Great Moments in Kentucky Butchery

I don’t know what you did for Christmas dinner this year, but here at the Pastry household, turkey was the order of the day. It had been a while since I’d made a good old-school turkey dinner. No fancy dried fruit and artisan sourdough stuffings, no braised figs, no wild mushroom gravy. Just great-grandma Pastry’s sage dressing, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. OK so I made the Parker House rolls, but that’s as fancy as it got.

Given that I don’t like the folderol of defrosting a frozen turkey over days in the fridge (has the inside really thawed?), I buy mine fresh when I can. Happily there’s a butcher shop not far from the house that offers them every year. Quite an operation they have at the holidays. Lacking the space to store all the orders, they back a refrigerated semi trailer up to the rear door, and in the style of many of the local businesses, bus in help from one of the nearby prisons to see them through the rush. In fact I couldn’t help but notice that the fellow who waited on me when I ordered my bird had a teardrop tattoo to the side of his left eye. I thought to myself: I hope he got that for killing a cow and not a customer.

When last Saturday came around I got up early to take delivery of my ten pounds of fowl. The place is a mad house by ten the weekend before a holiday, so I was gratified when I pulled up and found only three people waiting by the door at five to nine. When the doors opened we went right to the counter. I’ll be out of here in five minutes I thought. Well it didn’t work out that way. The first woman in line asked for twenty pounds of beef tenderloin (cleaned and tied) that she hadn’t ordered in advance. The second, for 50 sausage-stuffed mushrooms which it turned out the staff had forgotten to make up the night before. The third, two boned legs of lamb which of course she hadn’t pre-ordered either.

Thus within the first two minutes of the day all the front-line counter help was occupied with projects that took them about 20 minutes each. I didn’t get out of there for half an hour. Yet I must say it was rather interesting watching the staff do their work. The shop is configured so that most of the heavy equipment is in the front, just behind the counter. I like that feature. I know nothing about the art of butchery, so I usually learn a little something while I wait. Slice, dice, stuff, chop…all the workers were going about their business when suddenly the walk-in door burst open and a gum-chewing convict in a grubby sleeveless t-shirt appeared, an entire headless lamb carcass slung under one arm. Hiking it up onto a nearby table, he peeled off the outer layer of butcher paper and switched on the band saw. A moment later the focused quiet of the shop was rent by the ragged whine of blade on bone. Nyeeeeeeeeeeeeowww

I was craning my neck to watch when the con happened to glance over his shoulder and see me. He grinned as he took the legs off the lamb, then switched off the saw. Holding up what remained of the 50-pound carcass he looked over and said: “Looks just like a big ol’ dawg, don’t it?” And with a slam he was gone, back through the walk-in door. After a moment, the other customers in my vicinity began casting glances about at one another, and while nothing was said, I could tell we were all thinking the same thing: Note to self: change butchers.

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