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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Meat Inspectors and Mrs. Persnickety

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, November 1, 2008.)

I added, with more politeness than
I thought I could muster, “Thank you, ma’m!”

This week’s news carried a story from the Buffalo, NY area about a Chinese restaurant where state inspectors discovered employees butchering a deer. Let the jokes begin, but hey -- I’m one who wants to believe that all those “chicken” dishes really are chicken. Besides, maybe one employee is a hunter who brought his deer to work to cut it up there. I can identify with that.

The story took me back to when I was 15 and went to work in a small corner grocery. I stocked shelves and carried groceries home for neighborhood ladies. Soon Curly, the owner, offered me a 10ȼ raise with the opportunity to work in the meat room.

On Saturday mornings he would tell me how many chickens and Hormel “Cure 81” boneless hams (I still love that stuff) to load onto the rotisserie. I sometimes added extra, and ate a great lunch. Curly kept a case of beer in the meat cooler. I kept a case of Double Cola beside it. What a great job!

Besides barbecuing chickens and hams, I trimmed bones, ground the burger, mixed sausage, sliced luncheon meats, and stuffed pork chops.

Curly specialized in prime beef and in those days, “prime” really meant something. The meat had juicy marbling, a fine texture, and tenderness you could almost see.

The routine behind the counter was to show the customer both sides of any cut she was considering, and to comment on how nice this week’s beef was. I’d close the sale, weigh the meat, wrap it in white butcher paper and mark the price with a grease pencil.

The few persnickety customers we had would usually snag Curly, and he’d cater to their requests for special treatment.

One Saturday evening Curly was in the back room, boning out burger trimmings before calling it a day. One very fussy lady came in, and I stepped up to the challenge of serving her. I went through my script, allowing her to inspect both sides of every sirloin in the case, all the standard ¾" thickness. Nothing suited her. She asked for one an inch and a half thick.

I went into the back room, cut her a nice thick steak, trimmed the edge to a quarter inch of fat, and scraped off all the bone chips left by the saw blade. I proudly presented it to her critical eye. No one ever saw a more perfect sirloin.

She inquired, “Did you cut this, or did Curly?” I replied, “I cut it, ma’m.” She shot back, “Have Curly cut one for me.”

“Yes, ma’m.” I took the beautiful steak back, laid it on Curly’s butcher block, and told him she preferred that he cut her sirloin.

In his high-pitched voice, he said “OK,” and reached over to turn on the saw so she could hear it run. He continued the deft strokes of his boning knife. Without missing a beat he reached over, nicked the edge of the steak with his knife, and went back to boning. He switched off the saw and said, “Take it back to her.”

Upon seeing the very same steak, Inspector Persnickety said, “Did Curly cut this one?”

“Yes ma’m. He sure did. Isn’t it a beauty?” I weighed it, wrapped it, wrote the price on it and handed it to her. I added, with more politeness than I thought I could muster, “Thank you, ma’m!”

When deer season came that year I shot my first buck, and asked Curly if I could bring it in and cut it up. He said no -- some nonsense about ridiculous regulations and annoying state inspectors. “Aww, shucks,” I must have said.

The next night I worked alone, and I brought my buck in. Yes, state inspectors would have had a fit, but I washed the saw and grinder and made sure not a trace of venison could be found anywhere.

Curly didn’t miss much -- he probably knew but never said a word.

Thanks to Curly I’ve butchered my own deer right from the beginning. I no longer use a saw, but still use the R. H. Forschner boning knife I got from Curly so long ago. I don’t do it in a meat shop, nor in a restaurant. I do it in my wife’s kitchen where inspectors don’t come around -- and no one is so persnickety.


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