The current/recent news about certain beef products containing an element of horse and/or bute (or not), questionable meat supply-chains, supermarkets re-calling products, Ikea’s meatballs and the realisation that this may have been going on for years – for all we know – made me think of my real dad, the perfectionist butcher, and how he would be spinning in his grave if he had one.
Actually, dad’s ashes are scattered in woodland near Hindhead in Surrey because, evacuated there as a child during WWII, it was one of the few places he was genuinely happy. Another place was his butcher’s shop. Dad and a friend, Jim, set up two butcher’s shops in Upton Park, East London. Dad’s was in the parade of shops at Queen’s Road Market, Jim’s in Green Street.
Dad took a pride in his work and took great care about the meat he bought, prepared and sold to his customers. The meat would be precision cut from a great array of knives, cleavers, choppers and saws. Everything in the shop was spotless, all displays carefully thought out, the front window display all but entirely symmetrical (pork chops arranged fat-to-the-left on the left, lamb chops arranged fat-to-the-right on the right) and price-tickets written beautifully by what looked like the hand of a calligrapher. His Christmas window displays were a colourful picture with a row of rabbits hung across the top and pheasants on each side of that, complete with fur and feather.
Dad, who’d learned his trade in the army, had a regimented routine for opening-up and shutting-up shop cleaning. Maple chopping blocks were scrubbed to his satisfaction with stiff metal brushes, glass and marble dazzled. Sawdust was swept from every nook and, as he locked the shop at the end of the day, the tiled floor shone.
He cared from the heart about his trade and, as mentioned, was a perfectionist. He had a rigid routine. At least three or four mornings a week, dad would be up at silly o’clock, read his Meat Trades Journal over breakfast and cup of tea, then depart for Smithfield where he’d purchase meat from his favourite, equally caring and pernickity traders. Dad would then commence his day in the shop from around 7.30 a.m.
By the age of ten or eleven, I could sometimes find myself working in the gloomy back-end of the shop on a Saturday – say, when Auntie Bonnie, who looked after me otherwise, was out for the day. My mum would often work there, too, but I would dread that because she and dad would, every so often come down to the back section and snipe and snark away at each other in the same joyless way they did at home.
Then it would be back to the customers for my dad with a: “Hello! How are you? Want some brawn this week? It’s freshly made.” “A bag of bones for the dog? Certainly!” Mr. Cheery himself with customers, who made a queue that went out of the door and along the length of the shop window. I sometimes wonder, had he not died at a young age, whether he would have been able to keep the shop going until he retired.
The thing was, though, that all dad’s Smithfield-sourced meat products, minced beef or lamb, sausages, beefburgers, brawn were made with the products he bought from reputable traders and he really knew his stuff (nearly said onions). Oh. So did mum: she would often be found of an evening cooking up and making brawn. Multi-packs of chops marinated in barbeque or mint sauce hadn’t even been thought about then, let alone turned up in butchers’ shops. Dad cared about his reputation and cared what his customers thought of the meat they bought, the shop they bought it in and the service they got.
To tangent off in reminiscence now, dad once told me a scary story about the mincer machine – his mate had lost his arm in one – so I did my bit on a Saturday but very gingerly when it came to making mince. That vision of a minced arm never left me. Health & Safety would have a field-day with this today. I was probably one of the last ten-year-olds to ever work in a butcher’s shop. After mincing, some of the meat was divided off for me to make fresh beefburgers, one little job I did enjoy without fear.
When asked to fetch, say, a leg of lamb from his massive walk-in freezer, I would be terrified that the door with its giant handle and latch would clank shut on me. I’d terrify myself by imagining I was trapped inside it with all the dead lambs, pigs and cows, which hung from their steel S-hooks in the ice-fog. And gradually freezing to death because any frantic banging for help would be unheard. Thankfully, I still have my arms and am alive to tell the tale.
Mostly though, I was only washing up meat-trays in scalding water or making cups of tea for dad and Andy, Philip and mum, his assistants. The best part about a Saturday at dad’s was being able to take long breaks to wander round the swarming market, checking out hair-slides or shoes or even the colourfully explosive fabric stalls to a backing track of reggae.
The sounds came from the direction of a music stall, or the amazing Soundville Records which stocked the current Jamaican Reggae Top 20 and had listening booths so you could listen before you bought. This is how I ended up with records by artists my friends at school had never heard of, like those on the Gas, Blue Beat and Techniques labels. The ten shillings – 50p – wages (including pocket money) I was paid tended to be spent by lunchtime.
But one thing about this. Dad being a butcher meant that virtually every evening meal was a meat dish and, although I often got bored with the stuff, it seems we could always be pretty certain that if mum had cooked shepherds pie, then the meat she used was pure beef. We never questioned if the meat was actually beef, or whether anything had been added to it.
The main meat-containing convenience food we kept in the kitchen was tinned corned beef, Spam and in the 70s we had Vesta curries when we felt lazy. We didn’t even question such tinned food. Luckily, we lived in times and circumstances when we were pretty sure we knew what we were eating and that was that. For all I know, tinned meat products may have contained questionable contents for years but Health and Safety hadn’t quite taken off then in the way it has now.
My parents were evacuees in the war years and were growing up in the post-war austerity years that followed. It was ‘make do and mend’ and virtually everyone knew how to throw a few cheap and cheerful meals together. How quickly we’ve become used to microwaved and ready meals. I’m no food snob and as lazy a cook as you could get. We are as accustomed as anyone to succumbing to the powerful lure of the ready meal and a weekly takeaway.
I didn’t react when there was an egg crisis, nor over BSE. Maybe it’s dad and his standards nagging in my conscience, maybe this latest shenanigans about beef in particular, but something in the back of my mind has recently made me more aware of our small local family butcher. We’re by no means well off, so I don’t often buy from him, relying like many on cheaper supermarket offers. Would it be better to have fewer meat meals per week and buy fresh meat from our local butcher (I’m hoping he has the same standards as my dad), rather than continue to give the juggernaut supermarkets the benefit of the doubt – that they have our best interests at heart when choosing the meat and meat products they sell?
I don’t know is my immediate answer. Apparently, since this latest horse meat scandal, there are people resolving to be vegetarian from now on. In the 90s, the kids and I were veggie for a few years, at their request, but we all missed bacon. Eventually, we returned to a carnivorous life and I tried to ensure we all had a reasonably healthy diet.
We all have to eat but I’m beginning to think about the way it’s made so easy and tempting, once we’re in a supermarket, to buy everything there. I’m thinking I’d rather buy a small amount of meat from a butcher (be they ‘traditional’ family butcher or Halal butcher or any other kind of butcher) who cares about his trade and the kinds of product he sells to customers, rather than buy a large amount of meat products from a huge but faceless, supermarket or massive, frozen ready-meal manufacturer where the word care doesn’t appear to come into it.
Have you changed where you shop, how you cook or what you eat as a result of 2013’s Meat ‘Scandal?’ Here’s a few more opinions:-
[RIP Dad – who I sometimes picture meticulously arranging the window display of the Great Butcher’s Shop in The Sky]