Butchers come in all shapes and sizes. They’re not all big and beefy, though they have often been depicted that way in art. They are, however, mostly male and while some have a lot to learn about the art of conversation and good manners some are talkative and friendly.
Guy who works in the meat department at Whole Foods in the town of Sonoma is also a hunter. He shoots, kills and dresses his own meat, usually wild pig. I know this because whenever I’m in the store I stop and talk. He’s older than most of the butchers in Whole Foods. Last time we talked, we shared information about the weather, global warming and this year’s acorns that provide food for the wild pigs. In 2015, Guy said, acorns fell to the ground earlier than ever before in his lifetime. “Climate change,” he said. “Acorns are ripening a month or two earlier than usual.”
He’s on the ground and knows what’s really happening perhaps better than experts in cubicles who look at computer-generated models.
The butchers at Thistle Meats in Petaluma are some of the friendliest and most knowledgeable butchers I have ever met. Molly Best who owns Thistle is very approachable and eager to talk about cuts of meat. If you’re shy about starting a conversation with a butcher, start with Molly. She’ll make it easy for you. She might even give you a sample of Thistle charcuterie.
At Oliver’s Market in Cotati the butchers are a rather ornery lot. Not all of the men in the meat department are butchers. Some are just butcher’s assistants. They don’t cut up the carcasses; they just scoop up a pound of ground beef, weigh it, wrap it and hand it over the counter. The real butchers are in the back with sharp knives. Often, it seems to me, butchers would rather cut up a side of beef than engage in a conversation.
One mystery that concerns me is this: years ago I would buy goat at Whole Foods in Sebastopol. Then the store stopped carrying it. I don’t know why and the butchers don’t seem to know why, either. So, when I want goat I go to a Mexican butcher shop, a carniceria, and ask for cabra or cabrito, which is baby goat. I suggest venturing inside Lola’s the Mexican market on Petaluma Hill Road. Wander over to the meat department and be prepared for surprises, if you haven’t been there before. Mexicans eat cuts of meat white Americans regard as unsavory or unhealthy. Indeed, the American meat diet is greatly limited. It’s almost impossible to go into a market and find sweetbreads or ris, the culinary names for the thymus or the pancreas.
The village of Saint Sulplice in the South of France, where I often visit French friends, has several excellent butcher shops with a wide variety of meats: pork, chicken, duck and beef. Marcel, the butcher, takes his time. It’s slow shopping. I’ve seen customers buy $300 worth of meat in one visit. And that’s not unusual.
One Sonoma County friend of mine who grows cannabis and doesn’t make a secret of it tells me that’s he’s bought smoked hams from a butcher in Sonoma County who insists that he feeds his pigs cannabis. “That’s why they taste so good,” he says. Maybe so.
There’s certainly a whole lot to learn about butchers and butchering. One can start by bellying up to the butcher counter and starting a conversation. “What do you have that’s good?” Or “What would you recommend for a dinner party with eight people?” Butchers often have good ideas. Some of them want to share. Just give them a chance.