Four butchers and a writer

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Chris Johnston - Prime Cuts of WriterIt is 7.15 on a recent freezing midwinter morning. With hands deep in my pockets, where they compete for room with a thick spiral notebook and a random selection of pens, and with the collar up round my ears against the nip of the morning, I enter the butchers shop by the side door. It is an historic moment. I am the first writer in residence at a butchers shop. The residence period will only be one day, which may strain the definition, but let’s not be too pedantic.

It happened like this. Acting on instructions from a higher power, I had recently gone to the butchers shop for stewing steak diced into ‘approximately five centimetre pieces’. I was embarrassed to have to make this outrageous demand and relieved when the young man behind the counter suggested that something from the window display would be about the right size.

Of course, it was wrong. If you’re going to slow-cook, you need sizeable chunks. Stephanie Alexander is categorical on this, as I now know. In the sometimes hilarious discussions that ensued on the following day, my wife explained to the butchers what five centimetre pieces looked like (they found a ruler in the office and verified her estimate) and why they should never give me the option of ‘near enough’. From this exchange they learned in passing that she was an editor and I was a writer. ‘Send him down,’ said Steve, the chief butcher. ‘He can write about us.’

When I arrive, the four butchers are strapping on their aprons, belts and knives. I now formally discover that they are Steve, Jason, Jim and Mick. They have worked in this shop for about five years, and they’re like the cast of a comedy who have been together since opening night and know all the punchlines in advance.

They go about their various duties with the certainty of long familiarity, but despite their focus on the task at hand, the banter and chat is constant. Jim wants to discuss the use of a full stop after abbreviations and somehow this gets us on to apostrophes. I congratulate them for not having the ubiquitous redundant apostrophe on their blackboard sign at the front of the shop:

‘Special – Snitzels $8 kg’. But shouldn’t it be ‘schnitzels’?

‘Depends who’s got the chalk,’ says Jim. ‘Keep it simple, I say.’

‘I’m learning so much so fast my head’s exploding,’ says Jason. He has a wicked glint in his eye and an easily provoked sardonic grin.

Four Butchers and a Writer‘Is that a good jumper you’re wearing?’ he says. ‘It’ll get terribly mucky when you start shifting the hindquarters of beef. That’s why you’re here isn’t it?’

When the beef and lamb are due, they give me a cap like theirs, a clip board, and detailed instructions on how I am to greet the bloke who brings the meat. Posing as an inspector, I manage to keep up the pretence long enough to cause him the intense discomfort they think he deserves. He’s doing nothing wrong—though he can’t find his cap. When all is revealed, he roundly abuses all four butchers and shakes my hand with a hint of relief.

When Jason has to take an order up to the bakehouse, he says, ‘You’re in charge, Brian’ and Jim remarks that if I’m filling in for Jason I’ll have bugger all to do. Steve introduces me to ‘Snow’, a very venerable customer: ‘This is Brian, Snow. He’s thinking of buying the business,’ and Snow mutters, ‘Good God almighty’, which seems to cover all possible nuances of surprise and disapproval.

Meanwhile, Mick hangs his excellent tomato and basil sausages in festoons from hooks, Jim batters and crumbs the ‘snitzels’, Steve shows me with a few laconic flicks of a murderously sharp knife how racks are ‘frenched’, Jason makes cordons bleu and customers come and go and are served with courtesy and humour. My presence is serially explained, each version outdoing the last for outlandishness.

Four Butchers and a WriterAt morning ‘smoko’ they regale me with the traps of their trade. Like helpfully reminding a wife that her husband has already bought the chops only to find that the pair separated acrimoniously a month ago. Or enquiring after a spouse who turns out to have recently dropped dead.

It’s a privilege to be among them because behind the irony and the sardonic veneer is a wonderful professionalism and pride in work. These are ‘the Australian people’ that our politicians glibly cite but never get near.

Do they like the work? ‘Love it,’ says Steve. ‘Wouldn’t do anything else,’ says Jim. ‘Couldn’t do anything else,’ says Jason. ‘I’d write books if I could,’ says Mick. Jason glances at me. ‘That’s not as easy as it looks,’ he says. ‘For a start, you have to visit butchers shops.’



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Another entertaining article by this author. A very warm and human glimpse of people at work

Mark T | 25 August 2006  

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