, but she said that would not taste as good because it didn't have any fat at all in it. His third and fourth suggestions were also rejected for one reason or another. Exasperated, he suggested that maybe she should buy some cottage cheese.

I think it was Norman Rockwell who drew a picture of a lady and her butcher both looking up at opposite sides of the dial of a large butcher type scale, with a chicken on the tray. He had his thumb hooked over the tray to make the chicken weigh more, while at the same time she had a finger under the tray trying to lift it to make the chicken weigh less. They both thought they had outsmarted each other, when actually they most likely ended up with the actual weight of the chicken.

Another story is about the lady who wanted to buy a chicken for a special dinner for her Sunday guests. The butcher had sold all his chickens except one, and if this customer would buy it, he would be all sold out of chickens. He went into his ice-cooled walk-in cooler and came out with that last of the day chicken. When he put it on the scale, the customer hesitated and decided the chicken wasn't big enough and asked if he had a bigger one. Not wanting to lose the sale, he went back in the cooler and came out with the same chicken, but this time when he put it on the scale he also rested his thumb on the scale to make it seem like it was a heavier chicken.

Well, the woman was still very much undecided. The second chicken wasn't very much larger than the first one. What to do? Then she had an idea that would solve her problem. She said to the butcher, "I'll take both of them!" It's up to the reader to figure out what happened after that.

This next story is more about a deli than a butcher shop, but it could be either one. A lady comes in to buy some pastrami. She chats with the butcher a bit and when he shows her the piece of pastrami he has, it's a small piece near the end of the whole pastrami. She definitely doesn't want any of that because it's not fresh and probably all dried out. So, he gets out a new whole one, about 8 or 10 pounds. She doesn't want the very first end slice so he trims it off. Then she tells him to start slicing.

While he's slicing she's talking and he wonders out loud if she is buying for maybe a party? She pauses just long enough to say, "Cut, cut!" which he does. Now he has about 3 pounds of pastrami sliced and she is still talking and telling him to "Cut, cut." When he has more than half of the whole thing sliced, he begins to wonder what she is up to, and asks her "Just how much of this do you want, lady?" Her answer? "The next two slices."

In those days, storekeepers, including butchers, did a lot of things for their customers that are not done in our modern supermarkets. Bones and pieces of liver were given away, without cost, to customers who used them to add flavor to soup. Customers could select exactly what piece of meat they wanted and the butcher would cut it off and then grind it for the customer.

Having the butcher crack bones, or tie roasts was part of what they had to do in order to keep customers coming back. Bakeries would roast turkeys in their oven for customers. Retail mom-and-pop stores sold merchandise on credit and there would be no bill, no interest charges, and no charge card.

My mental image of a butcher is a man wearing a white apron smudged with blood, with his sleeves rolled up and holding a super sharp knife in one hand and a sharpener in the other.

He would have several other knives in slots at the edge of his wooden butcher block cutting table.

Near at hand would be a heavy-duty cleaver and a bone saw.

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