This post begins a new series of writings on our blog by guest writers. We’re excited to lean on our vast community of friends and colleagues to tell their stories, informing your food choices by sharing their experiences and viewpoints. Bill McCann is a butcher at The Local Butcher Shop, and came to us by way of his own butcher business in the Valley. He has been in the business for almost 40 years and he brings a wealth of knowledge and skill to The Local Butcher Shop. His stories are wonderful and everyone here at The Shop hangs on his every word.
Back in the day, 1973, I was working at a small meat processing plant in a college town in Eastern Oregon. These were the days before Slow Food, the writings of Michael Pollan, or even the Food Channel on TV. The place where I worked bought cattle, hogs, and sheep from local farmers, and in turn sold meat to local stores, restaurants, schools and other institutions within about a hundred mile radius of the plant. In the grand picture of history, this was really not that long ago, and at that time, a good part of our country purchased their meat from a similarly short supply chain.
One Friday afternoon, we finished our work early and I set to mucking out the pens where the day’s supply of hogs, sheep, and beef had spent their final hours. The guy helping me with the chore was one Francis Phillips, a really likable sort, about forty-eight to fifty. Francis was a butcher, but he was a lot of other things as well – carpenter, truck driver, well-rounded cowboy with a voice like Jimmy Rogers – but most importantly, he was a prophet. The two of us worked side by side cleaning things up and with plenty of time left, we stopped to take a break. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, so we sat in the sun, smoked a cigarette, and watched the cars and trucks go by on the interstate a few hundred yards away. As we smoked and talked, a big truck with a Safeway Stores logo on its side came into view and passed us. Francis glanced at the truck, shook his head, and looked at me and said: “Those bastards! In a few years most folks in this country won’t even know where their food comes from.”
I was a little puzzled by his statement, but it stuck with me. Many people working in the meat business already had a low opinion of Safeway because they had stopped using carcass beef and instead relied on parts and pieces broken down at one centralized large plant here in the Bay Area that serviced all their stores. As butchers, most of us looked down on the Safeway model as an insult to our trade, but Francis saw the real long-term implications. Safeway wasn’t evil, it was just reacting to market forces, and it was a bit ahead of the other chain stores in doing so. Even then, it was difficult to find skilled butchers who could get things done in a timely manner, and ensure a profit off each carcass. By taking the really heavy lifting and the more skilled knife work out of the local store and placing them in a controlled industrial environment, some real efficiencies could be achieved for a chain. Safeway wanted to create a foolproof system that would guarantee profits every time. The system would be copied by at least two other grocery chains here in the Bay Area (Lucky Stores and Alpha Beta). With the help of IBP (Iowa Beef Products) in the Midwest, Safeway would go on to become the national model.
The search for efficiency makes sense for large-scale food production, as the labor cost for skilled butchers can seemingly threaten profits. But that in turn causes workers to lose pride in their work, and the trade is pulled down by the “gravity” of this efficiency until it is threatened entirely. Up until recently, this was the case with butchery too. But here I am, forty years later, experiencing a sort of “grace” lifting us collectively up and out of the prophecy that my friend Francis warned me of. This grace is the local food movement, that seems to be taking shape across the country, and is evidenced in my own life as a butcher at The Local Butcher Shop.
There you have it: Gravity and Grace. This new model that we are working on here in Berkeley and in other cities around the country is a work in progress. It is certainly not the least expensive way of buying meat for you or your family, but it is ethical and enriching, and supports a revival of these lost trades.
With the passage of time and a couple of moves away from Eastern Oregon, I eventually lost contact with my friend Francis, but I know that he would approve of what is going on here in The Shop, although he would also get a chuckle out of the fuss that some of us make about the food that we eat. I am a butcher, not a writer, but in the future, I would love to share with you, our patrons, more bits of wisdom that Francis and other fellow butchers shared with me back in the day. When you shop here at The Local Butcher Shop, you are supporting local ranchers and a tradition that people like Francis Phillips come from. And I know that I will never get enough of the likes of that.