You can tell from Bill McCann’s biography that his life as a butcher has a theme. His career has focused on learning from others and passing on his knowledge to the next generation of butchers. In this guest post, Bill shares one of his memorable experiences as a mentor at The Local Butcher Shop.
The Game Changer
The desire to pass on knowledge of a trade or profession, a culture, or even a little wisdom seems to meet a basic need of the human soul. We see this in parents working with their children and with older brothers and sisters helping younger siblings. For most of my career as a butcher, I didn’t do much in the way of teaching the trade because there really wasn’t a lot of interest expressed by the generation about to take my place at the block. With the advent of boxed case-ready beef and pork, and precut and packaged poultry, the trade that I’d worked so hard to master suddenly looked like something that belonged to another time, along with blacksmiths and saddle makers. Lately, however, the wind has begun to blow in a different direction with a wonderful new interest in food in general, and good locally-raised food in particular. Here at The Local Butcher Shop, I have been able to participate in this movement starting with my first day on the job. While this experience of teaching and working has evolved gradually over the last three years, one experience really stands out for me.
A while back, I heard rumors of a young woman from New Jersey by way of New York City, who wanted to intern with us. Several interns had passed through The Shop before, and I had enjoyed working with each in a different way. But what set Heather Marold Thomason apart is that she didn’t just schlep out here from New York like some agro-tourist coming to help with the Tuscan olive harvest for a few weeks. Instead she arrived clearly committed to do what she needed to develop a strong grasp of the trade. Back on the East Coast, Heather worked a season at a livestock farm where a good part of her job had been administering a meat CSA, an experience that gave her a basic knowledge of butchery, but other than that she was a blank canvas. Heather was in no way your usual candidate to be an apprentice butcher. She earned a Bachelor’s degree from Fordham and ran a successful marketing company with her husband, but most of her skills were mental. As a butcher, she would need to acquire new skills in order to overcome the physical obstacles that the trade presents. She seemed to have realized instinctively that you just can’t get proficient at any trade or profession without putting time into the really mundane, repetitive but important stuff.
Heather ended up spending more than a year with us and eventually graduated to the role of butcher. Whole animal butchery, as we do at The Local Butcher Shop, is a very physically demanding occupation, but that is just the first part. Unless you are working on the conveyor belt of a big facility in the Midwest, you need more than just knife skills to be a good butcher. To be proficient, you need the right language and instincts to deal with a public that doesn’t always have a clear idea of what it wants. That is the part of butchery that came hardest for me. Customer service skills just seemed to be an innate talent with Heather. She understood the materials that you need to put a good meal on the table, but she also had the empathy required to give advice to someone who had put in a day’s work and still had to feed a family without it becoming a big project.
In our time working together, all I could see that she lacked in skills was her reluctance to break down large quarters of beef. The walk-in at The Shop is an efficient but rather confined place, so can be hard to get a perspective about what has to be done with those huge slabs of beef. With the help of my friend, Scott Chase in the San Joaquin Valley, I arranged for us to spend one final day as teacher and student breaking down beef in his larger facility. The day in Madera was a grand success, and Heather was launched. The sad part for me is that she is now gone from our midst–she has returned to the east coast to work at a new butcher shop, Kensington’s Quarters in Philadelphia. But the happy part is that Heather left a good mark on The Local Butcher Shop with her work, and that puts a smile on my face — “kings can do no more.” If you are ever in Philly, please look her up and say ‘hi’ from all of us at The Local Butcher Shop and her special customers here in Berkeley.