The Happy Butcher

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Words | Toby Hemmings

Right before Nate quit his job as an apprentice butcher, he was subject to the antics of his drug- abusing, lazy, ill-tempered, and rarely-smiling manager, Francis. A rumour floated around the butchery: Francis was reaching into the till to fund his drug addiction.

One quiet Thursday night, when the business was dead, Francis invited Nate behind the meat- chopping station and told him to ‘pull a stool’. Francis was in a shit mood, coming down from cocaine. He whacked Nate over the head. It was a mighty hit, both unreasonable and confronting.

During Francis’ management, the shop lost ninety per cent of their regular clientele. Not long after Nate quit, Francis lost his job. But a rumour soon emerged: apparently Francis had moved to Harris Farm, and was quickly fired for stealing. “Butchers love to gossip,” Nate said.

On the surface, we all trust businesses to do the right thing by us, and there are few professionals that conjure this mental image like butchers. We think of an older, jolly man, wearing the classic navy and white-striped apron. He is more Santa Claus than Sweeney Todd.

But does this image of the trustworthy and friendly local purveyor of fine meats hold value in our contemporary society? Or is a paradigm shift occurring, as our fast-paced society, driven by consumerism, efficiency, and profit margins, adds to the pressure? Are the people who work in butcheries as likeable and trusted as they portray themselves to be, or have these stereotypes been replaced with cheaper offcuts?

At age fourteen, he started working as a cashier, which involved ‘charming the customers’ while serving them their meat. Out back, his cleaning tasks were decidedly grim. Nate cleaned the enormous circular bone saw. When opened, there was a day’s worth of grindings and residue coalesced into a pink pulp waiting to be scraped out. Nate admitted that the work itself is thankless and tough, but the people who work behind closed doors define the job.

Entering the workforce at such a young age meant Nate quickly identified and assumed his place in the hierarchy. Apprentices, of course, are the lowest in the chain, treated and paid poorly, given terrible hours – the butt of every joke. But more importantly, they had to treat those higher in the hierarchy with respect. One slow afternoon, Nate was horsing around with a colleague. He threw a dirty rag in the butcher’s face. Enraged, the butcher met Nate out back and delivered some deadly intimidating words: “The only reason I’m not beating you is because I know your mother”.

Nate’s first manager, Jerry, was an “absolute hero”. It was under Jerry’s wings that Nate learnt the tricks of the trade. But the Christmas hours and incredible pressure were unkind to Jerry. He ingested speed at work, on the job, to cope with the workload. For around two months, he worked gruelling hours, sometimes between 4:30am and 9:30pm.

While the culture of drug use was widespread, it wasn’t necessarily condoned. Nate admits that “managers encouraged camaraderie over supervision”.

Nate’s skills ranged from determining freshness – ‘quality control’, they called it – by sniffing the meat as he slides it into the bag, to the best methods of meat rotation.Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 1.20.11 pm

“So we were an upscale butcher, and didn’t use preservatives. For example, wholesalers and abattoirs would deliver pigs out back and the butchers would get to work on them. From there, the life expectancy of meat is so variable. It depends how long it’s been in the window or the cool room. And once we’ve wrapped and sliced it, the life expectancy declines again. Unpreserved meat eventually turns brown. After a few days, we would rotate the meat and cover them in marinade.”

Andthenthere’s‘butcherspeak,’acrudebutuniversal vernacular used by butchers to assess meat quality and talk shit to each other, all in the sight of the public. Butcherspeak functions like a kind of bastardised ‘Pig Latin’ (try to decipher the meaning of ckuffing on doog teanuk).

The butchers introduced Nate to weed and would often shout him drinks after work. “We were a clique … we would drink beers, smoke weed, go fishing, and throw our catches back into the water. A fellow apprentice tried to sell me weed before extending

the invitation even further, by offering to make me a dealer.

“The drinking culture is rampant, sure, but they don’t drink much on the job. Having a beer is not uncommon, but getting tanked doesn’t happen.” The same psychology applies to the more discreet use of amphetamines. The butchery maintained a climate where it wasn’t necessarily frowned upon, but neither was it encouraged. It simply existed.

Nate associates this mentality with the desire to break the monotony of the day-to-day, because “sometimes we’re bored as fuck behind those counters”. Everybody understood that, in the shop, the liberties and privileges of mateship, were conditional to their ongoing performance.

“The only reason I’m not beating you is because I know your mother”.

Work ethic always came first. “If you weren’t prepared to put your head down and do some fucking work, you wouldn’t last.” But there’s no denying that the line between work and play was a thin tightrope.

Returning locals were the crux of keeping the business healthy and thriving. “Doing your job at a high standard is a point of pride,” Nate said. Certain customers would request their favourite butcher, while others would seek advice for recipes. Many just wanted a happy-go-lucky conversation to accompany their roast dinner plans.

At this point, I want to disclaim that Nate’s experience does not speak for meat industry as a whole. However, his story does illuminate the simple fact that things occur behind closed doors that we may not consider. Mateship is more complex than smiles and handshakes. There are unspoken codes and hierarchies that govern relationships. Nevertheless, it is a real, tangible concept that binds us together.

Nate worked as a Christmas casual at the butchery last year. Francis was gone, but Jerry had returned – this time as a butcher, not a manager. There were new faces and new management. The environment had changed; something, a connection, had been irretrievably lost.

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